Riviera Country Club – Exclusive Golfing in Los Angeles
It’s ultra-private, rich in history, and it’s one heck of a golf course. We are talking about Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, and we are here to tell you all about it.
The lavish 18-hole course in western Los Angeles has been hosting a prestigious PGA Tournament for several years, but it’s much more than just the home of the Genesis Open.
The par-71 track is designed so blissfully that it’s as if the layout is a portrait and Leonardo da Vinci was the painter. Clearly, course architects George C. Thomas and William P. Bell knew exactly what they were doing when they got to work nearly 100 years ago.
We’ll talk about the construction of Riveria Country Club, commonly referred to simply as “Riv,” as well as go into great detail while explaining the course’s outline.
There are a few signature holes that you should know about, so it’s our job to illustrate them for you.
All you have to do is relax and get ready to learn. Prepare to read a wealth of information about the course that has been the site of three Majors and a recent U.S. Amateur. Use the basic facts below to get familiar with the course’s background before diving into the rest!
Riviera Country Club – Key Facts
- Pacific Palisades, California
- Year Opened
- Owner/Operated By
- Course Designer
- George C. Thomas Jr., William P. Bell
- 7,322 yards
- Host To
- Genesis Open (56 times from 1929-2018, every year since 1999) 1948 U.S. Open, PGA Championship (1983 and 1995), 2017 U.S. Amateur
- Official Website
Riviera Country Club – The Context
How did Riviera Country Club open, and why was the club formed? These are questions we are going to answer, and it starts with understanding the back story. While Riv wasn’t opened until 1927, the initial thought of creating a private golf course in the area came much earlier.
In 1922, Los Angeles Athletic Club Vice President Frank Garbutt actually found the parcel of land that Riveria is situated on. It took three full years to organize a group of investors and get all the documentation properly sorted out, but in 1925, they finally had the deal in place.
The next order of business was hiring an architect, and who better than George C. Thomas? The Philadelphia native had just recently completed Bel-Air Country Club just 4 or 5 miles down the road and seemed to be the perfect fit.
Thomas brought in friend and experienced designer William P. Bell to assist in the construction, and it turned out to be a very wise move.
While Thomas was the one responsible for the articulate design and shaping of the holes, it was William “Billy” Bell that actually oversaw the project on a day-to-day basis. The story goes that George Thomas went through more than a dozen drawings before finally settling on the version that was brought to fruition.
Alister MacKenzie, the genius behind Cypress Point and Augusta National, came to check up on the plans in 1926 and stated that the design was as fine as any he had ever laid eyes on. After a year and a half of laborious work, the golf club was finally set to open.
On June 24th, 1927, George C. Thomas struck the first tee shot ever at Riveria. In total, more than $240,000 was spent on building the venue, which was a mind-boggling amount of money to spend on a golf course in that era.
Fast forward to today, and money isn’t an issue at the ritzy country club that’s located in one of the most expensive zip codes in the country. In 1963, they updated their polo grounds to a state-of-the-art tennis facility. Anything you can imagine a posh country club having, Riv doesn’t let you down.
For those of you that don’t pay the gaudy monthly dues, getting a tee time won’t come easy. Guests can only play when accompanied by a member, no exceptions whatsoever.
Obtaining a membership isn’t easy, either, as many wealthy individuals have tried and been turned down. Among other things, there is an interview process, and you need to find a sponsor (current member) who will vouch for you.
In a nutshell, being part of Riviera Country Club puts you in select company. Members are in an extremely enviable position to those who dream of having the means to get in.
To help put into context how big of a deal being a member at Riviera is, take a peek at this golf.com article.
You’ll see what Jordan Spieth had to say about the prospects of having playing privileges at Riviera CC when deliberating on his decision on where to attend college.
To summarize, Jordan stated that the ability to be able to practice and play at the pristine golf course in Pacific Palisades was nearly enough to convince him to ditch his home state of Texas and bolt to the west coast.
Jordan was close to donning the “Trojan colors” at the University of Southern California, and it was all because of Riviera. The lure of Riv was that strong, even for a born and bred Texas Longhorn.
We’ve now made a few references for how immaculate and pure this golf course is. Let’s transition into a section that concentrates on the layout.
