The Riviera Country Club
Owning a legendary place on the American golfing landscape, The Riviera Country Club’s famed George Thomas-designed golf course has hosted one U.S. Open, two PGA Championships and a U.S. Senior Open, in addition to serving as the perennial site of the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open. Legends like Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson have all tasted victory here, while celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Dean Martin have long graced its fairways. Humphrey Bogart could often be spotted watching the pros play from under the Sycamore tree by the 12th green, and it was on these historic links that the fresh ocean breezes helped Howard Hughes whittle his handicap down to a four.
Ben Hogan, who won his first U.S. Open at the Riviera in 1948, once remarked, “Some of my most pleasant memories and thoughts are of this wonderful club and magnificent golf course.” Hogan’s feelings are echoed by the world’s best golfers today, most of whom return each year to compete in the Genesis Open.
Scheduled to host the U.S. Amateur in 2017, Riviera remains, in its ninth decade, one of the game’s truly iconic venues.
With golf’s popularity on the rise, and desiring a first-class course for his organization, Los Angeles Athletic Club Vice President Frank A. Garbutt (right) leads the search for the site upon which Riviera is to be built. To purchase the land formerly owned by oil millionaire Alfonzo Bell (left), a syndicate is formed. Final negotiations and financing details for the deal take nearly three years to complete.
Having just finished the design and construction of the nearby Bel-Air Country Club, prominent golf architect George C. Thomas Jr. is, perhaps, uniquely suited to design a world-class course for Riviera. Though initially unimpressed by the fledgling club’s barren Santa Monica Canyon site, Thomas accepts the job under the condition of having a carte-blanche with the project’s budget, and of being allowed to hire William (Billy) P. Bell as Construction Supervisor.
After laboring over fifteen possible course layouts, George Thomas (center in photo at top left) arrives at his final design, with construction commencing under the daily supervision of Billy Bell (at left in top photo). During this time, the renowned golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie (at center in bottom photo) pays a visit to inspect Thomas’s work. Following his tour of the property, Dr. MacKenzie remarks that the site “…was as fine as any I have seen.”, and that Thomas’ design is “As nearly perfect as man could make it.” It is also during 1926 that the formation of the club is made official, with the writing of by-laws, and memberships are made available for purchase.
Culminating an 18-month construction process, the Riviera Country Club officially opens on June 24, 1927, with George Thomas himself hitting the inaugural drive off the first tee. Following this ceremonial shot, a foursome comprised of SCGA champion Paul Hunter, reigning U.S. Amateur champion George Von Elm, future Riviera pro Willie Hunter (the 1921 British Amateur champion) and Los Angeles Country Club pro Vic D’Alberto play the golf course. The total cost of construction amounts to $243,827.63, making Riviera the second most expensive 18-hole layout in the world.
Known as the “Grand Hotel of Golf,” Riviera’s Clubhouse officially opens in 1928, managed by Captain W. J. Brown. Plans commenced between Frank Garbutt, Hal Roach, Will Rogers, and Snowy Baker for the building of the Riviera Polo Club and Equestrian Center, a project which will take over five years to complete. Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford, join Riviera and bring with them a host of Hollywood’s most prominent figures. During this year, Fairbanks makes several efforts to draw national attention to the club by offering purses of up to $1,000 for anyone who can break 70. This includes bringing in a 1927 Open tournament to attract the top players from the east coast.
Based upon its championship design and an ability to accommodate large crowds, Riviera is selected by the Junior Chamber of Commerce (left) to host the 4th Annual Los Angeles Open. Played over a layout modestly upgraded by George Thomas for the occasion, the tournament boasts an enormous $10,000 purse, which is won by MacDonald Smith, with a 285 total.
Bobby Jones plays Riviera and shoots a two-over-par—73. When asked what he thinks of the course Jones remarks, “Riviera? Fine course. But tell me, where do the members play?
The Riviera Polo Club hosts the equestrian events for the Tenth Olympic Games. Imperial cavalries from around the world occupy the club with their officers, generals and prize horses. Baron Nishi of Japan (bottom right) wins the Gold Medal for the Prix des Nations, the highest award in the Equestrian events.
