Every morning, the same light that falls on the Pacific Ocean fills the lobby of the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. The clean, gold glow hits the statue of Ben Hogan overlooking the 18th green and washes over the Clubhouse. Uninformed critics of LA might point to the city’s obsession with trends, but longtime locals know it is places like Riviera that define the essence of the West Coast: Effortlessly impeccable and absolutely timeless.
Set upon the beautiful Pacific Palisades, the Riviera Country Club opened in 1927 with one of the most lauded golf courses in the world, and it’s been ranked among the Top 100 every year since. Not least among its distinctions are the winners—and one particular non-winner—who have made the course their own. Chief among the champs is Ben Hogan, who won here so many times that they called the course “Hogan’s Alley.” At the other end of the fairway, so to speak, is Tiger Woods, who’s never won at Riviera—a fact that just adds to the club’s lore.
When it opened, the Riviera Country Club set the bar for service and standards on the West Coast, subsequently attracting a membership that included Hollywood’s best and brightest, as it continues to do today. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were among the first to join, and it wasn’t long before names like Bogart and Disney were added to the list. Dean Martin partied here (both on and off the course), Harpo Marx kept them laughing in the lounge and young Elizabeth Taylor trained here to ride horses for her role in National Velvet. Today the illustrious memberships haven’t stopped, even if the scope has broadened a bit.
“Traditionally our members have always come from entertainment, both in film and music,” says Michael Yamaki, Riviera’s chief executive, and the man to talk to regarding membership. “But now we’re combining that with the financial world—and it’s no longer just an LA affair. We have members from the UK and mainland Europe, top business leaders from Japan, Korea and China, and top execs from South America and South Africa who fly in to play golf, entertain clients or just to get away.”
The Riviera clubhouse has 30 guest rooms for members, along with a great restaurant and bar. There’s the tremendous Riviera Tennis Club here as well, built in 1963 and designed by ATP co-founder Myron McNamara. There are quite a few amenities at Riviera, but the tradition of excellence begins, without question, on the golf course.
When George C. Thomas arrived to build the Riviera Country Club’s golf course in 1926, he had his work cut out for him. The land, it has to be said, required extensive restructuring. If there was an advantage to the property’s challenges, it’s that it inspired the best from Thomas, who arguably produced his finest work here. The current owners have gone to great lengths to improve and restore much of the course, meaning it’s playing better now than it has in decades.
Tighter controls on the invitation-only membership numbers and improved course maintenance have it in amazing shape, and that can only please the privileged few who golf here.
Host to the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open (historically called the LA Open), the course has a great history. Babe Zaharias become the first woman to play in a PGA event (1938) there and it hosted the first U.S. Open west of the Rockies in 1948. It was also the stage of one of Byron Nelson’s last tournament victories, at the 1946 LA Open. Riviera is where Jack Nicklaus earned his first professional paycheck (for $33.33, in the 1962 LA Open), where Tiger Woods made his PGA Tour debut in 1992 (as an amateur), and where Ben Hogan recorded three victories in 16 months (the 1947 and 1948 LA Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open), making Hogan’s Alley his own. During construction, Dr. Alister MacKenzie dropped by and was reported to have exclaimed that Thomas’ design was “as nearly perfect as man could make it.” We agree. Among its challenges:
A tremendous opening hole, with a tee that sits 70 feet above a belt-tightening fairway. The “boomerang” green curves around a bunker, making pin location a critical part of drive strategy. Birdie is possible, but double-bogeys are as likely as Fred Couples and Tommy Armour have found.
Hogan liked this hole, telling the LA Times that it was “the greatest par-3 in America.” The first Redan hole built west of the Mississippi, it often plays into the ocean breeze and requires serious flight control and bunker awareness.
Aside from a bit of length (199 yards), this par-3 seems to offer little challenge—except for one thing: There’s a bunker in the middle of the green. It’s a George Thomas original, and it’s been a point of controversy since the course opened. If the pin is back-left, the challenge is even more pronounced, and should you be facing birdie on the far side of the sand, a chip shot seems mighty tempting—but it’s not advisable. Better to do like Craig Stadler, who avoided the issue completely in 1996 by making his first PGA Tour-sanctioned ace here.
Two fairways offer two distinct strategies: Trust precision down the narrow and boldly contoured left for an easy second shot if you land happy, or go for the fences on the right with a long follower across hazards.
The excellent website on course architecture, golfclubatlas.com, offers that this hole may be “the pinnacle of golf course architecture.” Padraig Harrington agrees, posting on his online diary that “There are a number of great holes on this course, but my personal favourite is the tenth hole… I would put this hole down as one of the best holes we play all year; any course I design will have a similar type of hole on it.” Short for a par-4 (315 yards), it’s tempting to go for the green. But the majority of those who try miss, and the price they pay can be substantial—especially if they miss right. With a narrow putting surface that tilts and slopes away, it’s a difficult landing in any case. As an exercise in strategy and execution, this is one of the best anywhere.
Just as No.1 plays down the property, so No.18 returns back up the hill to the Clubhouse. The tee shot at this par-4 is a semi-blind rise up a steep 60-foot-tall embankment to the fairway. The nestled green is a fine place to finish, as Steve Elkington would surely agree. His 25-foot putt in a two-way playoff against Colin Montgomerie earned him the 1995 PGA Championship Elkington’s first and, to date, only Major.
The cheerful greeting at the secure front gate, the professionally courteous reminder by a doorman to ensure that all shirts are tucked in, and the astute table service in the club’s main dining room aren’t throwbacks, they’re business as usual at the Riviera Country Club. Likewise, the décor, appointments and overall feel of the place are definitively “now” without seeming forced. The clubhouse halls are lined with an incredible array of art and photographs that tell Riviera’s story: stills of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy during the filming of Pat & Mike; faces of victory (and defeat) over decades of competition at the Northern Trust Open; and a wide array of shots of celebs and top golfers visiting over the years. But the Riviera Country Club is no museum. All of the photos, trophies and paintings actively engage the club’s present, rather than just documenting its past—and that’s because the Riviera Country Club is as happening as it always has been. The very essence of the West Coast, the Riviera is where the city’s—and the world’s—best want to be.
For more information on the Riviera Country Club, please visit therivieracountryclub.com.