Before we start delving into the marquee holes, it’s important to be aware of a few of the course’s traits. For example, holing putts at Riv is tough, mainly because of the Poa Annua grass.
Late in the afternoon when the sun is shining, it can get a little bumpy around the hole, making the 3- and 4-footers a lot more stressful than normal.
While the putting surfaces aren’t the smoothest around, the fairways at Riviera are perfect. Thanks to the Kikuyu grass that transferred itself over to the golf course from the neighboring hillsides, balls tend to sit up in the fairway.
As much as golfers enjoy the “teed up” lies in the fairways at Riviera, it’s that same Kikuyu grass that makes the rough incredibly difficult to hit out of.
Balls generally sink down to the bottom, forcing players to turn to a lofted wedge anytime they find the long grass. The course is tree-lined, with a great mixture of both dogleg lefts and dogleg rights. It doesn’t favor any one type of player over another; it just favors players playing really good, consistent golf.
Whether you are a bomber who grips it and rips it or you’re the type of player who attacks a golf course with premier wedge play and putting – it really doesn’t matter.
There are a few holes you need to get around and make par, and there are a couple that’ll you want to make birdie to avoid losing shots to the field. Take look.
Let’s start glancing at the key holes on the property. While most of the flagship holes are demanding, the opening hole at Riv is about as good of a birdie opportunity as you can find on the PGA Tour.
Perennially in the top 10 for the easiest holes on tour, the opener at Riv is a “gimmie birdie” for those who get their drives to the bottom of the hill.
The greenside bunker in front of the green presents minimal problems for the low handicap players, so you can imagine why the tour pros “here in two” are licking their chops.
It’s about 320 yards to the end of the fairway. Most players will hit 3-wood off the tee and some sort of mid-long iron into the green. Those who don’t make 4 on the 1st hole at Riv will walk off the green feeling like they left one out there.
Hopefully you made birdie at 1, because you’ll need a bit of insurance for the next hole at Riv. Typically, #2 plays as the hardest hole on the course during the annual Genesis Open, and a big factor is the prevailing ocean breeze that is back in the players’ faces.
The tee shot is narrow, and the hole plays long, plus the green is protected by three deep bunkers. At only 25 feet wide, hitting this green in regulation from the fairway is a tall ask.
From the rough, it’s just about impossible.
The furthest point west on the golf course and the place that’s closest to the Pacific Ocean is the tip of the 6th green. This putting surface also happens to be the site of what most would argue is the signature hole of the country club.
It’s 199 yards on the scorecard, but the real symbol of the hole is the sand trap in the middle of the green. You read that correctly; there is a bunker plopped right in the heart of the putting surface.
It is not uncommon for players to have to chip their ball over the “beachy obstacle,” and we’ve seen everything from a hole in one to triple-bogies.
On the PGA Tour in 2014, this green surrendered more “4-putts” than any other, and it actually wasn’t even close. No hole was four-putted more than 13 times that season, while there were 19 such occurrences that year at the 6th hole at Riv.
If you think the bunker in the middle of the green at 6 is a quirky design, wait until you read about the 10th hole. Diabolical is the best adjective that comes to mind when trying to describe what the 10th hole is like. Pros can play the hole 20 times and still have no clue what the best strategy to implement is.
It’s only 315 yards from the tips, so it tempts players to want to hit the big stick. The issue is that bunkers surround the green like sharks circle their prey when they smell blood in the water.
Well-struck approach and chip shots will sometimes fall off the edge of the surface and into the bunkers.
For shots that are even slightly mis-hit, you can go ahead and grab a rake and dig your feet in. You’ll see plenty of birdies and even the occasional eagle. But a double bogey or worse is waiting without hardly blinking an eye.
Have a laugh at this clip of Scott Piercy playing ping pong with the greenside bunkers at the 10th hole during the 2015 Genesis Open. It’ll help remind you that golf is a hard game, even for the pros.
The culminating hole at Riveria CC is a challenging par 4, one that requires players to drive into a blind landing area. The green is positioned in a perfect amphitheater-like setting, making it the scene for plenty of drama.
