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Dave played Riviera on Monday, March 19, 2012

Riviera Country Club

La Côte d'Golf

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#1 - This is one of the best opening tee shots in golf. Nothing like hitting driver off a cliff...
#2 - Make a good score on the first, cause the second will likely give you trouble
#2 - One of the few greens on the course that enjoys a setting on the hillside below the clubhouse
#3 - This is an early example of the gorgeous bunkering at Riviera
#4 - Ben Hogan called this "the greatest par 3 in America"
#5 - Hugging the left side on this par 4 requires a 3 wood for longer hitters, as the fairway falls off down a steep slope
#5 - Any golfers forced to lay up will do well to stay left, as a view of the green is erased on the right
#5 - A great view of how the ridge cuts diagonally back and to the left, restricting the tee shot
#6 - A brave design move with the bunker in the middle of the green
#6 - A view from behind the green shows the severe slope
#7 - An underrated hole, in my opinion...
#7 - ...due to the gorgeous bunkering...
#7 - ...and the awesome run-off areas around this elevated green
#8 - The famous split fairway
#9 - More beautiful bunkering on the front nine's closing hole. This is one of the best views of the clubhouse.
#9 - The elevated green here features a ridge that creates a very difficult back pin location
#10 - This famous par 4 has some of the best bunkering I've ever seen
#10 - Here you can see the severe right-to-left slope of the green that makes missing the green to the right a near impossible up and down.
#11 - An accurate tee shot is a must if you want to have any chance at this green in two
#12 - Bogey's tree adorns this angled green, with a difficult pin placement featured here. The barranca here runs straight in to the next tee on the left
#13 - One of the more demanding tee shots on the course
#14 - I really liked this medium length par 3
#15 - This long par 4 is protected by this fairway bunker on the inside of the dogleg
#16 - There is no better example of the bunkering at Riviera than the par 3 16th
#17 - Keep it left of the fairway bunker here...
#17 - have any chance at the green
#18 - The ridge that cuts through the fairway makes the hole play extremely uphill.
#18 - A good drive can still leave a long approach
#18 - One of the best finishing hole settings for a PGA Tour event
#18 - The staircase delivers you back up the cliff to the clubhouse

Côte d'Azur - a popular resort region in southeastern France noted for its flowers grown for use in perfumery.  It is colloquially (and more popularly) known as the 'French Riviera.' 

Its name was originated by the French writer Stéphen Liégeard, who was born in the French department of Côte d'Or (Golden Hillside).  He adapted the name by substituting the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea for the gold of Côte-d'Or. 

Synonymous with: royalty, wealth, fame, vacation, relaxation, beauty, art. 

Since nearly the beginning of civilization in Europe, many of the world's most influential people have spent a great deal of time in the French Riviera.  They have enjoyed its mild climate and its stunning beauty.  It was the resort of choice for aristocrats - from Queen Victoria to Princess Diana.  It has served as the inspiration behind the brushstrokes of men like Renoir, Picasso, Monet, and Chagall.  Much of The Great Gatsby was written when F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda vacationed there in 1924. 

A year later and nearly halfway around the world, George C Thomas, Jr. was approached by a syndicate of the Los Angeles Athletic Club and asked to design their new course.  After inspecting the land on which the course was to be built, Thomas was less than inspired.  He was enjoying recent success with nearby Bel-Air Country Club, but that property was far and away more interesting than the plot in Pacific Palisades, California.  Eventually, Thomas accepted the job under two conditions - he would be given an unlimited budget with which to work, and William P. Bell would supervise the construction of the course. 

Eighteen months and $243,827 later, Thomas hit the inaugural drive off the first tee at what is now known as the Riviera Country Club.  It was the second most expensive course construction in the world.  He didn't know it at the time, but the course would go on to be one of the most famous in the country - hosting three majors and countless Los Angeles Opens (now known as the Northern Trust Open).  It would serve to host some of the game's greatest players, and would earn the moniker "Hogan's Alley" after The Hawk won the '47 and '48 LA Opens and the '48 US Open held at Riviera. 

