Courses like Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Merion and Augusta National owe much of their greatness to the unique properties they sit on. Riviera Country Club, opened in 1927 and home of this week’s The Genesis Invitational, belongs with Winged Foot, Chicago Golf Club and TPC Sawgrass in a category of courses that get less of an assist from the land. Their greatness is attributable primarily to the imaginations of their architects.
Riviera’s clubhouse stands high on a ridge overlooking the course, and Hole Nos. 1, 2, 9, 10 and 18 have portions elevated upon the hillside. But the rest of Riviera is fairly level, and George Thomas used the flattish valley floor as an unencumbered stage upon which to choreograph some of golf’s most artistic and strategic numbers. One of the show’s biggest hits comes at the fourth, a prodigious yet rarely televised hole that Ben Hogan called: “the greatest par 3 in America.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE HOLE
Riviera Country Club sits in an enclosed valley, and the fourth seems to slide off a canyon wall on the right with its green set behind a gorgeously sculpted bunker spanning 60 yards from front to back. The entire green complex falls right to left, and the putting surface, depicted in the StrackaLine heat map (below), follows the same tilt with only the left side level enough to place hole locations.
WHY ITS DESIGN IS IMPRESSIVE
This is Thomas’ interpretation of the Redan, one of golf’s most widely utilised par-3 concepts where the slope of the hole and the green contours work the ball away from the angle of play. The massive scale of the fronting bunker and the tie-in with the canyon, however, put Rivera’s fourth in a class of its own. So does its length—playing at more than 230 yards into the prevailing wind (most Redans play under 200 yards), even the pros need to hit mid- or long-iron tee shots to a green that’s just over 5,000 square feet. In an age when holes that require long, accurate iron-play have become rarities on the PGA Tour, the fourth continues to hold the professionals to the same high standard as it has in the nine decades it has hosted tour events and majors.
The right-to-left cant of the fairway leading into the green indicates balls that land there will funnel onto the green (the way amateurs should play the hole), but that doesn’t always happen in February when L.A. weather causes the Kikuyu grass to be soft and sticky. Most shots landing short or right of the putting surface stay there, often above the hole. That means the pros must generally fire directly over the bunker at the green, where the putting surface’s steep right-side contour pushes shots down the slope to the left, often off the edge.
It adds up to a challenging tee shot. So challenging, in fact, that Riviera’s fourth is the most difficult par-3 green to hit on tour, with only 33 percent finding it in regulation since 2016. The hole has played to a stroke-average over par each of the past five tournaments, but, on the bright side, because balls usually finish so close to the putting surface, it also has yielded the most off-the-green hole-outs (40) of any hole on tour since 2016.