2/17/17

A George Thomas Classic: Riviera

A look at the George Thomas-designed Riviera Country Club

by

Riviera Country Club, one of America’s iconic golf courses, is tucked away in a residential area off the busy Sunset Boulevard. The course sits in a small canyon, a relatively unpromising site where, in 1927, George C. Thomas, Jr., laid out his masterpiece.

Thomas was a member of the Philadelphia School of Architecture, and after building Whitemarsh Valley Country Club in his hometown, he decided to take his talents to California, where he ended up designing courses for Los Angeles’s three preeminent country clubs: Riviera, Los Angeles, and Bel-Air.

Since its inception, Riviera has been a fixture in tournament golf, serving as the annual venue for the Los Angeles Open (now known as the Genesis Invitational), the closing event of the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing. It has also hosted a handful 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. In 2028, Riviera will host the Summer Olympics.

The course at Riviera shows an architect at the height of his skill. The land is hardly awe-inspiring; George Thomas and his construction man William P. Bell were given a small, mostly flat property, and they didn’t move much dirt. Yet Thomas and Bell found all sorts of great natural hole concepts. At the Redan par-3 4th, for instance, they simply used the side of the canyon to create the slope necessary for their rendition of the template design.

Early photos of Riviera indicate that Thomas and Bell created a naturalized and rugged aesthetic that has been lost today, but the design is strong enough to shine with almost any presentation.

This overlay, created by Scott Griffith (@bottomgroove), demonstrates how Riviera has evolved over the years. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw worked on the bunkers in the early 90s and, most recently, Tom Fazio gave the bunkers and the barranca on 8th hole a facelift. These kinds of changes are likely to keep coming, as Riviera is one of the most visible and frequently discussed venues on the PGA Tour.

The course

Riviera has to be in the conversation as one of the best-designed golf courses in America. It tests all aspects of a player’s game and has no weak holes. The course is also incredibly treacherous. Television cameras can’t do justice to the depth of the bunkering. A mishit shot that finds a green-side bunker results in a genuine penalty, especially on the short side.

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


Hole No. 1 – 503 yards – par 5 

Set some 60 feet above the fairway, the 1st tee is where you “enter the canyon,” but not before your name is announced by the starter. This is one of Riviera’s distinctive traditions. Teeing off at a great course is already special, but the starter experience adds some butterflies to the experience.

The 1st hole is more of a par 4.5 than a par 5, as a strong tee shot will leave a mere mid-iron into a boomerang green that wraps around a deep bunker. Long hitters may have to use a 3-wood to stay short of the crossing barranca, which gives the hole a Sahara or Great Hazard feel. The heavily sloped green presents the main challenge, setting the tone for the rest of the round.

Hole No. 2 – 471 yards – par 4 

While the 1st offers a great birdie chance, the 2nd is as stout a par 4 as you will find in golf. The hole plays into the prevailing wind and slightly uphill, making its 471 yards feel more like 500. Your tee shot has to find the fairway if you want any chance finding the long, narrow green in two, as the kikuyu rough is a menace for long-iron shots. A bunker 40 yards short of the green threatens both lay-up and run-up attempts, but a well-placed approach can feed onto the two-tiered putting surface from a slope on the right side.

Hole No. 3 – 434 yards – par 4

The 3rd hole at Riviera is a mid-length par 4 that bends slightly to the right. A left-to-right tee shot will have the best chance of finding the narrow fairway, which is protected by trees on the left. The hole’s strategy is best understood from the green back. The right side of the putting surface is guarded by a deep bunker, and the left side slopes severely to the left. These characteristics of the green make playing from the left side of the fairway preferable, even necessary.

Hole No. 4 – 236 yards – par 3 

Ben Hogan called the 4th at Riviera “the greatest par-3  hole in America.” High praise, for sure, but the hole lives up to it.

George Thomas employed the Redan template here and, as I mentioned above, did so in a natural way, using the slope of the canyon to create the shoulder that kicks well-placed shots toward the hole. The bunker that blocks the logical entrance to this long par 3 will force most players to go right and use that natural slope.

Hole No. 5 – 434 yards – par 4

Although overshadowed by more famous holes like Nos. 4, 6, 10, and 18, the 5th should be in the discussion as one of the finest par 4s in the world. The tee shot favors precision over power. There is plenty of room on the right side of the fairway, but an approach from there will be obstructed by a large mound. The ideal line, therefore, is up the left, but that play comes with its own risks, as the trees down that side can block you out if you’re a little too far left. The green has a spine running through it and a steep swale that gobbles up any approaches slightly right of target.

Hole No. 6 – 199 yards – par 3

One of the most photographed holes in golf, the par-3 6th features a small bunker in the middle of the green. This iconic bunker is one of three around this green: there’s also a large, deep front bunker and a nasty back bunker, which come into play for different pin positions. The putting surface has a great deal of back-to-front slope, making any putt from pin-high or above a challenge.

Here’s a view of the 6th hole you might not see very often: from a house behind and above the hole. It shows particularly well how strangely shaped the green is. Imitated, but never equaled.

Photo credit: Simon Dick @chasingtop100

Hole No. 7 – 408 yards – par 4

George Thomas was particularly adept at creating unique strategic challenges on his shorter par 4s. The 7th at Riviera is a good example. A massive bunker on the left and a barranca down the right require a precise tee shot. But what’s so clever about the design is that the more aggressive a you get with your drive, the more the fairway bunker cuts in. The prudent play may be to lay back with an iron, but the hole is short enough to be tempting. It begs you to try and thread the needle.

