Friday, April 01, 2011

Riviera Country Club

Riviera Country Club (ranked #36 in the world) is located on the west side of Los Angeles in Pacific Palisades. Although I have played and written about Riviera once before, I am now older and wiser and this time brought my camera along.

Riviera Clubhouse
The Riviera clubhouse perched at the top of Santa Monica Canyon

Could it be that I am visiting another course where Colin Montgomerie almost won a major championship but blew up? Say it isn't so. Haven't I heard this story before at Winged Foot, Congressional and Oakmont? Monty lost the 1995 PGA to Steve Elkington at Riviera in 1995. The great golf courses of the world are littered with Monty detritus.

My previous and first impression of Riviera was as a comparison to the nearby Los Angeles Country Club (LACC). Riviera seemed corporate to me and the kikuyu grass destroyed me. While I still prefer a more intimate club such as LACC, Yeamans Hall or Somerset Hills, why let the lack of ambiance reflect negatively on a world-class course? I travel often to L.A. and have come to appreciate the culture more. I have become better familiarized with the different neighborhoods and welcomed a return visit to Riviera.

The first tee at Riviera is memorable, a 503-yard par five that plays from an elevation of about 100 feet down into Santa Monica Canyon below. The course is defined on both sides by the canyon and The Most Expensive Real Estate In The World. The first tee gives a hint that Riviera will be much more about strategy than anything else. The tee box lines you up away from the line of play so you have to aim left to hit the straight fairway. Get used to this here, as there are many little deceptions that make Riviera a great course that forces you to think your way around it.

Riviera 1st
The birds-eye view from the first tee at Riviera

During my second time around the course, three holes in particular struck me as truly one-of-a-kind, and among the best in the world. The first among them is the 419 yard par four fifth; the tenth and eighteen are the two others. The fifth hole is a tree lined dog-leg left where a tee shot should favor the right side to give a better view of the green, which is located down on a lower tier of land than the fairway.

Riviera 5th from green
The par four fifth as seen from the tee

The man made hill seen on the right hand side, in the distance, is covered in gnarly rough and is an optical illusion. It is set down at a lower level than the initial part of the fairway. Like a lot of what makes Riviera great, it visually makes you want to favor the left side which is not as favorable. Also, like many of the great holes here it has a difficult green, in this case, it slopes back-to-front.

Riviera 5
The fifth hole, approaching the green

There is ravine that runs through the canyon, and the course; in local parlance it is known as a barranca. Simply put, you don't want to hit into it; it exacts a severe penalty. It can be seen clearly in this picture of the 408-yard par four seventh below.

Riviera 7th
The seventh from the tee with the barranca crossing

The challenge on the seventh, similar to another great hole with a ravine, the eleventh at Shoreacres, is to decide how aggressive you want to be. Shots played to the left are safer, but leave you further from the green. Shots played aggressively and further to the right will be rewarded with a shorter shot to the green. I won't belabor the virtues of the tenth hole since most people are probably familiar with it from the annual coverage the hole receives when the PGA tour plays at Riviera. It may be the best example of how a hole does not have to be long to be great. It is a par four of 315 yards. It is visually intimidating, with great risk/reward options and a small and treacherous green that all add up to make it a standout. When you stand on the tee, it looks like there is no room to hit the ball on the left. However, the reality is that there is plenty of room on the left side, which only becomes obvious when you walk toward the green.

Riviera 10
Riviera's classic short par four tenth hole

Riviera is made even more interesting by virtue of the majestic houses sitting on the commanding promontory above the course, with views of the Pacific Ocean. Ok, so I used to watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with blow-hard wannabe Robin Leach and am impressed by the glamour of Hollywood and the entertainment business. Scold me for being shallow and easily impressed, but it is pretty cool.

House above 13
A house perched atop Santa Monica Canyon overlooking Riviera

To give you some sense of the height of the canyon wall, the picture above is of a quaint little house perched high above the golfer near the thirteenth hole. The canyon walls rise up from immediately off the fairways. Although you cannot see the nearby Pacific Ocean from the course, the houses perched on top of the hill have "jet liner" views. To give you a sense of the property values here, an empty lot along the back nine was for sale for $13 million dollars when I played. Mind you, this is just dirt on top of a slippery hill, in an area that is prone to earthquakes, so it takes mega-wealth to live here. In addition to its other charms, Riviera smells great, from with the mature eucalyptus trees that are in abundance. The sycamore trees also add immensely to the character and olfactory pleasures of Riviera. This tree near the sixteenth green needs some help as it tries to defy the laws of physics.

Tree near 16
A sycamore tree with character near the sixteenth hole

It would be a grave injustice to Riviera not to mention the par threes. The sixth is a class little uphill par three that has a bunker in the middle of the green and the sixteenth is a downhill 166-yard beauty that is visually intimidating. The sixteenth also shows off the beauty of architect George Thomas's bunkering style.
16th at Dusk
The classic short par three sixteenth at Riviera

My first impression of the eighteenth hole was that it was over-rated, and in retrospect that was an asinine view. The 451 yard uphill par four rewards good shots and punishes bad shots. Eighteen slopes from left to right from tee to green, often requiring you to hit to a treacherous green from a hanging lie. It is one of the great finishing holes in the game. Along with Pebble Beach I would put it on my composite list of the world's best eighteenth holes by number. As I said, I am now older and wiser.

Riviera 18th from side
The finishing hole at Riviera as seen from the seventeenth green

The picture above, taken from the seventeenth green, gives you some indication of the elevation change on the eighteenth hole. Randy Newman captures the feeling I had after my fabulous day at Riviera:

"From the South Bay, to the Valley
From the West Side, to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A."