It is unfortunate that the Northern Trust Open is overshadowed because of timing. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the WGC Match Play steal much of the thunder that is deserving of the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
They have more appeal to the casual fan. Pebble Beach shows celebrities and amazing scenery. The WGC Match Play is the first event of the year where the top-global talent assembles in one place.
No other course truly embodies the spirit of the game better than Riviera. The challenge of the sport is more mental rather than physical. Riviera's layout by George Thomas emphasizes the mental aspect of the challenge. It forces players to think about their strategy on each hole. It provides temptation to play shots that are more risky than they may seem.
Bomb and gouge golf does not work at Riviera. Emphasis is put on having a good angle to approach the greens from. For example, the 10th hole is only 315 yards and easily reachable from the tee. However the green is very narrow, the slopes severe and it is heavily guarded by bunkers. If you go for it, then to miss a par will be tough—let alone a birdie.
The first hole is also a great example of strategic golf. It is a par-five that is only 500 yards, and played from an elevated tee. For the pros, it is an easy hole to birdie as they will be able to reach in two easily.
However, the next four holes are a very tough stretch. It may be tempting to try to stick the pin for an easy eagle putt, despite the risk of the shot.
It is a course that will burn a player for being too aggressive. It will also prevent a passive player from scoring well. The course needs to be played with a careful balance of safe and risky shots. The decision on when to take a risk is never blatantly obvious like it is at so many other venues.
Each hole retains this theme, while being unique at the same time. It is a masterpiece of golf-course architecture.
Riviera is a former host course of the US Open. Many legendary players have won on these grounds.
It is known as "Hogan's Alley" for Ben Hogan's four victories on the course. Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Billy Casper, Fred Couples, Johnny Miller and Phil Mickelson are among past winners. It was the first tournament that Jack Nicklaus won prize money in—and the first tournament Tiger Woods ever played in on tour.
The course manages to remain a legitimate challenge for the professionals despite not having any water hazards, having mostly generous fairways and not being ridiculously long. It is a testament to the design philosophy of George C. Thomas. The intended challenge of the course still remains—despite advances in technology that have occurred.
Labeling the course is not possible either. It may be called a shot-makers course by some, but that really isn't fair. No particular style of golfer is rewarded.
Hogan and Palmer couldn't be more contrasting in styles, and they both have won multiple times. The same could be said of Phil Mickelson and Corey Pavin, who each captured back-to-back victories. The winner will be the player that has the best combination of strategy and execution.
You will not see celebrities hacking it up at Riviera. You will not see a drunken crown hoarded into an enclosed stadium around a par-three. There are no island greens or seaside views to speak of.
What you will see is a course that is a perfect test of golf in every aspect. Perhaps, most amazing is that we mortals could play the course without needing a calculator and four dozen golf balls to complete the round.