The Riviera Country Club

6,526 yards, 130 slope from the White tees

Pacific Palisades is just above Santa Monica. From the beach moving inland, the land rises up sharply and quickly. Massive hills high above the ocean nearby while canyon floors are far below. The roads twist and arch through it all. Within this coastal array of geological splendor sits a flat, mostly barren opening at the valley floor. Unimpressive for golf at first glance almost a century ago by George Thomas, he stated that it would make an adequate course for the membership, but would never be of championship caliber. In fact, Thomas only agreed to build Riviera on the condition he would be provided unlimited resources and could have Billy Bell as his construction superintendent.

Thomas of course went on to prove himself wrong, as Riviera has hosted several championships and in my opinion is one of the more interesting and engaging tour venues each year. He took the land and constructed what is one of the most elite strategic masterpieces in existence. While it appears natural, it is not. It is the hand of Thomas, in spectacular form. Ben Crenshaw has said Riviera is the greatest “made” golf course in the United States. This yet again shows us that classic golf design did not necessarily mean minimalist in style.

A special nod of appreciation to Geoff Shackelford and his fine work on George Thomas in, “The Captain.” Much of the history and background here is from the book, which I emphatically recommend to anyone interested in learning about Thomas, his courses, course architecture in general and, roses.

Without having to rely on natural features for the strategic components of the course, Thomas was able to create them as he saw fit. The flat terrain became a blank canvas upon which Thomas could tap into the recesses of his imagination and use his talents, unobstructed. The bunkering is among the best I’ve encountered, heavily influencing the strategic assault of each hole. The rising mounds and the few descending drops are likewise used in groundbreaking fashion, ensuring the golfer must learn his way around the course to understand the blind shots and movement of the ball once it lands. The barranca is used nicely as well, creating angles and multiple options on dueling fairways. While very much constructed, Crenshaw points out and I very much agree with; none of what was built goes against the land in any way. It’s naturalistic in form and function.

The holes slosh about in the valley and its walls, breezing in the sycamore grove at its western end and crossing the barranca some what surreptitiously when needed. Mindful of the clubhouse, we return to it at various time during the round, Thomas ensuring the golfer could play various loops as his time allowed. The decisions that must be made are all different and never-ending. Mis-hit shots are most often found and must be dealt with. The engagement is broad based and measured for every skill level and style.

Riviera brings forth surges of personal undertones for me. Perhaps a life of what could have been if I stayed on the west coast after college, or not realizing some of the local treasures before I left, or just plain old wistfulness, but beyond all those personal accoutrement, it is certainly one of the first courses that lit the fuse of that course architecture powder keg for me. I still remember studying the Tenth, seeing the various paths to the green, as well as the rewards and pitfalls of each. Watching the pros take it on from the tee depending on their playing styles; it made me realize just how engaging and sophisticated golf could be. I kept studying the course, its history and evolution, and cultivated a deep appreciation for it. While I had no idea whether I would ever be able to play it, based on the limited times I come out to LA and lack of connections out there, it was a respectful admiration that would remain no matter what. Everyone has those courses they would really love to play at one point. Not because of a ranking or exclusivity or bragging rights, but for sheer passion. Everyone has their Mt. Everest. Riviera is one of them for me.

Things have a way of happening and as I woke up just a few miles from the course a day after coming in from Vegas, I got one of those glorious calls. Friday mid-morning, if I could make it. Indeed, I would be there come hell or high water. Now having a few days to salivate and sharpen my golf game while in the Southern California sun and visiting friends and family, it had to be one the best lead ups to a round ever.

The game was feeling good as I drove in through the gates. The clubhouse sits on a bluff looking down on the course, which is mostly set within the valley below. As I finally made my way down the hill to the driving range, what shocked me was the expanse of the place. On television (and numerous video games), the width and space of the holes just doesn’t come through. Instead, I was under the impression things were tighter and on a smaller scale. Not the case at all. The scale of the property, the holes, the features; all of it was almost magnified tenfold from what I was expecting. This invigorated me for some reason. I really went after the balls at the driving range with reckless abandon as the excitement was teeming below the surface. Confident, swing running on all cylinders, perfect weather and Riviera just sitting there, things were teed up nicely.

