My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
In playing Riviera, there is only one shot you'll play from the top of the canyon. After hitting balls on the range, we'd drive back up the hill to face that shot, as the first is about 10 feet from the clubhouse door. When it came to selecting the tees to play, I must admit to being a little intimidated by my surroundings and by the fact we'd be playing a course the PGA Tour just left, with Sunday pins still in place. As fun as it would have been to play the back tees and get the real tour experience, I also wanted to have some fun during my visit. So, I decided the White Tees would be plenty of challenge. The White Tees still measure a stout 6,526 yards with a par of 71 and a rating and slope of 72.2 and 130. Had I gone all the way back, we were talking 7,040 yards, 74.6 and 135. In tour conditions, I'd argue the rating was even higher that day, so the White Tees were plenty. I'll quote the White Tees below, with commentary from the club's website in italics. My remarks will come after those.
#5, Par 4, 408 Yards
Another of Riviera's most famous holes, the fifth is memorable for the enormous grass mound which cuts into the fairway short of the green, a unique and visually imposing hazard, it is one which seldom affects the better golfer. More difficult is the semi-blind tee shot - played to a fairway guarded by trees left and out-of-bounds right - and the very large putting surface, whose steep back-to-front slope makes par a rarity for approaches missed long or right.
A drive right down the middle presents the best angle into the green--one where you're not visually obstructed by the huge mound, and don't have to carry the bunker into the green. The right side of the green has the most slope--right where the Sunday pin was cut!
The range, and the entire course for that matter, lays at the bottom of the Santa Monica Canyon. The gorgeous clubhouse, definitely among the most recognizable in golf, sits perched at the top.
Since we were welcome the rest of the evening, we were able to explore around a bit more than usual, and there is loads of history on display!
#17, Par 5, 512 Yards
Playing uphill from the bottom of Santa Monica Canyon, the long 17th benefits from a prevailing tailwind, but it still remains a full-blooded, three-shotter for all but the longest of hitters. The tee shot must avoid a large right-side bunker, but the bigger challenge arises on the second where considerably more sand protects the optimum left-side lay-up area. The green is two-tiered and flanked closely on the right by an impressively deep bunker, an imposing hazard which thoroughly defends any back-right pins.
This was the hole where I got a PGA Tour break. I'm generally a fairly straight driver, so if I'm missing a fairway, it's not by all that much. On the 17th however, I hit a pretty big pull off in the direction of the trees. In this case, it was way better to miss by a lot than a little, as I was in rough that had been trampled down by a week's worth of spectators, rather than being in the thick and nasty primary Kikuyu rough just off the fairways.
#9, Par 4, 406 Yards
One of the finest long par fours in American golf, the ninth runs slightly uphill to a deep, narrow green situated attractively beneath the clubhouse. Its initial challenge lies in a pair of perfectly placed fairway bunkers at 225 and 280 yards, with the longer of the two especially affecting the aggressive drive. The approach is also one of Riviera's toughest, for the putting surface, which falls steeply from back to front and features dangerous front-right and back-left pin placements, likely causes more three-putts than any other green.
Not much to add to the comments above, this hole requires too really good shots to get to the green in regulation. It's really tough.
The look from where you cannot hit it. If you end up here, don't go near the pin. Aim to the left edge of the green or even further left if you wish.
Riviera is a very special place, and it was an absolute treat to get to see it. The typical question once you've seen them both, is what's better--Riviera of LA Country Club's North Course. For me, I'd say Riviera is a better championship test, with very little let-up throughout the round. LA is quite as hard, but is probably more fun. So, I'm not sure that answers the question, but they're both absolutely great.
As I mentioned earlier, in some instances my Top 100 rounds extend a little longer, and I get to experience a bit more of the club. In the case of Riviera, my wife and I were extremely fortunate to be able to spend the night in the clubhouse after playing. So, after holing out on the 18th, we actually grabbed our luggage and checked into room 209. All of Riviera's rooms are on the top floor of the clubhouse, but only a few actually look out over the golf course.