After a course-threatening storm on New Year’s Eve, kikuyu grass is planted on the slopes of the Barranca for its earth-strengthening qualities. It will ultimately become synonymous with Riviera, providing some of the lushest fairways – and thickest rough – in all of golf.
Torrential winter rains strike Los Angeles, sending a six-foot wall of water rampaging through the golf course’s famous Barranca, doing serious damage to holes seven and 13 and completely washing away the alternate fairway at the eighth.
Scenes from the Academy Award nominated film “Blockade”, starring Henry Fonda, are shot at Riviera.
Having won a record 18 PGA Tour events (including an incomprehensible streak of 11 straight) during 1945, Byron Nelson begins the 1946 campaign by claiming the one major title missing from his résumé, the Los Angeles Open. His career goals thus fully achieved, Nelson retires to his Texas ranch the following September.
Ben Hogan begins an 18-month run of success at Riviera that will remain unmatched in golf’s annals. Primarily on the strength of a course record-tying 66 during the second round, Hogan beats a star-studded field to win his second Los Angeles Open, carding a record total of 280 to beat Toney Penna by three.
Ben Hogan defends his title at the Los Angeles Open with a record 275 total, establishing a benchmark which will stand for 27 years.
Six months later, Riviera hosts the first United States Open ever contested west of the Rockies, the USGA choosing the club for its “…classic contours, its experience in holding big tournaments and its beautiful canyon setting unexcelled for spectator viewing.” On a course little altered for the event, Ben Hogan wins, yet again, setting another tournament record with a 278 total, good enough to beat his close friend Jimmy Demaret by three. Hosting three epic Hogan victories in 18 months, Riviera will forever be known as “Hogan’s Alley.”
Under perhaps the most difficult weather conditions in tournament history, Hall-of-Famer Lloyd Mangrum wins the first of his four Los Angeles Open titles, shooting 284 to defeat Dutch Harrison by three. A decorated World War II veteran, Mangrum – who grew up in Los Angeles – takes the lead with a scorching second-round 66, then wears pajamas beneath his golf clothes to fight off the oppressive cold during the final-round 70 which clinches victory.
In one of the most dramatic golf tournaments ever played, Ben Hogan unexpectedly returns from his near-fatal, 1949 car accident to challenge for a fourth L.A. Open title. Closing with three straight 69s, Hogan appears destined for perhaps the greatest comeback win of all time before Sam Snead birdies the final two holes to tie him at 280. In an 18-hole playoff delayed a week by both bad weather and the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, Snead shoots 72 to defeat Hogan by four to claim his second Los Angeles title.
Follow The Sun, a movie dramatizing Ben Hogan’s comeback from his 1949 car accident, films many of its most prominent scenes at Riviera. Other films, such as Pat and Mike, (1950), starring club members Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and one of the finest female golfers of the day, Babe Zaharias, shoots the film’s pivotal tournament scenes at the club. In 1953, a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy, The Caddy, also features cameos by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ben Hogan and other famous golfers.
Future Hall-of-Famer Tommy Bolt, still a little-known upstart, wins one of the most exciting L.A. Opens on record, defeating Dutch Harrison and Jack Burke Jr. in an 18-hole playoff after the trio deadlock in regulation at 289. The playoff becomes necessary after Bolt birdies the 71st and 72nd holes, Harrison birdies the 72nd by rifling an heroic 3 wood to 18 inches, and Burke gives away certain victory by three-putting the final green from 30 feet.
With country club sports other then golf quickly growing in popularity, the Riviera Tennis Club is constructed in 1963. ATP Tour co-founder Myron McNamara is the man primarily responsible for the club’s design, and most of its early success. With 24 courts (including two clay), locker room, lounge and dining facilities, the RTC quickly earns its place among the leading tennis clubs on the West Coast.
Willie Hunter retires as Riviera’s golf professional, a position he has held since 1936. In addition to his fine playing résumé, which included victories in the 1921 British Amateur and the PGA Tour’s 1936 National Match Play Championship, Hunter’s legacy at Riviera includes saving the golf course from catastrophic flood damage in 1939 and the club itself, from bankruptcy, during World War II. Willie is replaced by his son Mac, who retains the position until 1973.