Yes, a recipe for disaster in the making. Everything was just too perfect for an epic and typical Golfadelphia implosion. I knew it, I think even my clubs knew it. Strangely, it never happened. Of course there were hiccups and it took me a few holes to settle down but the round was well played. My host was knowledgeable on the history of the course and club, his story also a pretty good one in how he fell in love with the course and the game in general. There was a mixture of playing holes I knew fairly well while there were others that took me by surprise. Walking from one hole to the next, it was a pleasurable overwhelming of fascinating joy. It reminded me of Anthony Bourdain when he went to the French Laundry. An orderly onslaught of brilliancy that you’re aware you can’t fully take in as it’s happening, yet are deeply content all the same. It was a personal victory voyage. With all things considered, it’s a miracle I was able to keep my game together.

On that First tee with the course out before me, what I knew about its history and design and past tournaments, it all faded. It was my time with the course and I intended to dedicate as much focus to each shot as both of us deserved. I’d put my thoughts, and emotions, on everything together later. Much later. At that moment, it was solely about the golf. Tee in ground, swing away.

The First is a 497 yard par 5 (from the White tees). The elevated tee shot is one of the more famous in golf, as your name is announced before you tee off. Thomas preferred a starting par 5 on the gentle side, followed by a longer par 4, to get the golfers out and away from the clubhouse quickly. The fairway stretches straight out before you below with plenty of width. It’s inspiring and inviting. The fairway moves ahead until a utility road intercedes, with second part of the fairway likewise moving straight to the green, which widens as we get a bit closer to the green. This is where the first couple bunkers make their appearance. The strategic foray starts at the second shot, where it must be decided to try and go for the green or to lay up. And where exactly to lay up, as the bunkers ahead cover a lot of ground, or at least appear that way. Hitting short of them is probably what I’d do in hindsight but instead I tried to get in between the bunkers for a little wedge into the green but ended up in the right green side bunker. Again, placing that second shot is vital. The green is large, wrapping around that bunker. A fantastic starter with the proper balance of introducing the golfer to its character, challenging him yet allowing some exploratory freedom.

The First
From the lower tees
Moving down the fairway
The green
Looking back from the green

The Second is a 438 yard par 4. The number 1 handicap hole comes in a hurry, consistent with the Captain’s preference for a stiffer front nine than back. The driving range and trees on the left while trees are also on the right, the tee shot is much more challenging to hit the fairway than the prior. While the left side of the fairway opens up the view to the green, it does make the approach longer, which will be long regardless. A lone fairway bunker is on the right and once we get closer to the green, a trio of bunkers surround it. The green is deep and slightly above the fairway, capable of receiving the longer approach shots needed to reach it. For those offline or short of their target, one of the smartly placed bunkers awaits. The hillside to the right of the green can be used to tease the ball on as well.

The Second
From the left side
Approach shot territory

The Third is a 405 yard par 4. The Second takes up back to the clubhouse and to reach the Third, you walk right by the Tenth, a preview of what’s to come. You cross behind the Ninth green as well, while the Eighteenth green is in view off to the right. All in due time. The tee is above the fairway. Trees on the right and a bunker short left, the tee shot seems more harrowing than it is, as there is plenty of room to the room the trees on that side do a good job hiding. The rough takes a little getting used to. Not because of its depth, but in how in encases the ball even just slightly, and how it snags at the club head during the swing in what seems every direction. Take some practice swings to get the feel of it. The green is guarded by a large bunker lining the front from the right and that rough ensured I visited it after my second shot. In hindsight, I’d opt for more club or even laying up short of the bunker in the first instance. That’s the price I paid for using the freedom of the right side off the tee. Those more skilled are able to move their tee shot left to right, safely land in the fairway and take advantage of their tee shot with an easier approach in.

The Third
Approach shot territory
The green, with outstanding bunkering

The Fourth is a 223 yard par 3. There were two points of unfathomable heartache for me during the round and the first came here. One of the best par 3’s I have ever laid eyes on and a hole I was very much looking forward to playing. Indeed, I am not alone on this reverence, as Ben Hogan said it’s the greatest par 3 in America. A long Redan par 3 emphasizing the movement of the canyon wall on the right that obscures a view of the green from the tee. The bunker on the left is large enough that it almost screams to the golfer to use that canyon wall and have the ball fall in to the left. Indeed, shots short of the green should advance forward past the bunker on the right. The green is beyond it all, just waiting. There are plenty of options to reach it and the randomness of the terrain movement adds to the intrigue.

While I envisioned my ball bouncing pleasantly about that right side before rolling down and settling next to the pin, instead I hard pulled it along the tree line and had to pitch over the bunker to the green. Not as I planned or hoped for, but in golf, that’s hardly ever the case.