#16, Par 3, 148 Yards
Slipped in among so many long and dangerous finishers, the short 16th has played a pivotal role in settling many a championship tournament. Running slightly downhill it features a tiny green, pitched steeply from back to front, and surrounded by rough and deep bunkers. Shots that find this elusive target will finish close enough to yield real birdie opportunities, whereas misses will seldom result in pars. An exciting all-or-nothing test.
There are a number of gorgeous trees at Riviera. Having spent most of my life in the Northeast and Midwest, I just don't see eucalyptus trees much. The grove of trees around the 16th hole is something else. The 16th is also the last of three holes with alternate greens. The others are the 6th and the 10th. I believe the alternates are only used on Mondays, but I'm not certain about that. In the foreground of the second picture below, you can sort of see the alternate green surface for the 16th which lays in front of the bunkers. In all three cases, the alternates seem vastly inferior to the regular greens.
#15, Par 4, 430 Yards
The last of the back nine's huge, into-the-wind par fours, the 15th is held by many to be the most difficult two-shotter at Riviera. A sharp dogleg right, it dares bigger hitters to challenge a large corner bunker in hopes of shortening an otherwise very long approach. The enormous green is fronted by a similarly proportioned bunker and divided by a pronounced swale, which separates a sloping left side from a right section tucked dangerously behind the sand. Fours seldom lose ground here.
Somehow I missed taking a photo on the 15th tee. Perhaps I was in awe of how difficult this hole is!
#11, Par 5, 509 Yards
This long, straight par five appears simple, but is actually anything but. The keys to the hole are the barranca (which angles across the fairway beginning at 340 yards) and the tall stands of Eucalyptus trees, which closely line either side of the fairway. Straight drives of reasonable distance leave a relatively manageable barranca carry and a realistic opportunity to make birdie, whereas tee shots flirting with the Eucalyptus generally mandate a laid-up second and a very long third.
The barranca that needs to be carried on the second shot makes this hole. It can present a tough decision.
#14, Par 3, 159 Yards
The par three 14th is the least famous of Riviera's one-shotters, but is a fine hole in its own right. Its elevated green is fronted by three large and very deep bunkers, and is considerably wider than it is deep. This great width makes the target appear closer than it actually is which, when combined with trees behind the green breaking up the prevailing sea breeze, makes club selection a daily challenge. By any measure, an underrated hole.
The ensuing morning, we had just a few hours left before we had to head over to LAX and back to the midwest. We decided to enjoy breakfast in the Terrace Dining Room before heading out. By all means, if you have the opportunity to do this, don't pass it up. We were seated right next to a table of Japanese gentlemen in suits. One of them was actually the owner of Riviera! If you want a breakfast suggestion, order the Apple Pancakes--they were outrageously good.
#8, Par 4, 375 Yards
One of course designer George Thomas's all-time favorite holes, the eighth is another unique test in that it features split fairways, allowing the golfer to play down either the right side or the narrower, tree-lined left. The catch is that the right side leaves a long second across the barranca, while the left features a largely unfettered approach. But beware! This balance can change with the positioning of the pin, making the eighth one of Riviera's more thought-provoking holes.
Choose a tough shot off the tee, or a tough shot into the green--your call!
Looking back to the clubhouse from the first fairway. The tee sits in front of the extreme left edge of the clubhouse.
#1, Par 5, 497 Yards
One of America's celebrated opening holes, the first is widely known for its elevated tee, which sits 70 feet above a narrow fairway flanked right by trees and left by rough and out-of-bounds. Tee shots finishing short of the barranca leave a long iron to an M-shaped green which is fronted by a single deep bunker, and offers numerous tricky pin placements. A birdie hole with a properly played drive, but double-bogeys have been famously carded by Tommy Armour and Fred Couples - and generations of golfers in between.
