Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that is
Must be even more like Los Angeles.
— “Contemplating Hell.” Bertolt Brecht.
“It’s a great place to live,” wrote Mark Twain about Los Angeles, “but I wouldn’t want to visit there.” But that’s what the the PGA Tour is doing this week at Riviera for the LA Open. I worked at Riviera some years ago for a season, and it is really one of the toughest—and best—golf courses on tour, if not worldwide. The reason for that is not due to any of the reasons generally cited when talking about a golf course: it isn’t particularly long, at least by tour standards; there aren’t any water hazards; and there’s really only one blind shot—though it’s maybe one of the most famous blind shots in golf. Simultaneously Riviera does a lot of damage to scoring averages and yet is consistently praised by the professionals year-in and year-out. The list of champions at Riviera is basically a list of Hall-of-Famers, from Ben Hogan and Sam Snead to Phil Mickelson and DL3. Yet for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the track off Sunset has been the Boulevard of Broken Dreams—neither has won here throughout their careers. Riviera, in short, is much like the city that it is set within: it’s different.
Start with the setting: the first tee is right outside the clubhouse on a small patch of grass elevated 75 or 80 feet above the fairway. The suggestion is both majestic and comforting; on a smogless day the Pacific is visible miles away, with the entire course spread below like a map—but rather than intimidating, the implication is aristocratic. All of this splendor exists for you; the tee box displays a fantastic view that nonetheless is maximally convenient. It’s about five steps from the locker room to the tee; there’s no struggle to achieve the vantage. That peculiar amalgam of spectacular natural scenery bent to serve aristocratic privilege of course just is Los Angeles. From there the first hole is short and fairly easy: just as the city of its setting can appear to new arrivals like an Eden, with its lovely weather and the vast quantities of surface politesse spilled about in every public encounter, so the first hole, though it is a five-par, makes Riviera seem like the day will be a cakewalking, lull-inducing stroll to par or better.
But that’s just what Riviera, or rather the original architect George Thomas, wants the golfer to think. The whiplash induced by the second hole rivals only the speed at which someone in Los Angeles will turn from introducing themselves to inquiring about your car, your house, and your yearly income. The second is a brutally hard hole, demanding a long tee shot over a dogleg, then requiring an uphill second shot to a narrow green surrounded on one side by a jungle and on the other a deep-and-steep bunker. And then the green itself is weird, with odd breaks. On the scorecard, the first hole is ranked seventeenth-most difficult, but the second hole is the most difficult. Second is first, as the loopers at Riviera say.
Every hole from then onwards has its oddities: both of the three-pars on the front side are some of the most unusual in golf. The fourth is well-known as one of Ben Hogan’s favorite holes; there isn’t a purer example, I think, of a Redan-style green anywhere other than the 15th hole at North Berwick, the original, or the fourth hole at the National Golf Links of America, where C.B. Macdonald first copied Berwick’s original. The sixth might be the craziest hole found outside of miniature golf: there’s a bunker in the middle of the green. Missing on the wrong side means either putting around the bunker or chipping over it, as Phil Mickelson once did some years ago. The eighth hole has two different fairways, meaning the player needs to choose a path before teeing off, and the tenth might be one of the most fun short holes in the world; it’s only 315 yards, but the green is tiny. The eighteenth is one of the most storied finishing hole in golf: in 1974, Dave Stockton hit a three-wood from 247 yards—it’s a four-par—and sank the putt to steal the tournament from Sam Snead, who by the way was 61 at the time. The tee shot is blind, straight up the hill out of the canyon you descended into after hitting your first shot back on the first tee.
That isn’t even to talk about the fact that the entire course—because it is set within a canyon whose lower reaches open to the ocean—slopes subtly towards the Pacific, meaning that putts can break the opposite of what they might look, nor the peculiar kikuyu grass that can grab a club in the rough. Nor the barranca grass infesting various swales that take the place of water hazards. What all of this means is that the golf course, with all of its quirks, rewards veteran players and not rookies, and the list of champions at Riviera, as mentioned, reflects that fact. Like Twain says about Los Angeles, Riviera smiles on those who’ve been there awhile—which is to say, as Bertolt Brecht might have had he thought more about Ben Hogan and less about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the winner in Los Angeles is usually the devil you know.