This week the PGA Tour moves from a masterpiece in scenic course routing on an impeccable piece of property at Pebble Beach to what Tom Doak has described as a “true shrine of strategic design” in Riviera Country Club by George C. Thomas and William Bell in 1927.
Riviera Country Club architecture and history
Some golf courses are “easy” to lay out/design because the land is great: sandy soil, interesting undulations, not too many trees/overgrowth, numerous natural green sites, beautiful vistas, etc. Whereas other land might be the opposite, with the only thing going for it being the location or proximity to other things. The latter was the case with Riviera. The ground was hard and flat. The only real high point is where the clubhouse has sat for the past 90-plus years. In fact, when Thomas was finally convinced to accept the project, he described the land as “suitable.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. He was forced to use various pieces of heavy 1920s machinery to overcome the site’s shortcomings. Their intense labor of carving, sculpting and moving rough earth turned into one of the country’s greatest strategic, architectural and construction masterpieces.
In 1926, Thomas published his seminal book, Golf Course Architecture in America, in which he said: “When you play a course and remember each hole, it has individuality and change. If your mind cannot recall the exact sequence of the holes, that course lacks the great assets of originality and diversity.”
With this in mind, you can see why each and every hole at Riviera is a near masterclass in golf course architecture. Having grown up in Philadelphia, Thomas was the benefactor of calling a few other Golden Age architects friends and colleagues. Before moving west in 1919, he observed: Donald Ross’s construction of Sunnybrook CC (1914); Hugh Wilson design and build Merion Golf Club’s East (1912) and West (1914) courses; George Crump’s design and build of Pine Valley (1915); and A. W. Tillinghast’s design for the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s original course (1922). It goes without saying that these Philadelphians were performing at the peak of their creative powers building courses that have stood the test of time and are some of the best in the country if not the world.
With this knowledge and inspiration, Thomas employed a different architectural concept on nearly every hole at Riviera. The fourth hole is the first Redan built west of the Mississippi River; the fifth has an Alps theme; the seventh has a hog’s back fairway; the eighth employs a double Lido fairway. And that’s just the outward nine!
The inward nine has the 13th with Cape hole characteristics; the 14th is Eden-ish; and 15th with its pseudo-Biarritz green. However, two unique design features most point to appear in the first and sixth green complexes. The first hole has a beautiful boomerang shape that hugs a deep greenside bunker which requires the golfer to observe where that day’s pin location is from the elevated tee for the best line of approach.
But the pièce de résistance is what awaits golfers in the center of the 200-yard, par-3 sixth green: a pot bunker. The green features four quadrants and various challenging elevation changes, but gosh, who cuts a bunker in the middle of a green?! This is clearly a design feature that was crazy at the time, and if it were done today people would probably lose their minds about it being contrived. But now as Billy Cooney noted on PGATOUR.com, “Perhaps the oddest aspect of the sixth green is watching players use a wedge on the putting surface — even taking the occasional divot — to chip over the bunker when their tee shots find the wrong side of the green.”
Holes to Watch
Hole 6 – Will anyone hit it into the middle-of-the-green bunker? Will anyone need to chip over the bunker? Talk about a fun wrinkle.
Hole 10 – Maybe the most architecturally iconic hole on the course. Everyone loves short par 4s. And this is at or near the top of anyone’s list of the best in the world. Unlike many classic courses that have been lengthened to the point of being a caricature of the original, this hole has actually been helped by technology. At only 315 yards, it tempts nearly every tour-level golfer into having a go for the green. But the brilliance of the hole is in its subtle design where each element is running counter to what’s ‘comfortable’ for the golfer. An impossibly narrow green that doesn’t need to be hit with the drive but actually requires a boring lay up in the left half of the fairway for the best scoring angle.
And if that’s not enough, Jack Nicklaus described this hole in the following way: “I love option holes and this one has more than any short par 4 I know”.
Hole 18 – Do you mind hitting semi-blind tee shots up 60-plus foot hills? Do you possess a reliable power fade? If yes, you will probably love this hole. After hitting up over a steep embankment to climb out of the canyon, the golfer is left with as famous of an approach shot into the home hole as anywhere in the game. The towering Spanish-style clubhouse looms over a bunker-less green complex nestled memorably in a natural amphitheater beneath its historic walls.