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 the 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. Riviera has also hosted its fair share of national championships, including the 1948 U.S. Open, the 1983 and 1995 PGA Championships, and the 1998 U.S. Senior Open Championship. Along with this year’s Genesis Open, Riviera will also host the U.S. Amateur, a move that signals the club’s aspirations for 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 of land that was mostly flat, but working with his construction man William Bell, Thomas delivered an absolute masterpiece. The pair moved dirt to create dramatics such as the finishing par-4 18th but transversely created great natural designs such as the redan par-3 4th, where they simply used the canyon slope to create the venerable par 3 template.
Over the years, Riviera has had some work done, with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw working on bunkers in the early 90’s and, most recently, Tom Fazio giving the 8th hole and bunkers a facelift.
I had the opportunity to play Riviera last summer, and it was 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 your golf game and there are no weak holes. One of the things I noticed having watched the PGA Tour telecast for years is that the cameras give viewers no indication of how deep the bunkering is at Riviera. A mishit shot that finds a greenside trench is truly a penalty, especially if you find yourself short-sided.
Hole 1 - 503 yards - par 5
One of the unique and special traditions of Riviera is the first tee. Teeing off some 60’ 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 ½ 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 off the tee 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 the green slopes heavily on the left half from left-to-right and front-to-back, and the right portion makes for a very difficult pin!
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 if you have plans on finding 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 of the green and also a bunker that guards the front left. The green has a front and back tier, and a long iron approach can be funneled in by the slope on the right side of the green.
Hole 3 - 434 yards - par 4
The 3rd hole is a mid length par 4 that doglegs slightly to the right, preferring 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 it backs it up. 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 its place 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 right on the fairway, which slopes hard from right to left, but an approach there can be obstructed by the mound, making for a much more difficult approach compared to the left side. That side carries its own risk as the trees down the left 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 complex. 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 green is extremely difficult with a great deal of back-to-front slope that makes any putt from above or pin high a challenge.
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 4’s. 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 a player 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 I didn’t care for.
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 a tee shot to find the fairway. The tee shot needs to be thread between fairway bunkers on both the right and left sides, and a good tee shot 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
Thomas opens the back nine with one of the most revered short par-4's the 10th. 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 a lot of 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. If you find the right greenside bunkers as I did with my driver attempt, you are then 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 feature via 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 par 5. 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 to the green. The ideal place to hit the second is left of the green, which opens up the green and makes for a relatively easy up-and-down birdie.
Hole 12 - 479 yards - par 4
After a couple birdie opportunities, Riviera flexes its stoutness 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 left bunker and the barranca gorge on the left.
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 tee shot. 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 and shot 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 the 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 finality 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 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 to the right. A fitting close to a course that demands precise shotmaking at every turn.
After a round at Riv, be sure to check out the shower. It (along with the course) is a world-class experience.
When I reflect on Riviera, its variety and subtle strategic designs are what makes it so great. Thomas was hardly blessed with an awe-inspiring site, but the architect left an awe-inspiring design. 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 to the canyon course. While I dream of that, Riviera will continue to stand as one of America’s greatest championship courses for the annual Genesis Open as well as the 2017 U.S. Amateur.