The fairway slopes from left-to-right, favoring a power fade from right-handed golfers. There are no bunkers around the green, just sticky Kikuyu grass that swallows up most of the approach shots and a gallery of eager spectators. At the 2018 Genesis Open, exactly 25% of the field made bogey or worse here.
Speaking of the Genesis Open, now is the perfect time to evolve our discussion into the PGA Tour event that’s hosted at Riv annually.
The Genesis Open
Originated in 1926, the Los Angeles Open has been around for a while. It was first played at Riviera Country Club in 1929 before it proceeded to bounce around the Los Angeles area.
After experimentations at Los Angeles-area courses such as Rancho Park and Valencia Country Club, the tournament eventually found its home in Pacific Palisades. Other than the 1983 and 1998 editions, every “LA Open” has been contested at Riviera CC since 1973.
We put LA Open in quotations because this tournament has changed names over the years as title sponsors have come and gone. After stints as the Nissan Open and the Northern Trust Open, Genesis stepped in in 2017 and took over, and things have prospered.
After setting a tournament record for largest prize pool in its inaugural year ($7 million in 2017), the 2018 Genesis Open boasted a whopping 7.2-million-dollar purse. Dustin Johnson’s winning share was a tick under $1.3 million, also a tournament record.
In terms of “scoring records” at this golf tournament, that mark belongs to Lanny Wadkins. The Wake Forest alum shot 20 under par in 1985, thrashing the field by seven shots. The lowest single round came back in 1999 when Ted Tryba fired a blistering 61 (-10) in Saturday’s third round.
Scotland’s Macdonald Smith won four titles here from 1928-1934, as did Lloyd Mangrum from 1949-1956. Three-time winners of the PGA Tournament at Riviera include Arnold Palmer and Bubba Watson, while a host of names have won a pair.
Phil Mickelson lost in a playoff at the 2007 Northern Trust Open to Charles Howell III, or he’d be on the list of three-time winners as well. The Lefty reeled off back-to-back wins the following two years in ’08 and ’09.
The year that “Chucky Three Sticks” held off Phil in the playoff was the same year that Rich Beem memorably aced the 14th, famously leaping onto the brand-new red Altima he had just won by sinking the shot.
As far as what else you should know about the Genesis Open goes, it’s always part of the west coast swing on the PGA Tour schedule. It’s always played in the early portion of the year, routinely in the middle of February. The weather is usually perfect, as it is during most parts of the year in the Los Angeles area.
When the Majors and the U.S. Amateur were held here during the summer months in previous years, the temperatures were known to get a bit warm.
Three Majors at Riv
The golfing community is well aware of the Genesis Open at Riviera, as are you after reading the segment above. What many folks forget is that a pair of PGA Championships and a U.S. Open were also played at the classy country club sandwiched between the coastline and downtown LA.
1948 U.S. Open
The legend they called “The Hawk,” otherwise known as Ben Hogan, won four U.S. Opens during his illustrious career. His maiden victory at his country’s national championship came in 1948, the first year the USGA came to Riviera as a host site.
Incidentally, this was also the first year that a U.S. Open was held on the west coast of the country.
Hogan held off a stacked leaderboard that included Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead, who were both breathing down his neck the entire tournament. His total of eight under par shattered the previous record for lowest score in an Open by five shots.
No man eclipsed -8 until Tiger Woods shot -12 at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Also noteworthy form this event, Ted Rhodes became the first African-American to compete in a U.S. Open in 35 years, making the cut and finishing in 51st.
1983 PGA Championship
The 1983 PGA Championship at Riv was owned by Louisiana native Hal Sutton. In fact, the 1983 leading money winner and PGA Tour Player of the Year did just about everything right that season, also winning the Tournament Players Championship (THE PLAYERS) earlier in the year.
After opening with a sizzling round of six under 65, Hal kept his foot on the pedal. Sutton backed up his Thursday 65 with a 66 on Friday, opening up a 3-shot lead heading into the weekend. The graduate of Centenary College would go wire to wire, holding the lead after each and every round of the tournament.
Most importantly, he held the lead after 72 holes on Sunday, and that’s good enough for a spot on the Wanamaker Trophy.
