Since I ended my golf sabbatical almost 10 years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of golf course architecture and what makes a golf course “good”. At it’s most basic and stripped down level, a good golf course is good because of how it makes you feel. It could be a memory or a special round that you played that keeps you coming back. It could be a bit of scenery that leaves you in awe, or a time you made that hole-in-one. In a way, because of this subjectivity, I hate the idea of golf course rankings. But there are most definitely some things that separate tour stops from your local goat track. Here are the criteria for Grading the Golf Course.
Setting (15 points) – The setting of a course is the most basic variable in whether or not it will be good. I’m fairly confident that given the grounds of Cypress Point or Bandon Dunes, that I could put a very serviceable course on it. I’m also sure Alister MacKenzie himself would create an unplayable monstrosity given an awful plot with poor drainage next to a garbage dump. Sandy soil, great views and striking features all contribute to this score.
Test of Golf (15 points) – Some courses are tougher than others. Some courses are artificially tough and some are just brutal even in non-tournament condition. Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, for example, setup significantly harder when the U.S. Open is played than the Farmers or Pro-Am are in town. This will be graded on how the golf course is hard, rather than why the golf course is hard. If the scores plummet after some rain, or if the rough is just too high and it penalizes a good shot that just rolls into the first cut, it’s not the right kind of hard. A player should be rewarded for good strategy and punished for bad shots or big risks.
Design (20 points) – It’s a difficult thing to judge the design of a course without knowing what the architect was thinking, but there are some things you can see, even from your TV. Beyond the land, what makes a course like Pebble Beach so amazing is the routing they took with the holes. The prevailing winds and ocean shore are factored in to every hole location. At Sawgrass, the 18th hole is a beauty because of the multitude of options; do you take the water out of play and risk the awful right rough? If you go right, can you afford to go at the pin with water left? It’s small cues like this that make a big difference in the overall ranking of the course.
Bonus - This is whatever can’t really be attributed to the other scores. If a course is good in spite of it’s setting, test or design; this is where it will show up.
Now, on to Riviera
Setting (8) – Riviera lacks some of the natural wonder that makes a golf course special, it’s not flat, but it doesn’t exactly drop your jaw. The soil is almost assuredly standard Southern California soil. It’s probably fairly heavy with clay since it’s right in the heart of the greater Los Angeles area and much of the land has been developed for suburban housing. The location is also a blessing being in the Santa Monica Canyon, as the natural rolling terrain provide ample opportunity to create great holes with minimal dirt movement.
Test of Golf (13) – Riviera is a perfect example of how a golf course can be difficult without being ridiculous. My biggest issue with the U.S. Open is the “hard at all costs” mentality of the USGA when setting up the course. The rough is grown out to nearly half a foot and the fairways are too often shrunken down. Riviera, at only ~7200 yards, is a tremendous example of how a course can be hard without tricking up the daily design. Fairways are tight, but there are no 500 yard par 4′s and the rough is hard because of the grass type and not just the length. Kikuyu grass is notorious in golf circles for the random growth patterns and it’s ability to “catch” a club coming through the rough.
Design (17) – George C. Thomas Jr. is the architect credited with the design, but this course has facets of the greatest classic courses in the world throughout. The redan style fourth hole is the first example on the west coast. A redan, which forces the player to attack from the side rather than the front, was initially created at North Berwick (Scotland) and brought to prominence by C.B> McDonald at National Golf Links of America. While the fourth is a a great example of Thomas’s design chops, the tenth hole is my vote the greatest short par 4 in America. Before technology shrunk this hole (which plays around 300 yards), precision was key. But with players able to reach the green with a 3 wood, the hole is a different beast, and it stands the test of time. Should you choose to lay up, fairway bunkers pigeonhole you into one of two areas with either a half-wedge and a bad angle or an iron onto a tiny green. The slender green sits perpendicular to the direction of the hole, and makes approach angle imperative. If you chose to go for it, the green is surrounded by tough kikuyu grass and slopes towards a full-length bunker that sits on the low side of the hole. It’s among the great examples of how complex the game of golf is. Each shot presents new decisions to make and challenges to overcome for each path.
Bonus (5) – The soil at Rivera isn’t very good, or hospitable to high traffic turfgrass. The grounds looked great and the course was in amazing shape.
43/50 - Riviera shines with a classic design on a less than desirable plot of land. George C. Thomas Jr. never fully matched the brilliance he flashed at Rivera, but was credited with an overhaul of the Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, which has since earned many Top 100 accolades. He also designed the Bel-Air Country Club, which is often cited as one of the premier golf courses in California. The major takeaway from RCC is that tight fairways and long rough aren’t the only way to test the worlds best players. New takes on classic holes and an array of tempting risk/reward options throughout make this gem stand the test of time after nearly a century.