Those who lay back will face a mid-iron approach to a small target. The 7th green is narrow and has bunkers on the right and a runoff area on the left. The putting surface itself is no picnic, either, with its severe back-to-front slope.

Hole No. 8 – 460 yards – par 4 

In 2008, Tom Fazio’s firm completed what Riviera billed as a restoration of Thomas’s original split fairway on the 8th hole. Fazio’s work has perhaps brought back Thomas’s strategic intentions from tee to green, but in my opinion, Fazio butchered the green, which now stick out like a sore thumb.

In general, the concept for the hole works better on paper than in practice. There just isn’t much of a reason to go left. From there, you’ll have a slightly better angle into the green, but the risk outweighs the potential reward. This is the one hole at Riviera that could use another round of tweaks.

Hole No. 9 – 458 yards – par 4

The front nine comes to a close with the spectacularly beautiful 9th, which gives players a full view of Riviera’s majestic clubhouse. The longish par 4 plays uphill, and the shallow green tends to reject any approaches not from the fairway. Players need to thread their tee shot between fairway bunkers on both the right and the left, and a good ball sets up a mid- to short iron to the elevated green. The toughest pin location is back left, behind a devilish green-side bunker.

Hole No. 10 – 315 yards – par 4

Riviera’s back nine opens with one of the most revered short par 4s in golf, where a 2 and an 8 are equally in play. On the tee, George Thomas tempts you to pull driver and aim for the pin. This shot is risky but, if well placed, can lead to an eagle look. The safe play is an iron to the far left side of the fairway, which sets up a straightaway wedge. Anything on the right side of the fairway is death; from that angle, the green is shallow and runs sharply away. When the turf is firm and fast, it’s nearly impossible to hold the green from anywhere right of the fairway’s center line.

Similarly, if you find yourself in the right green-side bunkers, you’ll have trouble keeping your next shot on the putting surface. I have first-hand experience of this. I hit one of the greatest bunker shots of my life from there, and sure enough, when I got up to the green, I saw that my ball was five yards off the edge.

The 10th hole is an enduring lesson that strategy and options, not length, are what make a hole both fun and challenging for the most- and least-skilled golfers alike.

Hole No. 11 – 583 yards – par 5

Following the unforgettable 10th is Riviera’s first par 5 since its opener. Here again Thomas employs a Sahara / Great Hazard-style barranca to keep the longest hitters in check. A tee shot that runs up to the edge of the hazard leaves about 270 yards to the green. Deep bunkering around the green once again emphasizes angles. While it’s tempting to attack the green after a good drive, any miss to the right will leave a dicey chip. The ideal landing zone for the second shot is short left, which opens up the green and makes for a relatively easy up-and-down birdie.

Hole No. 12 – 479 yards – par 4 

After consecutive birdie opportunities, Riviera flexes its muscle with the demanding par-4 12th. The barranca cuts down the left side, and large eucalyptus trees stand along the right, making hitting the fairway essential to success. The ideal line is down the left center, which offers a good angle to attack a green guarded by a deep front bunker and the barranca gorge.

Hole No. 13 – 459 yards – par 4

In response to flooding issues, the club modified the par-4 13th by planting massive eucalyptus trees along the left side of the fairway to soak up water. These trees have taken away some of the original design’s luster, but 13 remains a great hole. The tee shot requires a right-to-left ball flight, especially from those who reach for driver. On approach, you will have to think about the barranca left and long and the deep bunker to the right.

Hole No. 14 – 192 yards – par 3 

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

Hole No. 15 – 492 yards – par 4 

It doesn’t get much attention, but the 15th is one of the most striking holes at Riviera. This long, demanding par 4 calls for a left-to-right tee shot that avoids the deep fairway bunker on the right. A good drive leaves a long to mid-iron into a Biarritz-like green. Each shot needs to be well struck and well placed.

Hole No. 16 – 166 yards – par 3

With pressure mounting down the stretch, players confront a test of nerves at the beautiful, exacting par-3 16th. You need full trust in your yardage, as any miss meets immediate punishment either in the brutal bunkers or with a challenging putt across the diabolical green, which slopes severely from back to front and left to right.

Hole No. 17 – 590 yards – par 5

After the 16th, the 17th, a long par 5, starts the trek back to the clubhouse. Bunkers wait for misses off the tee both left and right, and the hole climbs uphill, making it tough to reach in two for all except the PGA Tour’s longest hitters. The most memorable feature of the 17th is the varied array of bunkers, which influence decision-making on lay-ups as well as approach shots into the small, well-protected green.

Hole No. 18 – 475 yards – par 4

The round comes to its close at the iconic 18th, which starts with a semi-blind tee shot to a fairway the climbs the side of the canyon. Mature trees loom on the right and force play to the left side of the fairway, lengthening the hole and leading to sidehill lies on the approach. The second shot is a real challenge. A miss left results in a fast pitch from a downhill lie, and a miss right can bound into terrible places. The green sits in a natural amphitheater: a grand setting and a fitting finish to a true championship course.

Riviera does not have memorable views or a memorable property. The reason it’s an unforgettable course is that George Thomas and William Bell made it so. The subtle, strategic design and the outstanding variety of holes test every club in the bag and every facet of the game. Where Riviera especially excels is in taking the full measure of a player’s decision-making skills and nerves—even if that player is one of the best in the world. Year in and year out, Riviera is arguably the best, most entertaining stop on the PGA Tour.

While I can’t help wondering how great a faithful restoration of Thomas and Bell’s rugged aesthetics would be, Riviera is still—and will likely always be—one of America’s best championship courses.