There have been two times in my entire golf life when I’ve been introduced on the first tee.
The first time was back in 2012 when I foolishly tried to get through US Open local qualifying at Four Streams Golf Club, about 30 minutes from my house.
The second time was at The Riviera Country club.
I was flying out to Los Angeles before heading on a media trip to Mexico, and I didn’t want to spend a day flying for nine nearly-uninterrupted hours, so I arranged for my own hotel and a day in La La Land. I was going to get together with my friend Josh Jacobs, owner of TGA Premier Sports, and we were talking on Monday about what we’d like to do. He asked if I wanted to play golf. Sure, I’d have my clubs, of course. He asked if I wanted to play Riviera, and if I’d be willing to pay the guest fee. Yes and yes. He ended our call to make another, to a Riviera member and friend who’s been asking him to come out to the club for a while.
Less than a half-hour later, we had a tee time at The Riv. (Technically, the club’s name is The Riviera Country Club. Kind of like The Ohio State University.)
I’ve been to Los Angeles a few times, but I’d never played golf there. Of course, I’d seen Riviera annually on TV for the PGA Tour’s Tinseltown stop, and I’d seen Los Angeles Country Club’s Gil Hanse-restored North Course for the Walker Cup. But I had no concept of how close six of the nation’s best private clubs are to one another in a mammoth, sprawling city where the acreage for a typical country club would appraise in the billions of dollars.
Riviera is one of the Westside Six in Los Angeles, along with Bel-Air, Brentwood, Hillcrest, the aforementioned Los Angeles Country Club and Wilshire. These clubs are within a 7-mile radius of each other, though that could mean anywhere from a 10-minute to an hour-long drive depending on the time of day. The Westside Six is the playground for the city’s elite. Getting in the door of these largely equity clubs is often a $250,000 proposition, and the payoff is not only in remarkable, historic golf played under dome-like conditions but also getting to hack-n-gab with members of the Three-Comma Club, people who have picked off at least some part of EGOT or another luminary whose monthly mortgage could buy outright a fair-condition home in most Trump states.
The club’s history is what makes that question — Do you want to play Riviera? — an automatic yes for me. George C. Thomas designed the course, which winds through a valley in the Pacific Palisades area of town. It’s hosted everything, including Los Angeles Opens, PGA Championship, US Amateurs and so much more. There’s been some work done over the years to parts of the course, making alterations to some of the original Thomas intent, but the 1926 vintage bones are pure. You know the par-3 sixth, the par-4 10th, the par-4 18th. You know the barranca, which runs through the property. It’s Hogan’s Alley and where Elk shot a Sunday 64 to grab the Wanamaker from Monty’s hands.
Riviera was an amazing golf course:
First tee intro
Almost birdied 6
Tried to drive 10 and hit it too far
Got home to 11 in 2 from 245
Played one of the best sets of par 3s in the world
Enjoyed a killer clubhouse
Great company and a solid caddie pic.twitter.com/hKIM8VUrz9
— Ryan Ballengee (@RyanBallengee) October 11, 2018
We arrive at the club with plenty of time to spare, get through the gate and drop off our clubs. The clubhouse is big — not Congressional big, but large — and it oozes classy history. Apparently a lot of weddings happen there, so if you’re looking for an in for a day, do that. The locker room isn’t the most memorable in golf, but it’s a delightful reminder of the decades of golf there. The walls are plastered with pictures, caricatures and other artwork to remember professional winners, passed members and former caddies who were the denizens that made the club a place so many yearned to experience. The amenities are superior, complete with a staffer to shine shoes, set up guest lockers and take care of other riff-raff before and after a round. The Jacuzzi is perfect for a post-round soak.
However, as a guest of a guest of a member at an all-world country club, I’m reluctant to indulge much. I’m here to play golf, get a little merch and exit only to probably never be seen again. This is my likely one-and-only round at Riviera, and I want to get as much out of it as possible.
And that brings me to the first tee. After a chance to scout the course and clubhouse hotel rooms guised as a putting contest, we hit the range for a warm-up. A young woman comes up to Josh and I, asking if we’re her guests for the day. We’re not, but we’d love to be another day, I said. I guess third- and fourth-degree guest spots are a thing at Riviera, which has turned toward more corporate memberships to limit daily play. On this afternoon, however, the tee sheet is not wide open. We snag a time just before 2, hoping everything in front of us will clear out so we can finish.
We roll over to the first tee, and the director of golf explains the tradition of announcing guests on the first tee. It makes me think about jumping off the 15-foot deep tee box and taking my chances landing down the steep hill.
The par-5 opener isn’t long. It plays well less than 500 yards, and the expectation is a skilled player will make 4. (I three-putted for 5.) The fairway looks wide, but driver isn’t in play because of the introduction of the barranca about 150 yards shy of the green. I smash 3-wood down to about 177 yards, and I hit a wind-riding 8-iron to the back fringe. The nerves are gone, but my eye is drawn to the phenomenal bunker and sloping guarding the green. If you’re not hitting a short iron in, or the flag is in the back-left portion of the green, these are features that could mean a disastrous start.
If the first hole is a par 4 masquerading as a par 5, the second hole is a par 5 masquerading as a par 4. We have an uncharacteristically strong breeze today, and it’s in our face. Despite a smashed drive, I turn what should’ve been a modest chance at par into an easy double bogey. I quickly realize scoring at Riviera is, more than anything, about having a game plan and sticking with it. Don’t make up your mind on the tee.