1995 PGA Championship
As difficult a track as Riviera is, you’d never know it by looking at the leaderboard of the 1995 PGA Championship. Taking place from August 10-13, the temperatures were warm, and the ball was flying. Birdies were being made, and low scores were being shot.
The cut was even-par 142, which is the lowest number (in relation to par) to make the cut in the history of the PGA Championship.
Mark O’Meara shot 64-67 and wasn’t even the solo-leader; he was tied with Ernie Els. After O’Meara shot a respectable and steady 69 on Saturday, he went from tied for the lead to trailing by three!
It wouldn’t last long because the Australian sunk a 20-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole, the par-4 18th. This would be another runner-up finish in a Major for Montgomerie after the Scotsman came 2nd at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills the previous summer after losing in a playoff to Ernie Els.
Steve Elkington might have ended his career with only one Major Championship victory, but he did it at a great golf course in electrifying fashion.
2017 U.S. Amateur
The battle for the crown of the 2017 U.S. Amateur Champion was a battle for the ages. Doc Redman, an incoming sophomore at Clemson University, was pitted against a senior-to-be at the University of Texas, Doug Ghim.
The good news was that both men had already earned a berth to the 2018 Masters, but the bad news is that one of these young men had to lose the match.
It’s a match that Redman almost never made it to, as he was in a playoff after two days of stroke-play qualifying just to get into the match-play bracket. Once Doc got in, he played like a man on a mission. For example, Ghim shot a brilliant 67 in the morning 18 of the Championship match – only to be trailing 1-down.
After clawing his way back and retaining a 2-up lead with two to play, Ghim was in great position to birdie the 17th hole (35th of the match) and put his name on the Havemeyer Trophy once and for all.
Until Redman miraculously holed this 60-foot bomb for eagle to send the match to the 36th hole of the day.
The job wasn’t finished for the Clemson Tiger, because he needed to birdie the final hole to push the match to overtime. That’s exactly what the 19-year-old did, making a right-to-left curling 9-footer to square up the match.
After outlasting Ghim on the first playoff hole (the 10th), the incredible duel was over. The U.S. Amateur title was coming to the “purple and orange” in South Carolina.
Tips for the Spectators
Are any of you planning on attending a Genesis Open in the near future? Because if so, you’ll want to be aware of a few important things. For starters, if you aren’t from the area or haven’t experienced the migraine that is LA traffic, just be prepared for the unexpected.
What we mean is that if your hotel is 3 miles from the course, don’t just assume that it’s going to be a quick and painless commute over to the golf course. In fact, it’s probably the exact opposite, because that’s just the way it is in the Los Angeles and Santa Monica areas.
The cool thing is that the city of LA has so much to offer. You’ll have plenty to do and see to pass the time by. We won’t waste time standing in for a tour guide, but we can tell you that anything from beaches and canyon trails to museums and art galleries is within a stone’s throw from the country club.
If you have the itch to hit the links either before or after you watch the pros, there are countless public golf courses in the area. They might not be as luxurious and acclaimed as Riv, but hey, most places aren’t.
As a fan of the sport, it doesn’t get much better than this. When you combine the golf that you can witness with the amenities and attractions nearby, we can’t really think of a better PGA Tournament to take part in.
If you were looking for an excuse to take your significant other to Hollywood around Valentine’s Day, we think we just found you a legitimate reason! Don’t waste any more time; schedule the trip now!
Most avid golf fans are well aware that the George Thomas and William P. Bell co-creation off Sunset Boulevard in Santa Monica, California, is an absolute gem of a golf course. Most of us have watched the Genesis Open take place over the years, marveling at how flawlessly the venue sets up year after year.
The country club takes pride in setting their golf course in advance of the tournament every February, and boy, does it show. It’s the reason that you won’t see a single blade of grass out of place if you ever get to go to the tournament in person.
We pointed out how the club was formed and who was responsible, and we also took you on a tour of the most recognizable holes on the property. The reason one hole doesn’t stand out amongst the rest is because the entire collection of 18 is that good.
We mentioned the Majors Championships that have been played at Riviera and showcased the cherished moments.
The goal was for our valued readers to have a better understanding of the golf course and appreciate how spectacular the country club is. Through the organized sections on this page, we hope that our intentions were accomplished.