Riviera leads by example in how to present a tournament course

Bernie McGuire

Wyndham Clark plays his shot from the third tee during the final round of The Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The preparation and presentation of Tour and tournament courses today forms a large part of the viewer’s enjoyment, integrity of the key elements of performance of the players, and influence of the direction of the game.

It is common for a tournament course today to be offered with very narrow fairways, thick long rough, soft greens and often soft fairways. This presentation is not a result of weather conditions, but by design and intent. But what does this achieve?

It actively promotes the mentality of ‘Thrash and bash”…if the fairways are narrow the players feel they may as well miss as close to the green as possible. And because the greens are soft, players can stop the ball on the green even hitting from the rough. Soft fairways also mean there is no thought needed to “run out” from tee shots, which lessens the effect of angles and doglegs from the tee shots. Just aim to the carry yardage and go.

This type of course set up takes away the need for varied skills, evens up the field as it is very difficult to have any particular advantage (in fact it just prejudices against shorter hitters who will still be in the rough but 30 yards behind the longer hitters).

One of the core principles of the game, affecting all levels but showcased 52 weeks a year on television from the top professionals, should be the reward for precision. This is being eroded. The reward now is for distance. So what did the Riviera Country Club course in suburban Santa Monica, host venue for last week’s Genesis Invitational, do right?

It presented the course in a firm and fast condition. Fairways were firm and running. Greens were firm and only shots hit properly, with the spin that properly hit shots produce, would stay on the green or within a reasonable proximity to where they landed. Fairways on the angled and dogleg holes were missed by players who could not or did not allow for the run after their drive landed. There was no need for ridiculous levels of thick rough. We watched player after player in seemingly innocuous height rough unable to stop their ball on the green. Many were simply unable to adapt within those few days, so alien to this principle applying that they now are.

Those simple changes – the ball releasing and running on the ground, more if the iron shot was played from the rough, automatically meant the reward was for a precision shot from the Tee, and a precision shot into the green. Shot hits without this precision were in some way penalised. This presentation showed no prejudice. The leaderboard told the story: experienced players, less experienced players, long hitters , shorter hitters , superstars, non-superstars. It was pure golf at its best. Reward for precision. Penalty For anything less.

The scores throughout the tournament and the leaderboard at the end showed this perfect balance. 12-under par is the winning score. The best players in the world, the best players for the week, in slightly varying conditions, better than the rest of the field that week, shot an average of three-under par each day. Each day some players who played particularly well shot a lower score. Six under par was the best score on any given day. So again, precision was rewarded. Good play equalled a good score .

Here is an interesting thought: The very conditions that make a great challenge for the world’s best players whilst still allowing fairness, are the very conditions that allow the average golfer to play the course more easily. The average player’s tee shot , maybe carrying 180 yards, suddenly  runs and finishes 230 yards. The approach shot can run onto the green. No thick silly rough. The average golfer cannot play out of that anyway. It’s not required.

It is a very palatable recipe. It can be savoured by everyone, and presented on any course. Of course, if weather intervenes and makes the course wet and soft it is okay. It is an outdoor sport subject to those vagaries. No longer does thrash and bash give an advantage. Look at the players who failed that week, some of the world’s best. Rory, JT. Adam Scott had two fantastic putting rounds and still the best he could muster for the week was level par.

This is what we need to see more of; how the game should be played. The best players that week are rewarded. The game is meant to be played with the ball moving forward. Not landing and stopping dead. Not spinning back just because the ground is soft. The great players will still be great. Artificially evening everything up, so that everyone is good, and no one can be great, is the direction we are going with equipment and silly golf course setup’s.

Let’s celebrate Riviera. A golf course that has stood the test of time. There is a reason for that. I wish we could see it every week as we watch tournament golf.

What the players said:

Jordan Spieth –  This is a golf course where it is really nice to have some course knowledge. You see a lot of veteran golfers win and golfers who have won before win again here. I love coming back to Riviera. I would call it top-5 favourite golf courses in the entire world and definitely my top couple inland courses for sure. It’s just beautiful. It’s very well designed.

I just love the shape of the green as they just fit the hole beautifully. Very different in the grass types, bent grass and Bermuda versus this kikuyu and Poa Annua. But you have to take kind of very straight lines. There are a couple holes that are forced right-to-left shots, but for the most part if you keep it straight or hit just a slight left-to-right shot off the tee here, that’s what a lot of the holes play for.

The 14th is one of the only ones that forces you to hit the ball right to left and just about every other hole is kind of a Ben Hogan shot.

Bubba Watson  – Riviera is a beautiful course, it’s a beautiful layout and design, so the golf course is a beautiful design. I really enjoy that shot-making ability, you know, when there’s not too high of rough where you can play shots. For a guy that doesn’t hit any fairways like myself, you can hit a lot of shots.

The beauty of this place, though. If you land a chip shot just short in this grass, I don’t know what kind of grass it is but it grabs it and stops it. Or if you land it on when the conditions are right, the firm conditions, it runs. So, it’s always tricky, it’s all imagination that you have to come up with. It really warrants good iron play.

I think I’ve been pretty decent in my iron game over the last 11 years, which I’ve been on tour, I’ve played here every year. So, I just like it. It’s a traditional golf course. It’s no tricks. It’s just here it is and play me. They’ve added some tees, but we don’t play those tees so they haven’t tricked it up yet and haven’t really messed with the traditional design so I really enjoy that.

Adam Scott – What makes a good golf course to different people can be different things, but I think generally most people like this golf course.

Riviera is always presented beautifully, but it really requires good shots into the greens. These older golf courses generally have more severe green complexes and having that control into the green is very important. Therefore, hitting the fairway becomes very important and you’re working back like that. I like that.

The bunker complexes are very nice here. They’re not dissimilar to what we see down in Melbourne in Australia in some ways in shape and look. There are gum trees on the course and that makes me feel like home.

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One response to “Riviera leads by example in how to present a tournament course”

  1. Kevin Gallagher avatar
    Kevin Gallagher

    100 pc correct Bernie. Was a joy to watch instead of target golf on over irrigated prairies.As you noted the blast and gap wedge gang couldn’t handle it. The sad thing is that they might just drop it from their itinerary and then future fields might be diminished.

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