Legends of the game played at Riviera Country Club, one of America’s greatest and most historic golf venues.
By Ong Cheow Eng
When a club announces its plans to hold a professional golf tournament, some of its members will greet the news with a sense of dismay and sometimes, disgust. Tournament week means that their favourite course will be shut down and hence, they won’t be able play on it. To say that they are myopic is, an understatement. History is made whenever an illustrious name plays on the golf course. Generations later, the player, club and its championship course will be mentioned with plenty of reverence and perhaps, the value of the membership will increase manifold.
Take for instance, Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, USA. They were the host of the L.A. Open before it is re-christened the Northern Trust Open in 2008. In particular, three gentlemen by the name of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan won the L.A. Open title in 1945, 46 and 47 respectively. Of course, the trio went on to be legends in golf.
Hogan in particular, dominated Riviera Country Club; he won again in 1948 and five months later, he won again when the club was hosting the U.S. Open. Including the 1942 L.A. Open, Hogan won four times at this club that is affectionately known as Hogan’s Alley.
Stories of Snead, Nelson and especially Hogan were plastered all over the club. In fact, the Pacific Palisades club even erected a statue of the diminutive nine-time major championship winner just outside the clubhouse.
The name dropping continues beyond on the clubhouse. A blurb on its website says “legends like Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson have all tasted victory here, while celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Dean Martin have long graced its fairway.”
All in all, having famous people to play at your club can only be a good thing. And to be in the company of legends, you’ll need US$250,000. You’ll also need to be nominated by members and expect to wait for up to five years before getting an interview with the club committee. Although, it’s definitely worth going through the hassle as the golf course is quite simply, spectacular.
George Thomas’ Legacy
The Riviera Country Club was founded in 1927 by Frank Garbutt, who wanted to ride on the wave of golf’s popularity at that time. Garbutt engaged the services of George Thomas to oversee the design and construction of the golf course. Thomas was known for his work at the Los Angeles Golf Club’s North Course, host of the first ever L.A. Open.
The club’s history took a turn when it was bought over by a Japanese businessman by the name of Noboru Watanabe in 1988. The acquisition was met with plenty of scepticism, given the club’s deep American roots and the owner’s nationality. However, Watanabe maintained the club’s spirit and ethos, and even invested a sizeable amount of the club’s earnings to upgrade the existing clubhouse and golf course. During Watanabe’s ownership, the L.A. Open host got Northern Trust as its title sponsorship and ex NBA commissioner Jerry West as the tournament executive director. The profile of the tournament, and the club, got elevated immensely.
And little would Thomas know, the golf course at Riviera Country Club turned out to be a world class venue played by legends of the game. It is also included in some of golf’s most important “world’s best” list.
One of the World’s Best
For one, it is truly engaging. The golf course offers multiple shot options and approaches. Thomas shaped the fairways and greens that encourage the golfer to plan, strategise and practice sound course management.
Thomas gives golfers a grand introduction at the par-five first. The tee box is located beside the clubhouse (in full view of everybody). You can see the hole layout in its entirety; it’s rather straight, with a deep bunker, or barranca, before the green.
Barrancas are gullies filled with long grass, rocks and sand – definitely places to avoid. The architect used barrancas to influence and shape how you tackle the golf course, much like a water hazard.
The wide and long fairways at the first give you an opportunity to warm up; much needed as the golf course gets progressively difficult.
In fact, you’ll get the full brunt of the course as early as hole two. It is rated annually as one of the toughest par fours in the PGA Tour. The tee off is against the sea breeze, with OB on the left and trees on the right. A long approach is required to get onto the elevated green that is protected by two deep bunkers. Pros scored an average of 4.27 here at this year’s Northern Trust Open; you’ll probably be glad with a bogey.
Riviera’s signature par-3 sixth is famous for having a square shaped bunker on the green. If your approach lands on the wrong side, you’ll have to putt it around the green. Only PGA pros are allowed to use wedges. This probably one of Thomas’ more whimsical ideas that, fortunately for most amateur golfers, didn’t catch on.
The 18th is arguably the club’s most iconic hole. Spectators are often seen around the slopes surrounding the green, creating a natural amphitheatre. It must be quite a feeling to walk towards the hole as the final round leader, and sinking your winning putt amidst a cacophony of cheers. Mickelson, Fred Couples and most recently in 2017, Dustin Johnson had the honour of experiencing that.
Sam Snead said, “Riviera is one of the best tests of golf you’ll ever play. It isn’t tricked up, it’s fun to play, and it rewards good shots, as far as I’m concerned, those are ingredients of a great course.”
And who are we to disagree?
The Riviera Country Club
1250 Capri Drive, Pacific Palisades, California 90272