Celebrating the Underrated Genius of Riviera Country Club

Celebrating the Underrated Genius of Riviera Country Club

Last year at a press conference ahead of the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles, Jordan Spieth gushed over the host venue: “If I could pick one non-major PLAYERS Championship to win on the PGA Tour, it would be here,” Spieth said. “I love Riviera. I think it’s in the conversation as the best golf course in the world.”

For a player with a green jacket to throw Riviera into the debate over the best course in the world is possibly the highest praise imaginable, but he’s not alone.

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“This is the best golf course we play all year,” Justin Thomas adds. “You could ask majority of the Tour and we would play here every other week if we could.”

Tom Marzolf, senior designer at Fazio Design, confirms: “If you’ve seen and played Riviera, this course is in your top 10.”

What It’s Like to Play a Round at Riviera

I happen to agree. If you told me we had a tee time at Riv tomorrow, I’d drop everything and high-tail it to Newark Airport. I’ve been lucky enough to play a few rounds at Riviera and each time I fall in love a little harder.

Justin Thomas plays from the bunker on the second hole during the final round of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club on February 19, 2023.
Justin Thomas plays from the bunker at Riviera. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Every year, since the dawn of televised golf, we’ve been treated to visions of Riviera Country Club. Nestled in a canyon in LA’s posh Pacific Palisades neighborhood, George Thomas, with help from William Bell, did more with less here than any other golf architect before (and, arguably, after) him. Only four holes wide, Thomas, who was part of the “Philadelphia School” of golf course architecture, created an impeccable routing. No two holes are alike and all 18 are interesting.

“Angles, width, and the utilization of natural features to provide and promote strategy are the hallmarks of the Golden Age strategic ideals,” says golf architect Gil Hanse.

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Captain Thomas was a creative genius, creating holes that provide multiple options for play and offer natural beauty, highlighting the region’s topography and vegetation.

“It’s a beautiful setting for golf in the canyon, and he got all he could out of this site, which makes his architectural achievement all the more impressive,” Hanse says.

What Makes Riviera Special?

There are many “special places” in the golf world and I’d argue Riviera truly fits the bill. But what makes Riviera iconic?

According to Marzolf, its location isn’t just scenic, it’s unique. The proximity to the Pacific Ocean through the Santa Monica Canyon gives a tunnel-vision effect.

“You can’t see out,” Marzolf says. “It’s an all-day focus on the holes in front of you. The width of each shot is compressed by the ever-present and demanding Kikuya rough.”

Hanse reflects on its tournament history, adding: “We’ve seen the best players in the world be challenged by this thoughtful, compelling, and strategic examination of golf.

The Best Holes at Riviera Country Club

There are many great holes at Riv, but one everybody talks about is the short 10th. It’s a par 4 that’s only 315 yards from the back tees, but it can give players fits. “It’s called a driveable par 4 due to the short total distance,” says Marzolf. “However, statistically you can’t keep the ball on the green from the tee. The layup option leaves you with one of the hardest short irons in golf. Ten is a scary start that can blemish your back nine scorecard,” he says.

Keith Mitchell plays his shot on the tenth hole during the final round of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club on February 19, 2023
Keith Mitchell at the 10th hole Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

During my last round at Riv, the 10th was playing even shorter thanks to a wicked wind, and I drove it over the green into the sticky Kikuyu. From there, I had to fight hard for a par.

The other 17 holes are equally as memorable. When I asked Hanse for his favorite holes, he lists 3, 4, 5, 10, 13, and 15. That’s a third of the course! No one seems to be able to name a bad one, though for tour players, the par 5 first is perhaps a wee bit short. The tee shot, which you hit from just off the clubhouse and plays way downhill, is only 503 yards.

“[Equipment] technology has weakened the first hole to a point where it’s hard to call it a par 5 for the modern championship player,” says Hanse. “The green complex is still superb, so it’s not weak in the sense that it’s a bad hole, just weak in this era of technology.”

The par 3s are all outstanding. Ben Hogan, who won at Riv twice, was a big fan of the fourth. The hole allows smart players to use the contours of the fairway to feed a ball to the green. Marzolf and fellow architect Robert Jones Jr. both like the 14th, calling it a “sleeper” and “the toughest,” respectively.

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But it’s the par 4s that truly test the players. Number three is a stellar challenge: The fairway sits at an angle, so if you hit your drive on the wrong line, it’s easy to go long and end up in the rough. Here, control, even with a wedge, is diminished to guesswork. Much like every other green on the course, the breaks can be difficult to read. The same is true for the 13th. The called shot off the tee is a draw and if your ball doesn’t turn over and nestle down into the Kikuyu, good luck making par. Oh, and there aren’t even any bunkers around the green.

Pro Tips to Employ at Riviera

Spieth perfectly nails the general challenge of Riv, where there’s a premium on understanding the strategy: “A lot of times when you miss the greens, it’s harder from where you missed them,” he says. “You actually end up farther for par than you would have for birdie just because of where those short-sided misses go.”

Bottom line: You have to be disciplined.

That’s the real reason Riviera is so damn good. Beyond its fame and beauty, every hole requires serious contemplation from the tee to the green and its defenses. For the pros playing in the Genesis Invitational, the members and anyone lucky enough to be invited to play Riv have to lock in and focus for the entirety of the round. You can’t sleep on any shot. That’s what the plane ride home is for.

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