The Fourth
Closer to the green
Looking back from the green

The Fifth is a 408 yard par 4. Still moving along the perimeter, the fairway disappears as it drop and twists to the left. In full disclosure, this was one of those holes that took me by surprise, likely because I never had a chance to see the approach shot from the fairway. The green is essentially blind but comes into play the closer you get and mounding on the right helps obscure your view even more. Leading up to the green complex are short grass paths around the mounding, spreading and spilling around the green, which is massively wide. Like the Fourth, there are countless ways to play it. The green is large enough for those long shots with a lot of roll upon landing as well as those who would rather conspire with the land to feed their ball in. The recoveries are likewise countless, both around the green and because of its size and structure, for those off the fairway from their tee shots. I could go on, probably forever.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
The green
Back of the green
Looking back

The Sixth is a 150 yard par 3. One of the more recognizable holes because of the bunker in the center of the green, we round the perimeter and cross to the other side. Heartbreak struck once again for me here with a terrible tee shot off to the right in the trees, followed by a bad pitch ending up at the rear. The bunkering scheme almost commands the golfer to favor one side of the green or the other and with the width, either option is feasible. Of course in hindsight, I’d probably aim right for the bunker in the green, appreciating I seldom actually hit what I’m aiming for. It’s a clever shorter par 3 where the bunkers can create agonizing pondering for the golfer, all dependent on pin position.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 370 yard par 4. My play at this point was a bit unsteady but like the boxer taking some shots while he waits for his opening, my resolve never wavered. Heading back down the other side of the property, the tee shot is over a dry wash to the fairway, where bunkers line the left side and are straight out from the tee. This hole and the Eighth sustained a good amount of damage from severe flooding that took place in 1939, resulting in different playing structures than what was in place originally. The baby fade/slice my driver felt like giving me today worked well here and with a nice look at the green from the fairway, I was ready to pounce. The bunker on center of the fairway and then closer to the green on the right essentially achieve their intended effect of cross bunkers but there is plenty of room on the left for those who would like to hedge on the conservative side.

With the par putt dropping and plenty of holes in front of me, my spirit renewed from the misfortune prior.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory
More looks at the bunkering

The Eighth is a 375 yard par 4. The barranca splits the hole into two fairways, the left one being longer and ultimately where the green is. The right is more accessible from the tee, with a club less than driver likely sufficient. The tee shot to the left fairway is more challenging but rewards with a better look and easier shot into the green. Conversely, the right side approach requires a carry over the barranca with only a partial view of the green and the severe slope of the front right of the green is very much in play. The green is devilish. The sloping at the front, the abrupt drop at the rear; the ball is in danger of falling off the green every where as the golfer tries to manage the interior undulations to the hole. The barranca should be avoided but balls can be found and recovery shots hit from. The routes to the green and decisions to get there are ample, which of course comes into focus for the golfer that learns the hole and what best suits his game. Fortunately for me, my caddie was invaluable here in taking driver out of my hand in favor of a 3 wood up the right fairway, which then left a shorter iron into the green. Yet another spectacular hole.

The Eighth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
A bit closer
Looking back

The Ninth is a 406 yard par 4. The clubhouse is in view while the fairway climbs to the green above, a smattering of bunkers mixed in, a cloudy mixture from the tee that only the well versed golfer knows where to hit. The green is deeper than it looks, extending to the back right at a 10 o’clock angle, with bunkers on both sides short of it. Their placement once again distorts a preferable approach line and with the green obscured from view as well, the advantage really is to the veteran who has been in the arena before. A tough closer that plays longer than it looks.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory, from the right
Still on the right

The front nine has two all world par 3’s and some of the strategically supreme par 4’s constructed. All of it settles in to a cadence defined by each individual hole, their rich and complex character influencing that rhythm, some times on a shot by shot basis. My humble ranking of them would be 4, 8, 5, 6, 1, 2, 9, 3, 7.

The back nine starts with the 301 yard par 4 Tenth. Oh my, the glorious Tenth. A model short par 4 in many ways, typifying all that is exciting and stressful and fun about strategic golf. The bunker schemes as well as the green and hole length congregate to allow several means and methods of playing the hole, all with their respective benefits and detriments and varying degrees of risk and restraint. The options off the tee are numerous, including going for the tee altogether (risky considering the surrounding green side bunkers and harrowing recovery shots that await), pitching short or to the left of the first bunkers (most conservative), which leaves a longer approach in and still brings in those green side bunkers into play; hitting over the first set of bunkers yet short of the bunker on the left, where the fairway bulges in width and leaves the golfer with an easier, shorter approach in; and then there’s everything else. Aiming for the left front area of the green, where there’s room to miss but the bunkers await on the other side of the green; intentionally going in the green side bunkers and relying on your wedges from there; favoring the right side and carrying the first set of bunkers so you can bump and run it into the green from there, etc. etc. Pin position dramatically influences how the hole plays and the decisions the golfer will make, showing how important angles can be as the placement of contours and bunkers are all negotiated, carefully.