The club would also serve as the home of the creators of the most modern form of art - film.  Members included Douglas Fairbanks, Walt Disney, Dean Martin, and Gregory Peck.  Humphrey Bogart was famous for enjoying a Jim Beam beneath a greenside sycamore on the 12th hole.  It is now known as 'Bogey's tree'.  To this day, numerous actors and producers live on or near the course. 

The most notable feature of the property at Riviera Country Club is the cliff upon which the clubhouse sits.  Aside from this extremity, the land that Thomas had to work with was flat and relatively uneventful.  When he was hired he called it "suitable."  What he would up doing with the course was incredible, especially when you take into account the construction equipment with which he had to work.  With the help of William P. Bell, Thomas created one of the best strategic golf courses in the country.

The first tee shot and the final hole (you could make a case for the ninth) are the only settings at Riviera where the view is awe-inspiring.  Don't misunderstand, though.  Riviera inspires awe in about every other way a golf course can.  The green complex at the fourth is unlike anything I've ever seen.  The tenth is a short but challenging par 4 with gorgeous bunkering and a narrow and severely pitched putting surface.  The sixth is perhaps one of the most famous par 3s in the world, with a bunker placed in the middle of the green. 

The most awe-inspiring thing about Riviera, however, is only realized by the student of course design.  It is one of the most strategic courses I have ever played. It's no wonder that Ben Hogan, famous for his ability to think his way around a course, played so well here.  Club selection is often not as straightforward as it seems at first glance.  The visuals are just awkward enough to make you think a shot is normal when it's not.  The bunkering is deceptive.  Often there is a slope near or on the green that will carry the ball toward the hole if played properly.  Another thing I love is run-off area - an element that is featured frequently and wonderfully here. 

The relatively flat landscape on which the course sits only has one feature that really stands out - a barranca that runs east-west through the property, coming in to play on seven holes.  The most interesting uses of the natural depression are on 7, 8, and 12.  Thomas routed the seventh just to the north of the barranca, effectively creating a spine that runs down the middle of the fairway.  Tee balls must be accurately placed on this hole or they will fall off right into the low area or left into the bunkers.  The green also has a wonderful elevated setting with a large run-off area to the left. 

The eighth hole features a split fairway with the barranca running straight up the middle. The right side leaves a flatter approach and a better angle to the green while the left only demands that the golfer cross the hazard on the tee shot and not on the approach as well.  Frankly, this hole didn't do it for me.  I didn't see the reward in the risk.  The left fairway is too narrow and undulating to be an adequate target for the less accurate player.  The bunker on the left fairway is also closer to the tee than the one on the right.  The most interesting thing about the hole, though, is that the fairways are a little difficult to see from the tee.  The land is formed in such a way that makes the golfer feel as though the right fairway is much narrower than it is.  This causes him to seriously consider the left fairway, which is a longer carry and a tighter target. 

Even though it doesn't come in to play as much as the other holes, I really like the use of the barranca on the 12th green and 13th tee.  The combination of Bogey's tree, the greenside bunker, and the barranca cutting through in front make the 12th green a very tricky target.  The barranca essentially cuts off any hope of rolling the ball up to the green, putting much more pressure on getting the tee shot in the fairway.  The green is also slightly angled to the right, demanding that any draw played in to the green be very exacting.  In order to access a right pin, one must really thread a nice fade in there.  The barranca runs in front of the green and angles away to the left, running straight in to the 13th tee, giving the tee a lower area on which to sit and making for a slightly uphill tee shot.  It's a really nice area of the course that enjoys a serene feel. 

Along with the biarritz-ish green at the fifteenth, Thomas paid homage to the classic hole designs with the redan-style par 3 fourth.  Called the 'greatest par 3 in America' by Ben Hogan, the one-shotter features a green complex that stretches well out to the right and uphill toward the nearby cliff wall.  This wall originally met the ground on an abrupt angle, but Thomas and Bell gradually built it up during construction, creating a magnificent slope that seems untouched by human hands. With firm conditions, one can make up plenty of yardage by playing a draw well out to the right and allowing the slope to carry the ball to the hole.  This is an excellent use of a classic design, and one of the more fun holes on the golf course. 

