‘The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game.’ George C. Thomas in his seminal book Golf Architecture in America, which was published the same year that Riviera opened.
Riviera had one key thing going for it at the start: George C. Thomas, Jr.
The property offered little; other than the high ground around the Clubhouse (for some reason it seems appropriate to capitalize this clubhouse), it was flat and enclosed by a rather abrupt valley. The soil was poor. Thomas was reluctant to accept the project and when finally convinced declared the land ‘suitable.’ William ‘Billy’ Bell, Thomas’s construction foreman here and at his other best works, and he were forced to use an array of 1920s style heavy equipment to overcome the tough going. Despite the obstacles, the result of their labors is nothing less than an architectural, strategic and construction masterpiece.
Bill Coore once remarked about his firm’s work at Sand Hills in Nebraska that they tried not to mess up the natural qualities of the property too much. By that, he meant that the site was nearly perfect and that the pressure was to build a course that matched. The opposite took place at Riviera where the natural site was merely a 5 or 6 and yet, Thomas transformed it into a 10, perhaps the greatest difference in quality between a raw site and a finished course of world class caliber. Maybe only Winged Foot had origins as unpromising as Riviera. While Thomas had distinctly superior landforms at both nearby Bel-Air and Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera is indisputably his best and one of golf’s greatest playgrounds.
Each hole at Riviera is a ‘how to’ of golf course architecture and much of the Thomas’s style can be traced to his Philadelphia roots. An aristocrat, Thomas had both the opportunity and inclination to see and study the best courses of the northeast. As a friend of both George Crump and Hugh Wilson, he was fortuitously privileged to witness the makings of Pine Valley and Merion before moving to the west coast in 1919. These influences are evident, especially Pine Valley where Crump turned the design and construction process into a real think tank of activity involving most of the era’s premiere architects. Its twelfth and thirteenth holes serve as broad inspirations for the tenth and thirteenth holes at Riviera while Thomas also embraced Pine Valley’s Sahara concept at two of his par fives, the first and eleventh.
Because Thomas had seen and appreciated many of the northeast’s finest designs, it is not surprising that so many classic elements are laced throughout Riviera. At the fourth we experience the first Redan built west of the Mississippi; the fifth has an Alps theme; the seventh a hog’s back fairway and the eighth features a double Lido fairway. On the inward nine we encounter a hole with Cape features at the thirteenth, Eden characteristics at the fourteenth and a Biarritz type green at the fifteenth. Thomas’ original design concepts like the extraordinary boomerang green at the first and the imaginative bunker within the sixth green are as enduring and strategic as the classically inspired features. These are examples of the nuance that elevates Riviera’s status into the stratosphere of design.
A study of the fourth hole shows how Thomas created so much quality golf out of little. Initially, the canyon wall dropped down to the floor at a steep angle. An unfazed Thomas saw an opportunity – and his construction foreman Billy Bell carried out his vision – creating a Redan hole by slowly building up an enormous green complex and tapering it off some sixty yards left and away from the canyon wall. The resulting gradual right to left slope feeding away from the canyon wall is perfect for golf and its fill provided Thomas the opportunity to create two well placed bunkers. The short right one needs to be carried to play a running draw off the hillside and have it bound onto the green which is open front right. Alternatively, the golfer who chooses a direct line toward the green must navigate the course’s largest greenside bunker, a massive expanse of sculpted sand that can leave the dreaded long explosion shot. When played into a fresh ocean breeze, a player can lay-up comfortably short of this bunker where Thomas provided plenty of fairway and hope for a pitch and putt par. On this option strewn one shotter, every golfer is free to chart his own path based on the day’s playing conditions and the state of his game.
(Note: All color photographs throughout this profile pop-up to high resolution by clicking on them.)
Note how Thomas and Bell seamlessly created a gradual right to left slope to form a wide, expansive Redan green complex. A draw off the tee can be played over the right bunker and will bound onto the open green. The two crouched golfers are reading putts on the far left side of the green.
While the creation of the fourth is quite special, the most famous bit of construction occurred at the eighteenth where an enormous amount of land was moved to fill a wash and to create the majestic amphitheater which highlights the hole. Thomas carried fill down the slope and utilized it to integrate the elevated second green, third and tenth tees. The limitations of the equipment available at the time made Thomas and Bell’s undertaking an extreme feat. Yet the vast earth moving was carried out such that it is not discernible where man’s hand starts and nature’s stops. This is the highest form of both design and construction; the sort that only a handful of architects have ever achieved. Thomas and Bell did it with such panache that many players leave the course believing that the site must have been a perfect one, à la Sand Hills.
Riviera became a course that inspires passion like few others because Thomas’s profound strategic options are layered on top of superb construction. Other courses might subdue a player by sheer length or wear him down with uncompromising hazards but Riviera epitomizes a far higher, more engaging art form. Playing golf there is as consistently rewarding as any course you can name, as we see below.
Holes to Note
(Please note: all Thomas quotes below are from his Golf Architecture in America book published by The Los Angeles Times Mirror Press in 1927.)