In yet another legendary Los Angeles Open, 61-year-old Sam Snead turns back the clock with a third-round 66 to launch himself into a dramatic Sunday battle with Dave Stockton and John Mahaffey. A birdie at the 17th astonishingly pulls Snead within one of the lead before Stockton wins the title with perhaps the most memorable shot in tournament history, a 244-yard 3 wood from the left rough to within 12 feet of the 18th hole. Snead will continue playing at Riviera right through 1976 (when he shot an opening-round 67), marking one of the longest runs of an athlete and playing field in the history of the sport.
On the strength of a near-flawless 68, three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin overtakes Tom Watson on Sunday to capture the Los Angeles Open with a new 72-hole Riviera scoring record of 272. The win represents one of six top-10 PGA Tour finishes at Riviera for Irwin, a notable tough course player who will also win the U.S. Senior Open at the club in 1998.
Famous as one of golf’s great front-runners, California native Johnny Miller wins his one and only Los Angeles Open by tying for the 54-hole lead at 202, then closing with a 68 for a 270 total, good enough to edge Tom Weiskopf by two. Though somewhat past his indomitable prime of the mid-1970s, Miller will continue to win PGA Tour events into his mid-40s before becoming a popular TV broadcaster.
Already a Los Angeles Open champion in 1980, Tom Watson wins at Riviera for a second time, and in dramatic fashion. Initially Watson gets a great break: leading by two strokes with two holes to play, Johnny Miller closes with back-to-back bogeys, allowing Watson to join him in a playoff. There, after getting up-and-down from bunkers at the 15th and 16th, Watson holes a 45-foot birdie putt at the 17th to secure victory.
Thirty-five years after hosting the 1948 U.S. Open, Riviera welcomes its second Major championship, the 1983 PGA, which is won in an exciting Sunday duel by 25-year-old up-and-comer Hal Sutton. Opening with rounds of 65-66, Sutton leads throughout but is challenged late in the final round by both Jack Nicklaus and Peter Jacobsen. Nicklaus, on the strength of a closing 66, eventually moves to within one before Sutton bravely pars the final four holes to hang on, edging the Golden Bear by a single stroke.
Playing under some of the most benign course conditions in tournament history, Lanny Wadkins cards rounds of 63 and 64 during a four day blitz that earns him his second Los Angeles Open title. His 264 total routs Hal Sutton by seven strokes, and sets a 72-hole Riviera scoring record which remains unequaled to this day.
In a Los Angeles Open frequently recalled for being the PGA Tour debut of 16-year-old Tiger Woods, Riviera fan favorite Fred Couples wins for the second time in three years, this time defeating Davis Love III on the second hole of sudden death.
Couples manages the comparatively rare feat of hitting his opening Sunday drive out-of-bounds before righting the ship to close with a 70 – just enough to get into the playoff, which he wins with a birdie.
Having already edged Fred Couples by two to claim the 1994 L.A. Open title, Corey Pavin becomes the first man since Ben Hogan in 1947-48 to win back-to-back titles at Riviera. His 268 total includes rounds of 67-66-68-67, allowing him to pull away from Kenny Perry and Jay Don Blake down the stretch. In a convenient repetition of history, Riviera is also scheduled to host the 1995 PGA Championship, allowing Pavin the unique opportunity to further match Hogan’s feat of three wins at the club within two calendar years. Pavin, however, misses the PGA cut, clearing the way for a thrilling tournament which sees South Africa’s Ernie Els lead by three after 54 holes, then Australian Steve Elkington and Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie ultimately battle their way into sudden death. Elkington promptly holes a 25-footer on the first playoff hole (the 18th) to claim his first Major championship.
Hall-of-Famer and six-time Major champion Nick Faldo, whose pinpoint style of play has long drawn comparisons to Ben Hogan, posts a pair of weekend 68s to win the now-Nissan Open by three strokes over Southern California native and defending champion Craig Stadler. Though the 39-year-old Faldo is the reigning Masters champion and appears very much at the top of his game, this will ultimately prove his final professional victory worldwide.