The other one-shotter on the front is one of the more interesting par 3s in the game.  Thomas decided to place a bunker smack in the middle of the putting surface on the sixth hole.  The green features three tiers: the entire right side sitting down in a kind of bowl, the small and somewhat crowned front left, and the tiny target back left.  When looking at the green from the tee, the golfer may find themselves thinking of how gimmicky the hole seems.  If you really think about it, though, it's not.  Essentially, the sixth hole features two greens attached by short grass.  The right and left sides of the green are completely different, and are wide enough in their own rights to adequately accept tee shots.  The right side is much more forgiving than the left due to its bowl shape and the golfer's ability to play the tee shot off the back slope (I went 'thin to win' on my tee shot, and the ball rolled all the way up and then down the back slope, coming to rest 15 feet behind the front pin location).  The left side is definitely a difficult putting surface (and a more difficult target from the tee).  If one hits their tee shot in the middle pit, though, they are left with a manageable uphill bunker shot and enjoy a nice backstop behind the green in the case that the pin is all the way back left.  On the contrary, the shot from the middle bunker to the right side of the green is more difficult - a downhill bunker shot to a putting surface that runs away.  It's the contours of the green that make the middle bunker a fair test and not a gimmick. 

Another famous hole at Riviera is the short par 4 tenth.  This hole is tops in the categories of strategy, beauty, and bunkering.  Though only 315 yards from the back tee, the tenth is no joke.  If the golfer tries for the green with driver, placement is paramount.  Anything even remotely on the right side is dead.  The green is angled severely back and to the right of the golfer, as well as pitched away from the fairway.  This combination makes approach shots from anywhere but the left side nearly impossible.  In addition to the awkwardly angled green, the fairway poses an interesting challenge as well.  In order to place your tee shot for the best angle of approach, you need to aim in a direction that seems inherently wrong.  The distance between the first and second bunkers on the left of the fairway is 40 yards, and you need to get as close to the left side as possible.  From the tee, however, the bunkers look much closer together, and placing the tee shot between them seems a much more daunting task than in reality.  All of this strategizing still leaves you with an approach of 80-100 yards that is still no easy task.  While placement on the left side of the fairway gives you a straight-on approach to the angled green, you still must be exacting.  The green is only 7 yards wide. 

As you near the end of your round, you begin to think about the daunting eighteenth.  This famous par 4 has played host to many an exciting finish, and has one of the best amphitheater settings in golf.  Teeing off from the valley, the golfer can't see his landing area, and must choose a tree (or a mansion) in the distance as his line of play.  A hard fade is preferred here, as the fairway cuts slightly to the right when it clears the sixty-foot hill.  What you fail to realize from below the embankment, however, is how long this hole really plays.  Measuring 451 yards, the final hole seems to play nearly 500.  Placement of the tee shot on the right side of the fairway allows the golfer to cut off a nice piece of yardage on his approach since the hole angles once more to the right starting at about 100 yards. 

After finishing up the round, stairs lead you up and out of the canyon, and give you another chance to turn and view one of the greatest creations George Thomas has to offer.  Riviera is a welcome respite from the some of the more modern courses, where strategy takes a back seat to length and poorly considered green complexes.  One's ability to think their way around a golf course is dependent on how often they are forced to do so.  Too often we just tee up driver and let it rip, or take aim at the flag without considering playing a slope.  Riviera gives you all the opportunity to play intelligent and deliberate golf, and rewards those that choose wisely. 

In an era of art, beauty, and thought, George Thomas was given a plain, flat canvas with which to work.  With the help of his contemporary W.P. Bell, he created a masterpiece that not only pleases the eye, but invokes the mind. 

And like most other artists, he needed to go to the Riviera for his inspiration.


Special thanks to LK for the invitation.  Hope it's not all too French for you!

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