Course Review: Riviera Country Club
Designer: George Thomas
Jim Furyk once told me that he hated everything about Los Angeles. He disliked the city and wasn’t fond of the traffic. But he came to play the Northern Trust Open (formerly the Nissan…) because of the golf course. “And I don’t even play that well there,” he said. “I just love the place.”
Riviera is one of the courses that all tour pros seem to agree on. Some will complain that the greens at Pebble Beach are bumpy, while others will say Augusta has been tricked up over the years. No one seems to have a bad word for Riviera. My tour last year demonstrated why.
Now I’ll start by saying I didn’t play the course — I toured it on the Tuesday of last year’s tournament, walking all 18 holes twice. It fascinated me from several different perspectives. For a start, the course is situated entirely in a valley, with the clubhouse perched high above on one side, and buffered by homes on the other side. It wouldn’t appear all that remarkable at first glance — as the land seems flat within the site. The truth, however, is something else entirely.
“Riviera is as good a strategic golf course as you’ll ever find,” wrote Tom Doak in the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. Interestingly Doak admits that he wouldn’t have garnered this perspective if he had simply walked the course (as I did), and it wasn’t until he played it that it really came to life.
The course starts off a high point near the clubhouse and plunges downwards, with much of the front nine situated within this area of the property. The ravines bisect fairways adding for intriguing shot options, and the eucalyptus trees are certainly distinct, even when dormant, as they are during the tournament early in the year.
Of course it is the back nine that most people will recognize, specifically the notorious short 10th. I can’t add a lot about the hole, but it is certainly worth reading designer Ian Andrew’s take on the 10th hole. For what it is worth, I spent some time shooting photos of Andrew and design partner Mike Weir on the 10th and had a chance to talk to Weir about his take on the hole. There are surely multiple ways to play this drivable two-shot hole, though Weir, like many, tries to play it as far to the left as he can while staying in the fairway in an attempt to improve his angle to the green, which slopes away and to the left. Others try to bomb it past the hole and approach it from the rough behind. You’ll recall that Weir won at Riviera by laying up in a playoff, while Charles Howell hit his approach short into a bunker. A fascinating hole with so many different ways to play it — which strikes me as reflective of what a great course should offer.
There are plenty of other great holes — the long downhill opener, the Redan 4th, the 8th hole, with its use of chipping hollows, and the fabled 18th, which plays uphill into a natural bowled ampitheatre. While at the course I had the chance to watch David Duval, a former tournament winner at Riviera, try to explain to his playing partners how to tackle the 18th, with its tee shot blind over a ridge line with a fairway that falls to the right. Duval said he either played a cut as far left as he could, or tried to draw the ball into the middle, knowing it would kick to the right anyway.
Riviera is one of those courses I want to see again in my lifetime, hopefully with my bag on my back. In the meantime, my tour will have to suffice and Riviera will continue to prove itself as not only one of the best on the PGA Tour, but among the top courses in the world.