2/17/17

A George Thomas classic: Riviera C.C.

An in-depth profile of the George Thomas designed Riviera Country Club

by

One of America’s most iconic golf courses resides in Pacific Palisades, a small affluent community in Los Angeles County. Riviera Country Club is tucked away in a residential area off the busy Sunset Blvd. The golf course rests in a small canyon where in 1927, the legendary George Thomas laid out his masterpiece. Thomas was a member of the Philadelphia School of Architecture, and after his hometown design of Whitemarsh Valley, he decided to take his act to the West Coast, where he would become responsible for Los Angeles’ three preeminent golf courses, Riviera, Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course and Bel-Air Country Club.

Since its inception, Riviera has been a fixture in championship golf, most notably serving as the annual host to the closing event of the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing. It has also hosted its fair share of national championships, including the 1948 U.S. Open, the 1983 and 1995 PGA Championships, the 1998 U.S. Senior Open Championship, and the 2017 U.S. Amateur. Beyond the Genesis Open, the club has signaled its aspirations to have bigger championship golf events, possibly the Olympics or the U.S. Open.

Riviera is a testament to an architect at the height of his skill as the land that Thomas had to work with was hardly awe-inspiring. He was constricted by a small plot that was mostly flat, but working with his construction man William Bell, Thomas delivered an absolute masterpiece. The pair used very little dirt and found great natural designs such as the redan par-3 4th, where they simply used the canyon slope to create their rendition of the venerable par-3 template.

Early photos of the course (credit: Simon Haines @hainesy76) indicate a more naturalized and rugged aesthetic than Riviera’s current incarnation, but the design is strong enough to shine with almost any presentation.

The overlay created by Scott Griffith (@bottomgroove) shows that Riviera has evolved over the years. Work was done by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on the bunkers in the early 90’s and, most recently, Tom Fazio giving the 8th hole and bunkers a facelift. This evolution is likely to continue, as the course is one of the most high profile and hotly discussed on Tour.

The course

First time visitors to Riviera typically find it to be a flooring experience. It’s one of the country’s finest designs and shows off why George Thomas belongs in the conversation as one of the greatest golden age architects. The golf course tests all aspects of a player’s game and there are no weak holes. One of the things viewers of the PGA Tour telecast for years may have noticed is that the cameras give no indication of the depth of the bunkering. A mishit shot that finds a greenside bunker is truly penalized, especially on the short side.

Many thanks to Jon Cavalier (@linksgems) for contributing his photos to this profile.

HOLE #1 – 503 yards – par 5 

One of the unique and special traditions at Riviera comes immediately on the first tee. Set some 60 feet above the fairway, the first tee is where the player “enters the canyon”, but not before your name is announced by the starter. Teeing off at one of America’s finest courses is a special feeling, but the starter experience adds to it and gives you a little bit of butterflies to boot. The 1st is definitely more of a par-4.5 rather than 5 as a good tee shot will leave a mere mid-iron into the boomerang style green, which is shaped around a deep bunker. Long-hitters may have to lay back with a 3-wood due to the barranca that bisects the hole to give it a Sahara or Great Hazard template feel. The green presents the biggest challenge on the hole as it slopes heavily on the left half from left-to-right and front-to-back, making pins in the right portion very difficult.

HOLE #2 – 471 yards – par 4 

While the 1st gives players a great birdie chance, the 2nd is as stout of a par-4 as you will find in golf. The hole plays back into the prevailing wind and slightly back uphill making the 471 yards feel more like 500. The tee shot has to find the fairway to have plans of going for the long and narrow green in two, as the kikuyu grass can be a menace on long-iron approach attempts. The green is guarded by a bunker that rests some 40 yards in front of the right side and a bunker that guards the front left. The putting surface has a front and back tier, and a long iron approach can be funneled in by the slope on the right side.

HOLE #3 – 434 yards – par 4

The 3rd hole is a mid length par-4 that doglegs slightly to the right, favoring a left-to-right ball flight to find the narrow fairway, which is protected by trees on the left. Here Thomas infuses strategy from the green back. The green’s right side is guarded by a deep bunker, and the left side of it slopes severely to the left. This makes it ideal and almost necessary to find the left side of the fairway to have a good approach angle.