With the golf course groomed to a U.S. Open standard, Riviera hosts its first United States Senior Open, an event featuring both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in the field. Raymond Floyd leads for three-and-a-half days before fading to 3rd on the final nine, leaving Hale Irwin and Argentina’s Vicente Fernandez to battle it out. Fernandez posts a remarkable final-round 68 to take the lead before Irwin birdies the 16th to catch him, then rolls home a dramatic 12-footer to birdie the 18th and win by one.
At least partially atoning for his Sunday loss at the 1995 PGA Championship, Ernie Els wins the 1999 Nissan Open, carding a closing 68 in windy conditions to beat Ted Tryba, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III by two. Both Tryba (who fired a course-record 61 on the final Saturday) and Woods have chances to tie Els at the 18th, but both instead make bogey.
Having already claimed the 2003 Nissan Open in a playoff with Charles Howell III, reigning Masters champion Mike Weir joins Ben Hogan and Corey Pavin as the only players ever to win back-to-back at Riviera by taking the 2004 event in an exciting duel with Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama. Weir holds a commanding five-stroke lead after 54 holes but barely holds off the charging Maruyama on Sunday, ultimately getting deftly up-and-down from off the 18th green to seal his victory.
After losing the 2007 Nissan Open in a playoff with Charles Howell III, San Diego’s Phil Mickelson ends a career-long drought at Riviera by winning the newly renamed Northern Trust Open. After opening with rounds of 68-64, Mickelson spends the weekend battling 2000 U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney, who actually moves briefly ahead on Sunday before several missed putts open the door for Mickelson to win by two, with a 272 total.
Phil Mickelson becomes only the seventh man to win back-to-back Northern Trust Open titles, carding an opening round 63 and a third round 62 en route to the victory. Despite this low scoring, Mickelson ultimately needed late Sunday birdies at the 16th and 17th holes to edge a charging Steve Stricker by one. The event was also highlighted by 49-year-old Fred Couples, a two-time former champion, who played in the final group on Sunday and came to the 18th needing a birdie to force a playoff, before ultimately tying for third.
Phil Mickelson entered the field with a chance to join Ben Hogan and Corey Pavin as the only players ever to win three consecutive starts at Riviera, but the week instead belonged to 2009 runner-up, Steve Stricker, who carded a splendid 65 in a driving Friday rain en route to a two-shot victory. The win is Stricker’s fourth in his last 15 starts, and moves him up to No. 2 in the world for the second time in his career. This is also the Northern Trust debut of former Los Angeles Laker legend Jerry West, who begins a four-year run as the tournament’s Executive Director.
Despite another impressive Northern Trust performance by 51-year-old perennial Riviera favorite Fred Couples, American-born Australian Aaron Baddeley is the only player to break 70 all four days, eventually carding a Sunday 69 to claim a two-stroke victory. Baddeley edges another long-established star, 47-year-old Vijay Singh, whose chances of victory are derailed by untimely bogeys at the 12th and 13th. Couples, who charges into the early Sunday lead with birdies on the first three holes, eventually fades to a 73, tying for 7th.
For the first time in club history, Riviera hosts the N.C.A.A. Men’s Division One Golf Championship, an event that includes 30 top teams plus individual qualifiers over six days of combined stroke and match play. The team title is won by the University of Texas led by future PGA Tour star, Jordan Spieth, and South African, Dylan Frittelli, who holes a 25-foot birdie putt on the final green to clinch the title. Individual honors are claimed by the University of Illinois’ Thomas Pieters of Belgium, who posts a five-under-par 208 total.
Powerful Bubba Watson wins his first Northern Trust Open, posting back-to-back bogey-free rounds of 64 on Saturday and Sunday to defeat fellow long-hitter Dustin Johnson by two. Remarkably, Watson’s 15-under-par total includes three double bogeys, two of which come during his first three holes on Thursday. Continuing his hot play beyond Riviera, Watson goes on to win his second Masters Green Jacket title eight weeks later.
Riviera became the site of James Hahn’s first career PGA Tour victory. Many were poised to win the event as they came down #18, but Hahn was able to hold on during difficult weekend scoring conditions to qualify for a playoff with Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. Surrounded by a field of golf stars Hahn, a California native who once sold shoes to fund his golf career, closed with a tough par for a 2-under 69. After Casey was eliminated at the second hold, Hahn made a birdie on the third to claim victory and earn his first trip to the Masters.