It was a good sports day yesterday. The Whatever They’re Calling It Now at the Riviera is a favorite tournament of mine, and the Super Bowl is always a big event.
The Riviera’s Tournament doesn’t always attract the biggest names, but I love to watch because I love the course. It looks terrific on television, and the camera shots of the finishing hole, in particular have left a great impression on me. You also can’t beat that clubhouse.
Looks aside, the Riviera attracts my attention because of the strategic thinking it requires. The announcers never tire of pointing out how architect George Thomas created a course with lots of strategic options, and opportunities for risk and reward. And they’re right. Thomas himself once wrote:
The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it, reap a reward.
The 315 yard par 4 tenth at Riviera is a great example. It’s drivable by many—if not most—tour players, and an Eagle is a real possibility. But so is a double bogey. Put the ball on the wrong side, and you’re toast. Rocco Mediate said:
“If you miss anywhere to the right, you can’t put the ball anywhere on the green from 50 yards. If you hit it in the right greenside bunker, it’s hard to keep it on the green. Even with a sand wedge in your hand you are going, ‘Man, where do I hit this?’ And if you hit it off line, it’s over. Remember, the green is maybe six to eight steps deep.”
Nicklaus has called this one of the best par fours in golf.
The short par 5 first is another fine example. Starting on a tee that’s 75 feet above the fairway, it seems easy but for an out of bounds left and a gully crossing the fairway. Those design elements are what makes a player think twice before pulling out the driver. As with the fourth, an eagle is possible, but so is a nine.
Both of these punish aggressive play and make recovery difficult. Whereas lesser designers try to protect their courses with additional yardage, Thomas made the space between the ears the most important distance at Riviera.
With a bunker in the middle of the green, the par 3 sixth is as famous as any hole in golf. It’s humorous, but also a great strategic element. Hit to the wrong side, and you’re facing a very difficult putt – or even a chip from the green. In this, it reminds me of the whimsical, but deadly design of the University of Michigan’s Alistair MacKenzie design sixth.
It’s these sort of design elements that makes Riviera such a refreshing change from so many of the PGA Tour venues.
The Riviera Country Club is one of two or three courses on my bucket list. All I need is an invite and I’m there.