HOLE #4 – 236 yards – par 3 

The 4th at Riviera is what Ben Hogan called “the greatest par-3 in the world”. Certainly high praise, but the hole lives up to the distinction.

Thomas employed the Redan template here, and did so in such a natural way, using the canyon that gently slopes from right to left to create the shoulder to kick balls in towards the hole. The ultra deep and devilish bunker that guards the logical entrance to the long par-3 forces players to play right and use the slope to find the green.

HOLE #5 – 434 yards – par 4

Overshadowed by some of the other great holes at Riviera, such as the 10th, 18th and the 4th, the 5th deserves to be in the discussion as one of the finest holes in the world. The tee shot favors precision over power with an ideal position up the left-hand side. There is plenty of room in the fairway right, which slopes hard from right to left, but an approach there can be obstructed by the mound. The left carries its own risk as the trees down that side can block a player out if their shot goes a little too far left.  The green has a spine running through it and a steep swale that gobbles up any approach slightly right of target.

HOLE #6 – 199 yards – par 3

One of the more photographed holes in golf, the par-3 6th features a unique small bunker in the middle of the green. The iconic bunker is one of three that guard the hole in addition to the large deep front bunker and a nasty back bunker, which makes players think twice before firing at a back pin location. The putting surface is extremely difficult with a great deal of back-to-front slope that makes any putt from pin high or above a challenge.

This view, from a house above the 6th, shows just how creative and interesting Thomas’s design is (Photo Credit: Simon Dick @chasingtop100). Imitated, but never equaled.

HOLE #7 – 408 yards – par 4

One of the aspects of Thomas’ design at Riviera that makes the course great is the way he created unique strategic challenges on the shorter par-4s. The 7th is a great example of one of these holes – a massive bunker on the left and a barranca down the right require a precise tee shot on this devilish design. What I love about the tee shot is that the more aggressive a player gets, the more the fairway bunker cuts in. The prudent play is to lay back with an iron, but the short hole begs you to take the bait and thread the needle. For those who lay back, the next test comes in a mid-iron approach to a small target as the 7th green is narrow with bunkers on the right and a runoff area on the left. The green is no picnic either and possesses plenty of back-to-front slope.

HOLE #8 – 460 yards – par 4 

In the late 90’s, the club hired Tom Fazio to restore the 8th to Thomas’ original split fairway. The work from tee to green brought the hole back to nearly the same intention that Thomas originally had for the hole, but in my opinion, Fazio butchered the green and it sticks out like a sore thumb. In general, the concept for this hole seemingly works better on paper than in practice. There is really no reason ever to go left. It sets up a slightly better angle for approach to the green, but the risk is much higher when compared to the benefits. This is the one hole at Riviera that could use another round of tweaking.

HOLE #9 – 458 yards – par 4

The front nine comes to a close with the spectacularly beautiful 9th, which gives players the best view of Riviera’s majestic clubhouse. The somewhat long par-4 plays uphill, and the shallow green requires an approach from the fairway. The tee shot needs to be thread between fairway bunkers on both the right and left sides, and a good ball sets up a mid to short iron approach to the uphill green. The toughest pin location is in the back left behind the treacherous greenside bunker.

HOLE #10 – 315 yards – par 4

George Thomas opens the back nine with one of the most revered short par-4s in golf. A great hole where eagle and 8 are equally in play, Thomas begs players to pull out the driver and attempt a shot at the green. This shot carries a great deal of risk but offers reward as a well-placed shot can lead to an eagle opportunity. The prudent play is to hit an iron to the very far left side to set up a good angled wedge approach. Anything on the right side of the fairway is dead here because of the shallow and heavily sloped green, which runs away from the player. When the course is playing firm and fast, it’s nearly impossible to hold the green from anywhere right of the fairway’s center line. Finding the right greenside bunkers, dictates playing for par because holding the green with a bunker shot is impossible. I hit one of the greatest bunker shots of my life, and sure enough, when I got a look at where my ball ended up, it was 5 yards off the green. Every architect should use the 10th as a study of strategy and options that create a hole both fun and challenging for the best and worst golfers alike.

