Thirteenth hole, 460/405 yards; Opened for play two years before the Great Depression, Riviera belongs on the short list of top courses that emerged from the Golden Age of Architecture. However, unlike other paragons of designs like Cypress Point, Merion, Oakmont, and National Golf Links of America, several of Riviera’s playing features still want for attention. The most glaring example is now found here, given how the eighth has been approved upon in the past decade. In Thomas’s day, the thirteenth played as a Cape; the closer the golfer hugged the barranca off the tee, the more advantage he gained on his approach into a green which protruded into the same hazard. After several severe floods, the club sheltered the thirteenth fairway by growing a grove of eucalyptus trees between the barranca and the fairway. The hole’s uniqueness – and its playing options – have suffered. Removing those trees on the inside of this hole which swings right to left would not be difficult or expensive but the impact on strategic play would be enormous. Thomas’s acknowledged inspiration here was the mighty thirteenth at Pine Valley which is generally considered among the game’s dozen finest two shot holes. It would be special indeed to recapture such grand magic!
Though a long hole, the thirteenth features just one bunker and it is fifty yards short of the green, protecting the high side of the green. The barranca is a mere dozen paces from the back left edge of the green. Rather than flirt with it, the golfer is better served to use the right to left slope of the ground to work balls close to such hole locations.
Fourteenth hole, 175/160 yards; A fine one shotter, the only shortcoming is that the fourteenth doesn’t measure up to the exceptional standard of the other one shotters. Nonetheless, the time honored concept of bunkers left and right and a back to front sloping green as perfected by the Eden at The Old Course at St. Andrews is well executed here. At over 6,500 square feet, this green is surprisingly among the three largest on the course and facilitates three putt bogies with alarming regularity. While Thomas served in World War I, it is unclear to this author how much time, if any, Thomas spent studying the great courses in the United Kingdom. His writing is mum on this point so perhaps his sources of inspiration were from those who had been there and their subsequent work in the United States.
The trees behind the wide but shallow green make judging the wind a tricky proposition. Putts from the center of the green
toward left hole locations are particularly problematic as they are more downhill than the golfer may realize.
Fifteenth hole, 485/430 yards; One of the surest ways to assess the talent of an architect is to study how he handles flat, featureless land. The high to low point on what became the fifteenth hole was a mere three feet and there were no barrancas or other natural feature on this interior part of the property. What did Thomas do? He moved dirt so that it mattered. Bell created a wide bunker on the inside of this dogleg that grabs the golfer’s respect and its dominant location makes the hole play its full distance. The only other dirt moved was in the creation of the imaginative green complex and minimally raised tee. Once again, Thomas shows us how less can be more.
Left with no hope and a 200 yard shot to the green, the gentleman above will testify that the deep fairway bunker is no place to miss one’s tee ball. The white flag and green can be seen above the right edge of the bunker.
Sixteenth hole, 165/150 yards; Both nines are rife with memorable holes with the back playing harder relative to par despite having two of the course’s three par fives. The reason is that its two shorter holes (here and the tenth) are wickedly adept at enticng the golfer into woeful positions from which his score will suffer. Short siding oneself in a deep greenside bunker here often leads to numbers in excess of par. Another perilous foible is getting above the hole on this fiercely sloped back right to front left green. Often enough a first putt from above the hole is struck with fear and a furrowed brow, the next one is hit with a mixed sense of desperation and false hope, while the third is clanked with grim resignation. Thomas could well have been writing about the wickedly sloped green when he wrote, ‘The strategy of golf is the thing which gives the short accurate player a chance with a longer hitter who cannot control his direction or distance. It is the factor which permits the brilliant putter the opportunity of recovery; but flat greens, or greens with only slight roll, do not supply this interest, for on such nearly everyone is able, as a rule, to go down in two putts, or to hole reasonably long ones.’