I'm hard pressed to come up with a more intimidating opening tee shot in American golf. Perhaps the first tee-ball at Merion East surpasses Riviera, but beyond that, I can't think of one. First is the fact you're hitting right in front of the pro shop. Then, take into account you're hitting off the same small tee pad that nearly every relevant champion in golf history has hit from. Add in the fact that this is one of the easiest holes on the course--so, if you mess up, you just blew one of your best scoring opportunities. Fourth, the club has a great tradition of having a staff-member stand on the first tee and announce all the players as they start. If you're a member, your introduction includes "Riviera member" followed by your name. If not, it's just name and hometown. If that doesn't get your heart beating a bit faster, you're a cooler character than I. When I stepped up the tee, I was right behind Carson Daly, his wife, and a couple guests. Carson had just played in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am the week before, so stepping up to the first tee on his home club (not on national television) was no big deal for him. For me, I was able to settle in and hit a nice drive. Long hitters might need to club down to avoid driving it all the way into the barranca, but I didn't need to worry about that. From the bottom of the canyon, you potentially have a reasonable shot into the green to put birdie in play. I hit a decent fairway wood just short of the green, but endured my first short game meltdown of the day en route to a disappointing bogey.
#4, Par 3, 223 Yards
The fourth is an epic one-shotter played directly into the sea breeze, and offering two distinct lines of attack. For the bold, a direct carry can be attempted across a massive, 60-yard-long bunker that fronts the green, while the more conservative can play safely right, where a drawn approach may ride the contour of the fairway around this imposing hazard. The putting surface, which falls hard from right-to-left, can be equally intimidating.
At this point in the round, you should have learned that the bunkers at "Riv" are no joke. They're huge, well-positioned, and tough to escape from efficiently. The sand is quite firm, requiring a very precise explosion shot. With that in mind, I had no interest in taking on the huge bunker that blocks the direct line of approach into this green. Therefore, my strategy would be to aim way right and let the slope of the ground kick my ball onto the putting surface. This is a well-functioning redan hole.
#6, Par 3, 150 Yards
One of the most unique golf holes ever constructed, the sixth is renowned for a small bunker famously cut within the putting surface. This creative hazard sits in the back-center of the green and divides it into four distinct quadrants, two on the higher left side and two on the lower (and easier) right. Back-left is surely the most difficult pin placement, but each quadrant poses a distinctly different challenge, giving the sixth unmatched variety from day to day.
While back-left might indeed be the hardest pin position, it also might be the easiest to get really really close, if you know the trick. The rear of the green has been shaved, just like the right of the second hole. A few days earlier, I had sat on the 6th green for over an hour watching Tour pros attack a similar pin position. Almost every one intentionally hit it long of the pin and used the slope behind the green to help the ball come back to the hole. My caddy told me yardage the yardage to the pin and I added 5-10 yards to make sure I got it to the slope. He told me that was no good--that long was totally dead. He's right, IF you hit it all the way to the top of the slope onto the 7th tee. However, as long as you don't carry it too far, the ball will head back to just a few feet from the pin. This was a case where I actually played the shot 100% perfectly and ended up about 3 feet from the hole.
#3, Par 4, 405 Yards
An underrated hole, the third continues into the prevailing breeze and challenges the golfer to carry a prominent left-side fairway bunker in order to set up the ideal angle of approach. Equally important is the putting surface, a large, gently sloping target that is guarded front-right by an immense bunker, and which falls slightly away from the player. Due to this tricky contouring, the third is the rare American hole which actually plays tougher downwind.
#2, Par 4, 438 Yards
Annually rated among the toughest par fours on the PGA Tour, the second plays into the prevailing sea breeze and requires a long, very straight tee shot to a fairway protected by trees on the right and the driving range (out-of-bounds) left. A mid- to long iron is then required to reach an elevated putting surface situated beneath the clubhouse, and guarded both by a steep hillside and a pair of very deep left-side bunkers. Four is always a fine score here.
After a reasonably soft opener, the second hole punches you square in the nose. Recently, the club shaved the area to the right of the green, which I LOVE. It really puts the contours of the course in play. This has been done in many locations throughout the course after recent tweaks. Riviera is notorious for the Kikuyu grass that is found throughout the course--Kikuyu is essentially a weed that is native to Africa. It grows thick and course, and in all different directions--hitting a shot from it can be very unpredictable. Having more closely mown areas around greens takes some of the unpredictability of the Kikuyu out of play, but you'll still undoubtedly face it somewhere in your round.
