Golf Angeles, Part Two (Riviera Country Club)

2/15/2011 0 comments

Day Two of my Southern California golf adventure was spent at the vaunted Riviera Country Club, site of this week's Northern Trust/Nissan/Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open. Riviera is steeped with golf history, with an event dating back to the 1920's and an impressive list of winners. The course is commonly known as Hogan's Alley, honoring Ben Hogan's three LA Open and 1948 U.S. Open victory there.

The entire course sits in a valley with the clubhouse and first tee sitting up on the ridge overlooking it all. The famous first tee shot is definitely intimidating. The fairway is probably 60 feet below the teeing grounds and out-of-bounds borders the left side. This was the site of Tiger Woods's first tee shot in a PGA Tour event, as a 16-year old amateur in 1992. Of course, Tiger chooses to honor this by no longer playing in the LA Open. The last time he showed up was in 2006, and I believe it is the only tournament he has played in more than three times that he hasn't won. [Note: at the current pace he's at, some 14-year old kid might stumble upon this blog post 6-7 years from now and not who Tiger is. Just to be safe: Tiger Woods was a professional golfer who was very good from 1997 to 2009.]

As you can see from the picture above, you are only a few feet from the clubhouse and right next to the club's restaurant, where diners can watch you cold top one into the barranca. To top it off, the starter even announces your name on the tee like you're playing in the U.S. Open. "Next on the tee...from Wheaton, Illinois...(a 6'2 soph-o-more)...Jim Colton" I put a hurried swing on the ball and pushed a low-screamer down the left side, a skunky shot but safely in play (by a good 10 feet at least).

The picture below of the 1st green provides a preview of what you're going to be dealing with a Riviera. Slick, confounding greens that are well-protected by deep, deep bunkers.

The stretch from the 4th to the 8th is probably the strongest on the course and one of the best stretches of golf on the planet. Hogan called the 4th the "best par-3 in America". For someone with Hogan's shotmaking skills, it was the perfect opportunity to gain a shot on the field. Try a long one-shotter with Redanish-qualities - for us mere mortals it means trying to hit a towering, right-to-left 3-wood on the perfect spot short and right of the green. In other words, I had absolutely no chance.

The 5th, pictured below, features a split fairway to a downhill green. The manmade mound short and right of the green does not really come into play, but can mask some of the right pin-placements and generally gets into your head. George C. Thomas moved a ton of earth to build Riviera - I believe it was the most expensive course ever built at that time - specifically to inject strategic interest and character into his golf holes.

The par 3 6th is one of the most infamous par 3's this side of the 17th at Sawgrass. "Who the heck put a bunker in the middle of the green?" I asked sarcastically as we reached the tee box. The bunker-in-the-middle-of-the-green trick has been copied a few times but very rarely with the same level of success as the original. First, the bunker effectively breaks the very large green on this relatively short par-3 into subsections. With a mid-to-short iron in your hand, you should be able to hit to the specific part of the green.

Miss and you pay the price, but all hope is not lost. The slopes on and surround the green allow you to get to the pin even if the bunker is directly in your way. You can see that clearly in the shot below. Our host missed the green short and right, then deftly played a chip shot on the far right edge of the green and watched his ball trickle down the slope towards the hole. You can see my tee shot in the pic below, just right of the flag. Unfortunately, I missed the 10-foot birdie putt.

The 7th is a solid, straightforward risk-reward par 4's. Big hitters can flirt with the bite off the wash on the right and leave a desirable angle on the second shot. Shorter or safe players can bail out left but leave a tougher approach and bring those deep fairway bunkers into play. Simple, yet effective. One thing that stuck out after my round there was the diversity of shots one is required to play at Riviera. It is a shotmaker's course, for sure. I think that may be its greatest strength. Kudos to GCT for bringing that out of a relatively flat site.

The 10th hole at Riviera is considered by many to be the best short par 4 in the world. Sadly, I did not get to experience the 10th in all its glory, as the green was closed off in preparation for the upcoming tournament. We played to a temporary green that you might be able to make out near the right strand of trees in the distance.

The reason the 10th continues to baffle golfers to this day is the green. Check out the sliver of short grass that they call a putting surface. Worse yet, you can see how it slopes away from the golfer who tries to come straight at it from the tee. The safe play is to aim way down the left side of the fairway, seemingly away from the hole. Only then can one open up and angle to the green. Sure, one can go after the green off the tee and try to get up and down. However, I'm sure Riviera has seen it's fair share of bull-headed golfers over the last 80 years trying to overpower the hole only to be left with an awkward half-wedge over a greenside bunker to that green.

One thing I need to talk about at Riviera is the Kikuyu grass. I've never played anything like it. On approach shots and especially chip shots, you absolutely have to play an aerial shot that lands on the surface of the green. A well-struck shot that lands six inches short of the green will just bounce straight up in the air and stop dead in its tracks. Throughout the round, you could hear golfers on adjacent holes simply say, "Kikuyu!", which was code for hitting what looked like a good shot only to get denied by the turf. My playing partner, Matt, who as head pro at Ballyneal has become accustomed to hitting ground game shots from just about anywhere, challenged the Kikuyu with bump and run shots on many occasions and failed most of the time. As the round wore on, he kept clubbing up and swinging harder until finally a 40%-stength, running 3-wood was enough to finally conquer the kikuyu. Matt felt triumphant, even though the final tally was Kikuyu 10, Matt Payne 1.

Below is a shot of the 16th, a short par-3 to a tiny, obviously well-protected green.

I know you've seen this hole on TV before - the iconic 18th at the Riv. What I didn't realize before playing the hole was just how uphill the tee shot is. I'm going to pretend that this picture was taken from the spot of my second shot, although anybody who has seen my sub-optimal, 2.5 degree launch angle can probably figure out that my drive was embedded deep into the hill only 120 yards off the tee. Oh well. Nothing could damper what was an extraordinary day at Riviera.