As seen at the sixteenth, the bunkers at Riviera are things of great beauty. Not as originally built by Bell whose bunkers were shallower with more jagged edges, they have evolved over time with high splash faces to become some of the most famous looking bunkers in the world.
Seventeenth hole, 590/510 yards; Pebble Beach and Riviera have been professional golf’s standard bearer for par more so than other courses west of the Rockies. Riviera was constructed during the final few years of hickory clubs, and endured the staggering advances of technology. As a defense, Riviera has but three par fives for the professionals to beat up on. The last is here, the penultimate hole and it plays the longest as it meanders up a gradual slope from a tee near the canyon’s low point . Of all the work Tom Marzolf has undertaken on behalf of the Fazio organization, his best is likely here. If a par five is to withstand the onslaught of technology, it must be well defended at the green. Curiously, that was never the strength of the seventeenth as designed by Thomas. The long right greenside bunker was originally built a good eight paces away from the putting surface. Why? No one knows! The best guess is that it was done so to create variety from the tightly bunkered sixteenth. But still … in today’s age, the seventeenth didn’t measure up to the other holes. The smart alterations here help the last four holes rank among the game’s dozen or so finest closing stretches.
Eighteenth hole, 475/420 yards; Given how the first hole descends into the canyon, and how the first seventeen holes play in it, there logically comes a point where the golfer must come up and out of it. That occurs in two ways. First, the tee ball at the eighteenth must climb a steep sixty foot tall embankment to find the fairway. On top, the task while clear is daunting for the golfer without a power fade as reliable as Hogan’s. After holing out the golfer is still well below the Clubhouse but Thomas sensibly had the player finish the climb out of the canyon via a flight of stairs behind the green. Standing on the rim of the canyon, one is sure to steal one last admiring look down onto the course where so much great golf is had.
No more famous approach shot exists in American golf to a Home green than this one at Riviera. The golfer can’t help but think of all the greats that have gone before him as he approaches the green. As good as the hole is, it might not even be among the course’s five or six best which tells you all you need to know!
Tracing the development and spread of golf course architecture is fascinating. Its primordial origins are found among the dunes along the North Sea. It was honed into an art form on the great heaths around London. It migrated across the Atlantic after Americans like Macdonald, Fownes, Crump and Wilson traveled to the United Kingdom and studied the great British venues understanding their design strategies. Their subsequent creations on the east coast of the United States set new standard: National Golf Links of America, Oakmont, Pine Valley and Merion. Men like George Thomas took note and brought these traditions to the west establishing levels of architecture as compelling as the best found along the North Sea, the heathlands or the east coast.
What a time the 1920s were in California! Just as many of the great architectural minds were centered around Woking in the 1900s and in Philadelpia/New York in the 1910s, so too did they congregate in California in the 1920s. Max Behr, Alister MacKenzie, Robert Hunter, Chandler Egan, Billy Bell, Norman Macbeth, Willie Watson and George Thomas constituted a most formidable intellectual group and they produced some of the finest written words on the subject of golf architecture. Thomas’s friend Max Behr wrote eloquently about the need of addressing a present problem for the sake of addressing a future liability and no series of holes better encapsulates that design belief than Riviera.
Los Angeles is nearly 10,000 miles from the heaths of London which provided the first canvases upon which men created intelligent golf design. Those accomplishments heralded the beginning of golf course architecture and the design strategies that have provided golfers with so much challenge and enjoyment. George Thomas’ foray into the geographically diverse environs of the city of Angels and his construction there are no less an accomplishment and no less a standard setter than those Londoners. His golf courses are sophisticated, innovative and in synch with nature. They should be appreciated, studied and above all preserved and enhanced. The Japanese are the current custodians of Riviera having taken ownership about 25 years ago. They have invested significantly in the club and its infrastructure. Hopefully their future efforts will be enlightened and they will seek ways to get Thomas’ masterpiece restored so that the intricate detailing of his genius fully reappears.