This is the angle you want. The rear portion of the green is incredibly small.
A look at the deep and menacing barranca. It's awesome how it's utilized in different ways and different angles through the routing of Riviera.
#7, Par 4, 370 Yards
A demanding driving hole, the seventh requires a tee ball played to a fairway that narrows significantly at the 270-yard mark, and which is guarded left by an enormous bunker and right by the barranca. The left side offers the most favorable angle of approach as the very narrow green features both a deep fronting bunker and the barranca along its right side. A swale falls away from its left edge, but this area is maintained as fairway and is thus easily the better side on which to miss.
Defininitely a tough driving hole. Hitting into the deep grass in the barranca is very bad, but the bunkers aren't loads better. You just need to step up and hit the fairway here.
#10, Par 4, 301 Yards
Arguably Riviera's finest hole, the 10th ranks among the world's great short par fours, its timeless strategic challenge having perplexed golfers for more than eight decades. The key is the putting surface, an angled, extremely narrow target with a dangerous right-to-left slope. Though reachable from the tee, only a perfect drive will hold this green - and a tee ball missed even slightly right will generally result in a bogey, or worse. The smart play is a fairway metal down the left side, but the temptation to go for the green remains eternally tantalizing...
When I set up my tee time at Riviera, this was the hole I was thinking about for weeks, hoping I would be able to hit a good drive to have a chance to score. Well, I didn't, and when you don't, it's really hard to recover. My drive went to the right which is were you really can't hit it. The green is SO shallow from the right side of the hole that there's no chance of holding the green. I couldn't even hold the green from the bunker that's on the right of the green. Obviously the pros spin the ball more than I do, so I'm sure it's reasonable for them, but in tour conditions, I found this hole almost unplayable unless you play from the absolute perfect angle, right along the line of the green. If you miss that angle, your best move is just to play to the left of the green so you have a good angle into it. Don't get greedy and think your short game is better than it is.
#13, Par 4, 406 Yards
Continuing westward, into the prevailing breeze, the 13th is one of Riviera's most demanding driving holes, its fairway bending left around the barranca, and flanked on both sides by tall stands of Eucalyptus. A long, controlled draw is the clear choice here which, if successfully played, leaves a mid-iron second to a large, flattish green. The barranca edges especially close to a recently restored back-left corner of the putting surface, and affords a particularly dangerous pin position in championship play.
If you can't hit a draw, this fairway is almost impossible to hit.
The view from our room, looking out the entrance circle.
So that was it from Riviera. If you get the chance to visit, by all means, don't pass it up!
A few pictures of our room if you're lucky enough to be staying overnight in the clubhouse. It's not the Four Seasons, but it's extremely nice and it was incredible to think of what famous golfers and celebrity guests had probably spent the night in this room before us.
#12, Par 4, 367 Yards
From the championship tees, the 12th is a monster, particularly into the prevailing sea breeze. The drive is played to a wide fairway that slopes gently from right-to-left, towards some thick Kikuyu rough and out-of-bounds. The real challenge, however, comes on the approach, a mid-to-long iron played across the barranca to a narrow green guarded front-right by one of the course's deepest bunkers, and front-left by a large, overhanging Sycamore tree. Particularly in the afternoon wind, four is an excellent score here.
The next five holes go into the prevailing wind (off of the Pacific Ocean, which is a little over a mile away}. You're somewhat protected from the wind in the canyon, but when it's blowing, it certainly adds difficulty to a collection of holes that don't need much help to be hard! Left of the green is "Bogey's Tree," a famous Sycamore under which Humphrey Bogart used to sit and watch golf with a thermos of Jim Beam.
After spending a day outside the ropes at Riviera, it was off to Palm Springs for a few days. I was able to get in several rounds of golf there, including The Quarry at La Quinta, before heading back to L.A. When we arrived back in L.A. it was time to see Riviera from inside the ropes.