Go back to Part One

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Golf Angeles, Part One (LACC North)

2/04/2011 5 comments

My buddy Jim Tang's GolfPicoftheWeek has been on hiatus due to more pressing issues, so I offer this post as a consolation to his five loyal blog readers. Here are some pictures from a brief trip I took out to Los Angeles in January. With two days to golf in L.A., you can't beat a line-up of Los Angeles Country Club (North) and Riviera Country Club, two of the best and most storied clubs in the country.

Golf Architecture in America: Its Strategy and ConstructionDay One was spent at the newly renovated LA North. Some are calling Gil Hanse's work there the greatest golf-course renovation of all time. This PDF document on the club's website details the work and shows a number of remarkable before and after pictures (I borrowed some of the before pics below). Hanse cleared a bunch of trees (work which is still ongoing) and redid bunkers and greens, with the overarching objective to bring the course back to George Thomas's original look and vision (if you don't have Thomas's seminal book "Golf Architecture in America", you need to order it now). All in all, it's a fantastic transformation -- one that will likely send the already highly-ranked course (it's 52nd in Golf Magazine's Top 100 courses in the world) even higher into the stratosphere.

Since this was my first trip to Los Angeles, I fully expected to bump into a bevy of Hollywood A-Listers at every turn. The biggest "celebrity" I saw (if you're not counting my Blake Griffin experience, described here) was the guy who played Michael's boss David Wallace on The Office, if you can really call him that. Actually, I think in the past week he may have been surpassed by a guy in our group. Take a closer look at the guy in the middle in the picture below. If you happened to watch the PGA tournament at Torrey Pines over the weekend, you might recognize him as the guy in the gallery who got drilled by Phil Mickelson's errant drive. He's got the signed glove and hexagonal Calloway dimple marks to prove it. And all along, I'm sure he thought I'd be the first lefty to plunk him. (Actually, he played in the group behind us that day and they hit into us at least three times. Serves him right!)

The approach shot at the new 3rd hole at LA North is particularly daunting, especially for an unsuspecting newbie who's too stubborn to listen to his caddie. From the fairway to this pin position, it looks like you need to be ultra precise with your approach shot. I clubbed down and went with a hard sand wedge from here, only to wind up in the deep left bunker.

Then you feel like a huge idiot when you get up to the green and realize there's a ton of room long.

Here's the picture of the green before the renovation. You can see how reverting from its disc-shape back to its original form reintroduced a number of interesting pin placements.

Here is a picture of the old 4th hole, a long downhill par 3.

And here's the after. You can see the character they brought back to the bunkers and especially the wash, giving it a more rugged look while still leaving the chance to manufacturer a shot if you find the hazard. Miss way right and you might hit Lionel Richie's house (who by the looks of it, sold an awful lot of copies of "Say You, Say Me".)

The new 6th is a great risk-reward par 4. The PDF article has an interesting story about how they unearthed the original 6th green, so the renovation brings back Thomas's original strategic intent. From the tee, you can opt to hit it over the hill on the left side of the picture - a drive of about 300 yards will make it to the green. Drill one into the hill or miss wide right and you're in big trouble. The other option is to lay-up safe to the left, but you can tell how that can leave an awkward angle to a narrow green depending on how far you carry it. Actually, drives that flirt with the very end of the left fairway actually open up the green again. Very cool detail.

The look of the 7th was altered, making it a very attractive long par 3 from this tee box. Hanse also added a way-back tee box that the members can play the hole as a short par 4. When the top amateurs come to LA North to compete in the 2017 Walker Cup, they'll use that tee box and play it as a 295-yard par 3. Yikes!

The famous 11th hole at LA North was my favorite hole on the course and easily one of the best par 3's I've ever played. After hit my tee shot on this Reverse Redan, I was ready to crown it the Greatest Par 3 Ever, only to be reigned in by my playing partner Matt. "That's only because you can actually play it," he said. As a lefty who draws (i.e., hooks) the ball, I've never been able to figure out a way to conquer a normal right-to-left sloping Redan, which just happens to be the most pilfered template hole of all time. Finally, a Festivus for the Left of Us.

Comparing the renovated 11th to this picture from 1929, you can see how Hanse stayed true to the original.

This isn't exactly the greatest picture, as all it's showing is Matt chipping from left of the 13th green. Beyond that black-tarped fence, however, is a world of hedonistic pleasure that most men could only dream of experiencing once in their lifetime (or a slow day in the life of Charlie Sheen). That's the Playboy mansion, folks. And that's as close as I ever got to hangin' out in the Grotto. Our caddie offered to take us around a path to check out the exotic spider monkeys. We declined. Not exactly what we had in mind, hombre.

Below is the renovated 17th green in the foreground and what they call "17B" in the background. This devilish little par 3 used to be the 17th hole in the club's earliest days, before Thomas renovated the course in 1927. The bones of the green remained, but had been grown over until Hanse brought it back. Now it's simply used a bonus hole or shot, a way to settle a bet or play closest to the pin. We hit tee shots into the green after playing the real 17th, then headed over to the 18th tee.

During our time at LA North, it was readily apparent that the club members were thrilled with the work that Hanse and his team did. It must've taken some guts to take a knife to what was already one of the most highly-esteemed courses in the country. But Hanse delivered. After I got back to Chicago, I had to e-mail Hanse (who I met last year) just to tell him how much fun I had. He shot back the following: "It was a fun project, and it was great to learn more about George Thomas, that guy was a genius." With Hanse's work, I think that genius shines through.

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