Sixth hole, 200/145 yards; Only an extremely confident and secure designer would dare to build such a hole. As far as the author knows, there was no precedent for a bunker encased by a putting surface. What inspired Thomas is not known but the success of the hole is assured. The green is spacious enough and contoured appropriately to accommodate such a unique hazard. The golfer has plenty of options in working his way around the green ringed pit. Right hole locations tucked into a semi-punchbowl can be surprisingly friendly but left front ones leave only troublesome second shots. In the hands of a lesser architect, the bunker might have ended up as frivolous and may not have endured. Thomas’s sense of what constitutes good golf is acutely felt here and the bunker elevates the hole from a fine hillside one shotter to an icon.
Seventh hole, 410/370 yards; Recently improved, the hogback fairway is once again delineated by sandscapes on the left and a wash on the right. Though difficult to force modern professionals to shape the ball these days, the tension created by the domed fairway and the long bunker certainly favors a fade as a tee ball that is drawn can catch the fairway contour and scamper into the bunker. Perhaps the most underestimated hole on the course.
Eighth hole, 435/375 yards; Riviera hired Fazio Golf Course Designers as consulting architects in 1999. Shortly thereafter, the club sought their guidance in restoring Thomas’s alternate (right) fairway as the hole at the time only played to a single (left) fairway. Ever since, the hole has been a work in progress. Though not perfect in its present form, the eighth is better than at any point since World War II. Might the raves about the recent successful restoration on Thomas’s North Course at Los Angeles Country Club stimulate Riviera to present the barranca so that it looks like part of southern California rather than Scottsdale and also reconstruct the green in a manner consistent with a Thomas design.
A decade ago, the eighth was tightly tree lined and featured only the left fairway. The golfer today needs to decide whether to play for the right island for the purpose of a level stance and better angle into the green or go left off the tee for the sake of not having to cross the hazard again on one’s approach. Unfortunately, the large, relatively flat green doesn’t quite do the job in providing enough hole locations whereby the preferred path alternates from one day to the next.
Apart from the opening tee ball, the golf at Riviera is played in its own secluded canyon. Mansions like this one that features a thirteen car garage (!) dot the rim of the canyon, well removed from play.
Ninth hole, 460/405 yards,; Sandwiched between two iconic par fours, this robust two shotter is of no less a design standard. Max Behr, who moved to California from the east coast one year before Thomas, wrote, ‘The purpose of golf architecture is to give an intelligent purpose to the striking of the golf ball.’ This hole perfectly captures the essence of that noble sentiment. A short right bunker must be carried off the tee to best reveal the green which Thomas angled 45 degrees to the fairway. With a putting surface running swiftly from back to front, the hole’s challenge spins around placing one’s approach shot below the hole. First time golfers rarely realize just how uphill the second shot plays and regularly fail to add the one or two clubs necessary. Most courses that have an imposing elevated clubhouse suffer weak uphill returning holes. Both nines return at Riviera and both the in and out nine closers are superb, another special characteristic of this Thomas gem. While the approach to the Home green is more famous, this one is arguably more demanding given the uncompromising nature of its narrow tilted green. Often the PGA Tour’s best run downhill putts 10 and 12 feet past front hole locations.
Tenth hole, 315/300 yards; The pinnacle of golf course architecture may well be this hole. You don’t have to be a genius like Thomas to figure out what hole was fresh in his mind as he penned these words: ‘By reducing the size of the green, by tilting it up from one side to the other, or back or front, so as to require a placement on the drive for a shot which can be played toward the higher part, by making it narrow and long with the opening opposite the carrying trap, it is easy to insist on a fine shot to make the second one reasonably possible.’ Like the eighteenth at Pebble Beach, the tenth has benefited from advances in technology. Today, the distance makes it so tempting, so beguiling that many more tiger golfers have a go at the green. Indeed, 72% went for the green over four days during the 2008 Nissan Open. Some even gear down to a three wood because the left front edge is ‘only’ 295 yards from the tee. This bewitching option creates great drama. While the hole might be driven and eagle putts holed, the failed tee shot is often very much out of position. Only 4% who attempted to do so reached the green leaving 96% with some sort of a recovery shot. A hole without peer, the tenth’s strategy is crystallized by the angle of the green’s spine relative to the tee and the narrow putting surface which slopes away. Golfers lured into going directly for the flag are almost always thwarted by this devilish combination. The golfer who plays left and well away from the green gains the best angle down the length of the green making its tilt less problematic. Knowledgeable men gasp in the horror at tee shots flared/missed to the right, such is the negative bias that Thomas created from over there. A tip of the hat to George Crump and his twelfth hole at Pine Valley with its runaway green perpendicular to the tee is deserved in helping Thomas formulate this hole of outstanding merit.
Eleventh hole, 565/515 yards; Since no two holes play remotely alike at Riviera, collectively the eighteen pose an almost unmatched array of challenges. For example, the tenth features the most heavily bunkered fairway on the course and is followed by three holes without a single fairway bunker to confront the tee shot. While the eleventh, fairway and green are laid across flat ground, Thomas placed the long fairway on either side of a 67 yard wide barranca that crosses 160 yards from the green. Hit a good drive and the green may be reached in two but a lesser strike makes the barranca the problematic carry it has been for the last eight decades.
Twelfth hole, 480/365 yards; Full of ideas, Thomas didn’t utilize water or other artificial gimmicks as a design crutch. What natural features existed at Riviera are exploited for uncommon variety and interest. Here he built a medium length two shooter and employed the barranca in the most confrontational manner possible, blocking off access to the green from any low punch shot along the ground. In so doing, a suitable reward is had by placing one’s tee ball in the fairway. Getting more precise, finding the fairway’s left center is even better as one’s approach then slots nicely between the one man-made hazard on the hole and a stately sycamore tree.
The well situated twelfth green with a deep bunker right and Humphrey Bogart’s tree to the left.