Our caddie is Chris, who moved out to LA from Buffalo, and he’s a year into this caddying thing. He’s still figuring out which of the Westside Six should be his primary loop base, and the golf staff at Riviera aren’t shy in chiding Chris on the side when he breaks certain rules, like parking the cart in the rough. It creates for some awkward moments in between beautiful shots.
I took out driver on Nos. 3 and 5, and I quickly learn I absolutely should not have done that when I find my ball in shin-high kikuyu grass — or, in the case of the fifth, resign myself to knowing the ball has disappeared there. I’m five holes in, and I’m soundly on the double-bogey train.
But it gets better. I nearly birdie the sixth (Player B did; he always does), and I made a sandy par from the fairway bunker on No. 7. I somehow salvage a shanked second shot at No. 8, turning it into a par that could have been a whole lot less stressful than it was.
We stop for a quick drink at the halfway house, which we cross after No. 13 as well. I smoke a drive from No. 9 tee, and two caddies behind me tell me they’d sell those for good money. What they didn’t see was an indecisive pitching wedge from 131 come up short. Again: Make your choice and never waiver.
Speaking of which, we’re now at the par-4 10th. When Pat, our hosting member, raised the idea of starting of the back, I couldn’t have been more in support. This was the shot I most wanted to hit all day. I know the percentages among PGA Tour players suggest laying up is the right play (it is), but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to hit driver from 310 and take my chances. I hit it long enough, but I didn’t hit it straight enough. I wound up in front of the forward tee box on the 11th, and — hey, remember that shank? — I hit a wedge that lacked confidence and led to an easy bogey. Meanwhile, Josh lashed a drive in the high grass on the right of the ninth fairway and made par. Pat, like a member, laid up to a perfect number and pitched to 2 feet for birdie. Lesson learned.
Driver was my friend on the par-5 11th, however. It’s about 580 yards from the back tees, and I found the left of the fairway and then the left collar from 245 yards out. It was the best shot I hit all day, and it’s starting to form a pattern of my all-time favorite shots being with a 2-iron in hand.
On holes 12 and 13, it’s practically impossible not to gawk at the houses on the hillside. They’re varied in architecture, but the land underneath all of them is invaluable in this real estate market. More intriguing is what these people have chosen to do with their hillside backyards. Some grow beautiful, untouched gardens. Some have concrete structures rivaling highway overpasses in scale and budget. One had a rickety-looking greenhouse at the bottom with a winding rock path to the top. One had an ADA-compliant series of switchbacks, though for what purpose was unclear.
I was a victim of the barranca on 13, and, feeling defeated I hit three straight shots, including two chips, with a 7-iron until making a nice putt for double-bogey 6. It’s the only hole on the course which could use some immediate work. The trees on the left force a single strategy rather than invite self-inflicted wounds by offering multiple paths to the green. Perhaps it’s a nit-pick of a top-75 course worldwide.
The 14th, 15th and 16th holes are some of the best on the course, largely because they ask potent questions of the golfer. The bookend holes of the stretch are par 3s, part of a battery that’s perhaps among the best in the world. (Pasatiempo comes to mind as a superior set, but not many beyond that.)
The green is large at No. 14, but the surrounding bunkering plays tricks with the golfer’s head. It felt good to hit the green below the hole and nearly make birdie.
The 16th hole has a much smaller green complex, with a large mound on the left. Also, like No. 10, it has a secondary green you’ll never see on Tv but occasionally gets play. The other greens — not a temp green, but one well-maintained throughout the year — don’t offer but a few hole locations but can give the higher-traffic main surfaces a rest from time to time. The secondary green on No. 16 sits in front of a beautiful old tree with a huge branching section supported by a white brace to match the tree’s bark.
Josh and I started a match on No. 14, going into the house. I won 14, and we halved the next two holes. He wins the par-5 17th after I find the fairway bunker out about 300 yards from the tee and can’t save par. It comes down to No. 18, the famous, uphill tee shot to a fairway cambering severely to the right before leading into doom-spelling trees. It’s a do-or-die shot, and I bail out left like a chump. Josh hits a nearly perfect tee shot to leave right about 170 yards to the hole. My 2-iron from 250 nearly gets pin-high right, and I need a par to salvage. The pitch shot does well, leaving a snapping 7-footer for par. I miss on the low side — again, not sticking to the plan — as Josh wraps up a sub-80 round. Pat, himself a former plus handicap who is still teaching golf in his 70s, ties Josh with some putting wizardry and consistent ballstriking I should probably emulate.
We head to the pro shop, and I find a hat. As I told someone who asked me about it, it’s not so much free advertising for the club as it is free advertising for me that I went there. It’ll get some wear, but it’s mostly a memento.
I often tell people who don’t get golf that the sport has some of the best real estate on the planet. Whether you’re good or bad at the sport, the tours are incredible. This tour around this Thomas gem was special. The company was great. The course was in perfect condition. The surroundings were captivating and served as a window into a microculture few people know firsthand and millions more don’t even know exists — maybe for the better.
The Riviera Country Club is a showcase club. It’s not one of those architectural stunners the members want kept to themselves. It’s a place where guests are encouraged and member play isn’t all-encompassing. The club’s culture is changing, however, and the trend is toward an even more choice, corporate-based membership. Days like we enjoyed will be reserved the guests of the money that makes Los Angeles and the world move. That’s not who I am, or, who, frankly, I aspire to be. I’ll cherish this experience, but I drove away knowing this would never be a world for me.