The Tenth has intrigued me for years. It spurred my interest in course design and injected layers of analysis and discern in how I viewed and played courses in general. It is the one hole I would choose to play before my time is up over any others. I never told anyone that before.

And now, I found myself at the tee. The hole was almost three times wider than I was expecting, I always thought the right side was more hemmed in than it really is. The bunkers are much more expansive before the green than I was expecting as well. While the array of options and shots were swirling in my head like one giant whirlpool, my caddie handed me my 3 wood. Accounting for distance, pin position, wind and yes, possible mis hits, this was enough to clear the first set of bunkers and take advantage of the fat part of the fairway, while if I really belted it, it should turn to the right slightly away from the left bunker. The tee shot was hit well and indeed, ended up to the right of the right fairway bunker. From there it was a short approach shot with the pin in the center of the green. While the shot landed on the green, it ended up just rolling off to the left. I was able to get a putter on it and lag it close, finishing off for a comfortable par.

I did everything I could to suppress my excitement and satisfaction. To this day, I don’t mention and talk about it all that much. Yet internally, to myself, I relish in that it may have been among the happiest times I’ve been on a golf course.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory basically starts at the fairway
The green in view
Short approach
From the left side. There appears to be a green off to the right, no idea what its function is.
Looking back

The Eleventh is a 509 yard par 5. A straightforward affair with trees lining both sides, the utility road and wash break up the fairway at the second shot while the entry point to the green is to the left, a sole green side bunker on the right. Still on the high from the Tenth, this hole seemed to be some what of a let down, even though the green had nice movement. It commands a strong shot off the tee to best deal with the barranca, where the golfer must decide to take it on with his second shot or, if the tee shot was less than stellar, lay up short of it for a much longer approach. There is certainly risk/reward strategy in deciding how to tackle the barranca, but Thomas typically struggled with par 5’s and this one certainly left me wanting a bit more. Perhaps it’s as intended, stabilizing the golfer after a stream of strategically challenging holes. I didn’t mind the hole during the round and maybe even appreciated a brief return to simplicity in structure.

The Eleventh
Before the wash
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Twelfth is a 367 yard par 4. Near the Second tee but moving up the opposite perimeter side from the front nine, the rigid left side makes clear it is not to be trifled with. Of course, the trees on the right put that left side in play more than the golfer probably prefers, and the left side is a better line into the green. We encounter the wash from the prior hole again, this time much closer to the green. Approach shots with improper vigor run the risk of ending up in it, complicating the recovery to the green. The green side bunker is large, deep (deepest of the course actually) and the green runs away from it so is best to avoid. Shackelford calls the Twelfth green, “one of the finest Thomas green complexes ever built.”

There’s a sycamore tree just to the left of the green. Humphrey Bogart lived nearby and would lean against this tree, apparently with a thermos of bourbon (Beam) most times, and watch the Los Angeles Open from there. That’s a life well lived.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
A little closer
“Bogey’s Tree”
Looking back

The Thirteenth is a 406 yard par 4. Continuing up the same perimeter side, the tee shot is a lot more direct in its challenge as the eucalyptus trees on both sides seem to signal carry all of it or take a go at threading between them. The trees on the left side eventually cede, which widens the approach shot area even as the fairway bottlenecks just short of the green. The tee shot governs all here and if pulled off, the approach should be into the meat of the green. When the tee shot is off, however, this is when the hole begins to converge on the weary, the trees, slopes and hazards increasing in their brutality.

The Thirteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Fourteenth is a 159 yard par 3. A much more wide open hole than we’ve seen the last few holes. Large bunkers frame the wide and shallow green with a small entry point at its center. With the openness comes wind, which should be accounted for. A well hit shot is rewarded but those more precarious shots are met with the spitefulness of those bunkers.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 430 yard par 4. Largely unchanged from its original design, a dog leg right around a larger bunker on the inside. The width of the hole is up to the bunker while the fairway narrows after it, so the golfer must decide whether to settle for a longer approach in exchange for taking advantage of the width early on. Leading up to the green is free and clear except for the sole greenside bunker front right. The green is what really stands out. Its larger size and swale emphasize the importance of ending up on the correct side or a lot of thought and distance will be going in to those putts. Likewise, those off the green will need to consider the swale and unique movement of the green a little more than the others.

The Fifteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green

The Sixteenth is a 148 yard par 3. In the thick of the sycamore grove, the last par 3 is one of the hallmarks of the PGA tourney each year, with what seems like every shot here being televised. It seems like one of the more shown holes and watching the players deciding on various ball flights into it is always intriguing to me. The green is surrounded by bunkers so an aerial shot is necessary and in comparison to the last hole, is fairly small. There is short grass leading up to the bunkers for those wanting or needing to pitch close before going over the bunkers, once again ensuring the course is accessible for a range of skill levels. The movement of the green and pin position influence the better golfer’s shot. I simply wanted my tee shot to land on the green, which it did and resulted in another memorable par. Those who end up off the green will likely have an interesting time recovering and getting in, once again showing different layers of challenge for those out of position.

The Sixteenth
Looking back

The Seventeenth is a 512 yard par 5. Heading some what uphill, the fairway slaloms about the fairway bunkers that stagger, the first being on the right before switching to the left side. Those just short of the green on the left line up with those on the front right, making it necessary to probably carry one of them to reach the green. Long and only moderately tolerant of missed shots sideways, it’s a stiff test as we begin to close out the round.

The Seventeenth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Eighteenth is a 422 yard par 4. One of the most famous holes in golf starts with a blind tee shot to the fairway, which sits high above the terraced ridge as we start to climb off the valley floor. Those eucalyptus line the right side and block the line to the green if too far over on that side. The green is also tucked away to the right. The hillside on the far side us usually full of spectators when I see it so was a bit refreshing seeing it in its unencumbered state. The green moves swiftly from back to front and as we’ve all seen over the years, has a way of deceiving the professionals with its interior contours. The elevation upon which it sits is all fill, intending to bring the golfer closer to the clubhouse as he proceeds closer to the final drop of the ball.

The round came to an end and as we climbed up to the clubhouse and I eventually made my way out of the gates and back into the throngs of traffic on the 405, a sense of accomplishment and appreciation resounded. It was a good day to golf.

The Eighteenth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
From the left side
I expected a crowd around the green but this will do

The back nine takes up the opposite half of the property until crossing over at the final two holes. A brilliant beginning and end while in between moves between strategy and bolder challenge in impressive intonations. I would rank them 10, 18, 16, 12, 15, 13, 17, 14, 11.

Generally, Riviera is one of the finer examples of George Thomas genius. A tremendous accomplishment considering the land, the course is endlessly fascinating with its options and thought provoking shots. The collection of par 3’s is one of the best I’ve come across and the par 4’s a beaming array of variety and strategic prowess. Some of the holes have suffered from the throes of time and would flourish in their original state, but these seem to involve improving a handful of shots. As it stands, some of the best holes I have encountered reside here (4, 6, 10, 18) while the width and bunkers are used in extraordinary calculating fashion. It’s a supreme representation of what I find intriguing about the game and how prevalent course design is in bringing that about. Impressive in its wide range accessibility is probably not emphasized enough, but the course indeed challenges the world’s best each year while remaining just as engaging for the novice. For all of Thomas’ creativity and Bell’s construction acumen, Riviera is a testament to the joys of classic design at their best, beyond what the terrain can provide.

Harkening back to my review of Wilshire, I wrote about lunch with my friend in a snow covered Boston eons ago, where he submitted his thesis Wilshire was a better course than Riviera. I had not played either course at that time but after playing Wilshire, wrote, “There were two courses mentioned during that lunch in Boston and thus far, I have only played this one [Wilshire]. It was every bit as moving as he claimed it was. You never know, however, when I’ll be able to get to Riviera. Only then will I be able to have another lunch; older, wiser, more gray hair, and finally tell my friend he has a point, or is full of shit.” It’s time to schedule that lunch and indeed, tell my friend he’s full of shit. Not because I find Riviera any better or worse than Wilshire, but they are of much different character than the other I find any direct comparison futile. While Wilshire is an intimate, sharp and quick-witted strategic gauntlet, Riviera is more rangy, patient in its presentation and structure, selective in its boldness, more inclined to subtlety. I love them both, for very different reasons. It’s not a zero sum either/or game and now that I am able to comment having played both, will need to take my friend out for a Ribeye and explain my take, all to tell him, once and for all, for reasons he won’t know are even coming, that he is, full of shit.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The clubhouse is one of the more famous, perched above the course on the top of the canyon. Full of history and with spectacular views, it is one to savor if the opportunity arises.

Practice Area: The range is on the canyon floor among the course. Putting greens are both beside the clubhouse above and I believe there is one near the driving range, with a short game area in the vicinity as well.