Historic Riviera lives up to the hype


LOS ANGELES – Because of journalistic curiosity and an affinity for storytelling and a devotion to serving the reader and a yearning to hear the inside scoop and a desire to wrap my brain around these unique surroundings – because of all of these things – I bellied up to the bar in the Riviera clubhouse Wednesday afternoon.

Hey, sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get a story.

This is my 12th year on the golf beat, but my first time covering the Northern Trust Open and, more importantly, my first time at The Riv, which means I’m crossing a big one off the bucket list.

Don’t get me wrong: I already know plenty about the place. I know it’s remained a venerable old track first designed by George C. Thomas Jr. in 1926. I know it’s called Hogan’s Alley in honor of Ben Hogan’s adoration for the course, having won here four times, including the 1948 U.S. Open. I know it’s held three major championships, the most recent being the 1995 PGA Championship won by Steve Elkington.

Basically, I know everything that anyone could learn simply by clicking on the club’s Wikipedia page and spending two minutes skimming through the details.

Which is exactly my point. Now that I’m here – and I mean finally here, after battling rush hour traffic on the 405 – I wanted to know the ins and outs of the place. What makes it tick. The best tales of years gone by. How much the club means to both the membership and those employed here.

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So I huffed and puffed my way up the towering incline from the course to the clubhouse, caught my breath and sat down at the bar – because, after all, where better to hear details and other tales, no matter how exaggerated, then at the bar?

And I was told that ... it’s closed on Wednesday of tournament week.

Or in local terms, the wait for a drink is longer than getting home on the 405.

Instead, I walked through the clubhouse, which also serves as part-museum. You can’t turn a corner in the mammoth old building without running into some sort of memorabilia, from Hogan artifacts to those celebrating Fred Couples, who’s making his 33rd career start here this week.

The addition of those remembrances to the walls are some of the very few alterations around here.

“It’s pretty much the same as it was in 1926 when it was established,” one longtime employee told me on the condition of anonymity. “You come in behind the walls and it’s one of the few places that hasn’t changed very much.”

There’s a Dean Martin Room upstairs in the clubhouse, directly overlooking Martin’s old parking spot. He was a popular member here – and not just for his affable demeanor. As the story goes, Martin would often need to leave for a show directly after losing a match to fellow members. So he’d leave a blank check with the locker room attendant and once his final losses were tallied, one of the members would fill it in.

Today’s players still love this place, though less for the historical quality of the club’s inside and more for its immaculateness on the outside.

Prior to his pro-am round on Wednesday, Graham DeLaet took to Twitter and listed his five favorite non-major courses on the PGA Tour. Riviera topped the list.

“It’s just pure golf,” he explained later. “You can’t fake it around here. There’s history here. It’s just mint. There’s nothing tricked up about it.”

Those are the types of buzzwords which will swirl around here throughout the week. In fact, as long as you’re not at the clubhouse bar on Wednesday of tournament week, there could be a pretty nifty drinking game constructed during the course of play, every time one of these phrases is uttered:

“It’s a classic golf course ...”

“... everything you’d ever want ...”

“... they just leave it the way it is ...”

“... old style ...”

“... old school ...”

“... it’s right there in front of you.”

This isn’t a commentary on the upcoming coverage for the week. It’s just what everyone says, year after year.

“It’s one of my favorites,” Luke Donald explained. “It’s a classic golf course.” (Drink.) “I wish every week was a little bit like this – sunshine, great design, small greens, firm. It just has everything.”

“They don't tweak it,” said Bubba Watson. “They just leave it the way it is.” (Chug.) “They leave it here, and they let the grass and the winds and the humps and bumps of the greens define their golf course instead of trying to make it extra long.”

“It doesn't change much over the years,” Bill Haas added. “It's right there in front of you.” (Guzzle.) “The par 3s are difficult. I think you've got to get those, No. 4, if you can play those well; the par 5s, obviously everybody takes advantage of those.”

After walking the course myself for the first time Wednesday, I can confirm all of the exaltation about the course is true – and then some.

That’s right – sometimes the hyperbole isn’t hyperbole at all. Sometimes it’s worth the hype.

And for those still concerned that this place might not be all it’s cracked up to be, don’t worry: The clubhouse bar is open the rest of the week.