HOLE #11 – 583 yards – par 5

Following the unforgettable 10th is Riviera’s first par-5 since the opener where again Thomas employs a sahara/great hazard style barranca which bisects the fairway. The longest hitters will likely need to throttle back to a 3-wood to stay short of the valley. A tee shot that runs up to the edge will leave about 270 yards into the green. Thomas infuses a great deal of strategy on the 11th with deep bunkering again. While tempting to attack the green, anything on the right side will leave a dicey pitch shot. The ideal place to hit the second is short left, which opens up the green and makes for a relatively easy up-and-down birdie.

HOLE #12 – 479 yards – par 4 

After consecutive birdie opportunities, Riviera flexes its muscles with the demanding par-4 12th. The barranca cuts down the left side and large eucalyptus trees run down the right, making finding the fairway essential to success. The ideal line is down the left center, which gives a better angle of attack to the green that is guarded by a deep front bunker and the barranca gorge.

HOLE #13 – 459 yards – par 4

Due to flooding issues, the club was forced to modify the par-4 13th by planting the massive eucalyptus trees on the left side to soak up water. These trees have taken away some of the original design’s luster and strategic options, but the 13th still remains a great golf hole. The tee shot requires a right-to-left flight. For those who want to bust a driver, the shape is extremely important to finding the fairway. A great drive can lead to a short iron or even a wedge approach to the green, which is guarded by barranca left and long and a deep bunker on the right.

HOLE #14 – 192 yards – par 3 

The thrilling back nine run takes a breather with the benign par-3 14th, a hole that features an extremely wide and shallow green. The key to the 14th is distance control as any miss long or short-sided will make for a tough par on a green that runs hard from the right-to-left and back-to-front.

HOLE #15 – 492 yards – par 4 

The 15th is one of the most spectacular holes on the property, which few talk about. The long and demanding par-4 calls for a left-to-right tee shot, avoiding the deep fairway bunker on the right that has ruined so many championship hopes. A good drive will leave a long to mid-iron into a Biarritz-like green complex. This hole demands excellence from the tee through the green.

HOLE #16 – 166 yards – par 3

With pressure mounting down the stretch, Thomas takes a close look at nerves with the beautiful and divisive par-3 16th. The key to the 16th is full trust in your yardage as any miss is punished with brutal bunkers or a challenging putt across the diabolical green, which slopes severely from back-to-front and left-to-right.

HOLE #17 – 590 yards – par 5

After the 16th, the 17th signals the start of the trek back to the clubhouse with this lengthy par-5. Finding the fairway is key off the tee as bunkers guard both the right and left sides. The uphill slog of the 17th makes it tough to reach in two for everyone except the PGA Tour’s longest hitters. What makes the 17th great is its vast array of bunkers that influence and obstruct a player’s layup and approach shot to the small and protected green complex.

HOLE #18 – 475 yards – par 4

The round comes to its close at the iconic and unforgettable 18th, which features a semi-blind uphill tee shot from a valley. The large trees guard the right side and obstruct tee shots that find the right half of the fairway, forcing players to hit it down the left side, lengthening the hole and leading to side hill lies from the heavy canyon slope. The second shot is up to the natural amphitheater and is a challenging one – miss left and a player is left with a devilishly fast pitch from a heavily canted downhill lie, miss right and the shot can bound into terrible places. A fitting finish to a course that demands precise shotmaking at every turn.

When I reflect on Riviera, its variety and subtle strategic design are what makes it so great. Thomas was hardly blessed with an world class site, but he created a world class golf course. While the course tests every club and aspect of a player’s game with its great variety of holes, where Thomas excels most is testing a player’s decision-making skills and nerves with unique challenges and holes that present a multitude of options of play.

Riviera stands as arguably the best PGA Tour stop year in and year out. It’s time-tested, classic design has earned a place within the top 50 courses in the United States on nearly every list, but I couldn’t help but wonder how great it could be with a restoration that brings in a more rugged look reflective of Thomas’ original intent and the canyon setting. While I dream of that, Riviera will continue to stand as one of America’s greatest tournament courses for the annual Genesis Open as well as future championships.

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