First hole, 505/500 yards; Beyond the magic of teeing off high above the fairway in the shadow of the famed Clubhouse, the everlasting merit of the hole hinges on Thomas’s inspired boomerang green. It is much wider than deep with a bunker eating into its middle; forcing the golfer to note the hole location before driving in order to best chart his play. From the onset, the thinking golfer appreciates the alternate playing angles and understands the need to keep his wits as he will be repeatedly challenged by strategic options throughout the round.
Even this view fifty yards short of the green doesn’t convey the boomerang nature of the green. However, it does show that long approach shots can chase onto the left side of the green whereas today’s right hole location beyond a depression calls for an aerial shot.
Second hole, 465/445 yards; Thomas wrote ‘Greens may be long and narrow, wide and shallow; in fact every shape; but the great thing to be noted is that they must adhere to three most important principles: First , their utility for the shot required, which includes correct orientation or visibility; second, their utility as to all drainage and other physical needs; third, their beauty taken as an individual unit, and also as they appear in the landscape. The man who can comply with these principles, and also diversify his greens, is a successful golf architect.’ There is no better example of this than comparing and contrasting the first two greens. As already noted, the first is much wider than deep while the second one as seen below is narrow yet deep. Like the first this is a half par hole of 4 1/2 making it a perfect foil to the opener. The only ‘weakness’ of the second nowadays is that it plays so straightforward, without the clever options of the other holes. Where is the Thomas magic? The answer lies on the hillside to the right of the green. When the course opened, much of that slope played as short grass and the golfer was able to bank his three wood hickory approach off the hillside and onto the putting surface. What a fun shot that must have been! This lost feature is an unfortunate consequence of the fame that Riviera garnered by hosting big events. The bank shot was derided by professionals as too fluky. Another design casualty was Thomas’s forty-five yard plus wide fairways. The amateur golf course architect Thomas, who never accepted a design fee for his work, certainly had a better grasp of the game’s joys than those who play it for money. It is not easy to make a 440 yard plus hole interesting but Thomas pulled it off with aplomb. Hopefully, this fun, sporty shot will one day be re-introduced into the mix.
As seen from behind the second green, sticky kikuyu rough stops balls from hitting the hill to the golfer’s right of the green and bouncing onto the green. Whether that is good or bad is a matter of taste.
Third hole hole, 435/405 yards; ‘The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for this second.’ There is no better example of what Thomas meant by this than a close examination of the third hole whereby each of the three bunkers serve a distinct purpose and each complements the positions of the other two. Contrast this elegant scheme to the plethora of expensive over-bunkered modern designs and you easily understand how much more sophisticated Thomas was. Just as Pine Valley influenced Thomas, why more modern architects don’t borrow from Thomas’ design playbook at Riviera remains a mystery.
The chess match with Thomas continues at the third where the golfer dearly likes to carry past the fairway bunker to gain the optimal approach angle. Up ahead, the left bunker is quite short of the putting surface…
… as seen from this zoomed in view from up high. The forward left bunker and the long right bunker running diagonally along the length of the green combine to create all sorts of depth perception issues. Played downwind in a Santa Ana, gaining access to the open left portion of the green becomes particularly important.
Fourth hole, 235/225 yards; Ben Hogan is closely associated with Riviera because of his 1948 U.S. Open win and back to back LA Open victories in 1947 and 1948. The phrase ‘Hogan’s Alley’ originated here – not Colonial Country Club in Texas – after these three triumphs in a sixteen month span. A master tactician, Hogan clearly relished the strategic challenges presented by Thomas and he was able to separate himself from the field in a 72 hole stroke play event. In fact, he set a new U.S. Open scoring record at Riviera. He didn’t hide his admiration of the fourth, calling it in the LA Times the ‘greatest Par 3 hole in America.’ Played toward the ocean and frequently into the cool breeze, only a golfer like Hogan who possessed supreme ball flight control could regularly handle this defiant long one shotter.
In Golf Architecture in America and elsewhere, George Thomas was praised the talent of Billy Bell as construction foreman. Bell’s talent is most evident in the construction of the bunkers and this forty yard monster bunker that extends well back into the fairway from the fourth green is a prime example. However, many of Bell’s other contributions were just as valuable including how he seamlessly feed off the canyon wall here to produce the Redan qualities that Thomas desired.
Fifth hole, 435/410 yards; Nothing can be taken for granted on a Thomas course. Compare the fifth and twelfth holes which are found at opposite corners of the rectangular property. At the twelfth, the play off of the tee is down the left side of the fairway (nearer the out of bounds). Flirting with trouble for the sake of a reward is certainly a basis of sound golf architecture. However, variety is another cornerstone of good design, so the player should must not be able to assume anything. On the fifth, the most blatant artifice on the course takes the form of an Alps feature some fifty yards shy of the green. It cleverly obscures several right hole locations and makes for an unexpected obstacle for tee shots right of center. Ironically, the preferred route off the fifth tee is away from the out of bounds and toward the left third of the fairway. Here the wise golfer is advantaged with a superior view of the entire putting surface and afforded more level stances. Of great interest, old aerials show a clear path of drainage running down the canyon side just shy of where the mound was built. Hence, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thomas and Bell added this feature to help funnel water away from the green in a prime example of form following function.
This view from behind the fifth green gives a sense of the drop in height from the fairway to the green. In fact, it is the only downhill approach shot on the course. Balls that carry ten yards beyond the Alps feature kick forward and left and can find the putting surface.