Riviera was a round that I had anticipated for several months. I was thrilled to experience a course with such history and prestige, but also to be able to do it two days after the PGA Tour finished up. The course stayed closed to members on Monday, so this was the first chance to play the course after the pros--the Sunday pins were still in, and the rough was still up.
The history of The Riviera Country Club is a very interesting one, with Hollywood glitz and glam throughout. From the club's website:
The Riviera Country Club was founded in 1926 by the members of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Their vision was to build the premier golf course and outdoor facility in Southern California away from the traffic and congestion of Los Angeles. The serene escape they imagined became a reality in 1927 when the golf course opened to critical acclaim. The main clubhouse, built in a Spanish revival style, followed in 1928.
The club called upon George C. Thomas to design a course that would challenge the world’s best. After 18 months and 15 iterations of his design, his masterpiece and crowning achievement opened for play. Thomas’ design has withstood the test of time. The Riviera Country Club is a consistently ranked a top 50 golf course in the world and in the top 25 courses in the United States. True to its founder’s intentions, it welcomes the world’s greatest golfers each year for the Genesis Open and has played host to major events such as the US Open, PGA Championship, US Amateur, US Senior Open, NCAA Championships and will be the golf site of the upcoming 2028 Olympic games in Los Angeles.
In 1963 the club’s polo grounds were transformed into what is now the tennis facility. The Riviera Tennis Club features 24 courts and provides tennis programming for all ages and abilities. Boasting one of the largest teaching programs in the United States, The Riviera Tennis Club’s 10 teaching pros and 3 hitters are available exclusively to members and their families.
As the club nears its centennial, it’s as vibrant and extraordinary as it has ever been. In the words of the club’s owner, Mr. Noboru Watanabe, “It is people’s passion that moves reality and brings dreams to life. I will continue to improve the great traditions that have been passed down from my predecessors, and pass them along to the next generation.”
Upon arrival, we changed shoes and loosened up for a while. We arrived before our host, so we had adequate time to check out the clubhouse and surrounds.
While experiencing the journey of playing some of America's best golf courses, there is no typical experience. Each course is different, and each experience is different. Sometimes I'm hosted by a member; sometimes I'm on my own. Sometimes I walk with a caddy; sometime I ride. In many cases, my visit to a course is a quick in-and-out with limited chance to really get a feel for the club in general. In other cases, I've been fortunate to be able to spend more time at a club and experience it from several different angles. In the case of Riviera, I was able to spend a few days at the club, seeing it from different perspectives. Visiting Southern California in February, 2018, the first look at "Riv" was from the perspective of a spectator of the PGA Tour's Genesis Open. This event usually has one of the strongest fields of the year, and players consider Riviera to be one of the best courses they visit of any annual tour stop. It had been several years since I had attended a Tour event, and one of the nice things about going these days is that you can bring your phone to take pictures.
#18, Par 4, 422 Yards
One of golf's most famous finishing holes, the legendary 18th has defined Riviera's challenge for more than 80 years. The primary test lies in the tremendously intimidating tee shot, a semi-blind drive played to a fairway hidden beyond a steep, Kikuyu-covered hillside. From there, a mid to long iron is generally needed to reach a bunkerless putting surface, which is nestled memorably in a natural amphitheater beneath the clubhouse. There are few more dramatic or historical stages anywhere in the game.
If you've ever seen a tournament on TV played from Riviera, you undoubtedly know about the 18th hole, as it has delivered countless dramatic finishes throughout the history of golf. However, as usual, TV does a lousy job of representing elevation changes (my camera too!). The hill you need to climb after the tee shot on 18 is really really tall and steep, and you'll likely be a little out-of-breath after you walk up it. Seeing this hill at the Genesis Classic, I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn't be able to hit my drive high enough to clear it, as I'm a low-ball hitter (especially with the driver). Luckily, I barely cleared the apex and ended up with a good drive. It was pretty fun walking up to the famous 18th green with the spectator grandstands still there! The palm tree just to the left of the white grandstand is the perfect line. Too far right and you'll end up blocked into the green. Too far left and you'll be in nasty Kikuyu rough on a sidehill lie.