Riviera – An oasis after the desert

Mark McGowan

A view of the clubhouse at the Riviera Country Club (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

Mark McGowan

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There aren’t many regular season PGA Tour events that really set the heart racing. Phoenix is different, I’ll give it that, but even as a designated event fielding 20 of the top-23 in the world, it’s still basically a frat party at a largely uninspiring desert golf course.

This week is different. Riviera is a fantastic golf course – maybe the best on the PGA Tour’s annual circuit – and since Tiger Woods took over as tournament host in 2020, the Genesis Invitational as it became known, has been the highlight of The Masters run in.

The course itself has a storied background. Built in the early 1920s, it opened for play in ’26, coinciding with the onset of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age.’ Just 10 miles west of the bright lights of the Warner Bros., Universal and Walt Disney movie studios, Riviera first hosted the Los Angeles Open in 1929, but the event switched between it, Wilshire, Hillcrest, and Los Angeles Country Clubs.

In 1942, Ben Hogan won his first Los Angeles Open at Riviera, a feat he’d repeat in ’47 and ’48, doubling up by taking the ’48 US Open at Riviera as well. It was in that ’48 Open that Hogan shot 276, a record that would last almost 30 years until 27-year-old Jack Nicklaus bettered it by one at Baltusrol in 1967.

Following Hogan’s near-fatal car crash in 1949 – an accident that doctors felt he’d never walk again after – he returned to competitive golf at Riviera in 1950, losing out to Sam Snead in a playoff in what many consider to be the greatest comeback in sporting history.

Consequently, Riviera has become colloquially known as ‘Hogan’s Alley’ in tribute to the great man’s many achievements there and his personal fondness for the course. He even named the redan – a hole with a backwards-sloping angular green guarded by a bunker in front – fourth hole, ‘The greatest par 3 hole in America.’

A little over 40 years later, in 1992, 16-year-old local kid Tiger Woods made his PGA Tour debut here, though quite incredibly, in 14 attempts, has only handled the trophy when presenting it to someone else.

Rather incredulously, a Riviera win is one of the few things missing off Nicklaus’ CV as well – a runner-up in 1978 was the closest The Golden Bear came to an L.A. Open title, and he came close again at the ’83 US PGA Championship when falling one-shot shy of Hal Sutton. Woods came closer still, second to Ernie Els in 1999 and losing in a playoff to Billy Mayfair in 1998 in what remains his only PGA Tour Playoff defeat to this day.

What makes the golf course spectacular are the questions it asks. Besides the previously mentioned redan hole, the par 3 sixth has a bunker in the middle of the green, effectively sectioning it into four quadrants, each a distinct green in itself. The short par-4 10th – probably the course’s best-known hole – is renowned for its treacherous, narrow green, and plays somewhere between 280 and 320 yards in PGA Tour play.

What makes a truly great short hole is variety, and there are many ways to play the 10th – none of them easy. Most of the field will pull lumbar, favouring a left-side miss as it offers an easier up-and-down, but double-bogeys usually outweigh eagles on a 2:1 basis over the course of the week, making it an actual risk-reward challenge.

Walt Disney, Dean Martin and Humphrey Bogart were all residents at Riviera, and the latter used to sit under a large eucalyptus tree on the 12th hole during tournament play, allegedly heckling various groups of pros as they came through. The tree still stands today, and you’ll hear commentators repeatedly refer to it as ‘Bogey’s Tree.’

You’ll also repeatedly hear commentators talking about the ‘Kikuyu.’ That’s the strain of grass used on the fairways and rough, a sticky, Velcro-like variant that adds a layer of difficulty to short game play, particularly on bump-and-run style shots.

The final hole is majestic, and a fitting way to close out the tournament. Playing uphill to a blind landing area, it then sweeps right to an amphitheatre-like green surrounded by steep banks which are thronged with spectators. Devoid of the gaudy grandstands that frame most PGA Tour closing holes – there are stands present, they’re just further removed – there’s a kaleidoscope of colour with the iconic clubhouse providing the elevated backdrop.

In Hollywood, billed as the ‘land where dreams are made,’ fiction really is the dominant currency.

But history is something that can’t be fabricated, and it’s everywhere at Riviera.

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