Geographically, it is as American as the Grand Canyon, being firmly situated in Los Angeles’ Westside, not far from the legendary Sunset Strip and being a playground of sorts for every mega movie star who has crossed the silver screen.
It is The Riviera Country Club, home of this week’s Genesis Invitational on the PGA TOUR, and arguably the favourite course of anyone who’s anyone in the elite world of golf.
Here is how great Riviera is: Jack Nicklaus never won there and Tiger Woods has yet to – and still everyone sings its praises.
But if we could return to the original point of Riviera being as American as the Grand Canyon, an asterisk is required. It surely is American by its locale, but it belongs to golf’s grandest champions who’ve travelled from international ports to claim it for all who love this game.
From England, Sir Nick Faldo: “If you could only play one golf course for the rest of your life, this would be one of the choices. It’s got enough variety that, unless you were (Ben) Hogan and you hit your ball in the same divots, then it will play pretty different every single day.”
From South Africa, Ernie Els: “Definitely one of my all-time favourites. I love the vibe at Riviera and I’m a big fan of the design, the way the course flows and the angles they have with the greens.”
And from Australia, Adam Scott: “I love this place. To win (twice) with incredible fields, an amazing atmosphere out here, it’s a special memory for me. The course is fantastic.”
Faldo (1997), Els (1999), and Scott (2005, 2020) have won at Riviera, part of a parade of international champions crowned at this stately venue that dates to 1926. Humphrey Bogart used to stand beneath a sycamore tree on the 12th hole and watch Hogan and others play the Los Angeles Open, which was how the tournament was known previously. Walt Disney and Dean Martin were members there, but for golf purists the visitors who’ve made significant contributions through the years are golfers who hail from foreign lands.
It includes the previously mentioned heroes of this generation of PGA TOUR stars – Faldo, Els, Scott – but also a pair of grossly underrated Scotsman from generations ago. MacDonald Smith was his name and four of his 25 PGA TOUR wins came in the Los Angeles Open, with three of them – in 1929, 1932, 1934 – played at Riviera.
In between Smith’s dominance at “the Riv” and the modern-day brilliance of Englishmen, South Africans, and Aussies, there were a couple of international moments at Riviera that belonged to golfers from Asia.
The 1987 tournament at Riviera appeared to come down to mismatch in a playoff – the putting genius of Ben Crenshaw, who had won the Masters three years earlier, against the quiet and unknown golfer from Chinese Taipei, Chen Tze-chung, known to American fans as T.C. Chen.
Crenshaw appeared to have the tournament won with a 16-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that year, only T.C. Chen answered with his roll from about 12 feet. On the first playoff hole, horrors of horrors, Crenshaw hiccupped over a 4-foot putt and handed the trophy to the Chen.
Humbly, Chen could only tell the stunned crowd that “I don’t know what to tell you, but I just feel wonderful.”
There was a little-known piece of trivia that almost fell into place that day, because Chen’s brother, Tze-Ming, squandered his chance to win the Philippines Open and was second by one stroke. T.C. Chen was saddened by the failure of the Chen brothers to both win on the same day, but many in the international community rejoiced the win by the man from Chinese Taipei 36 years ago.
But it must be stated that Chen’s win did not stand by itself when it comes to key developments in those years for the tournament at Riviera and international interests. In 1979, for instance, Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki made his debut at Riviera and the reason was related to leaders reaching out to agree to a business agreement in 1975.
Executives at the Bridgestone Co. in Tokyo declared its annual Bridgestone Championship at Sodegaura CC in Tokyo on the Japan PGA Tour to be a “sister tournament” to the one at Riviera.
The agreement meant that Americans would play at the Bridgestone – Hale Irwin, Al Geiberger, Jerry Heart, and Roger Maltbie were some of those went over – and in return officials at Riviera would extend invitations to Japan’s best players.
Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki made the first of his seven Riviera in 1979 and his passion for this famed golf course has filtered down to another generation of Asian golfers. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has recorded three top-10s in eight appearances at Riviera, Sung Kang finished in a tie for second behind Scott in 2020 and C.T. Pan, 31, of Chinese Taipei, was in share of second to Chile’s Joaquin Niemann a year ago.
Nearly half a century later, on the eve of another tournament at Riviera, those words remain emphatically true. Consider the international power brokers who’ll tee it up at Riviera in the Genesis – Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy and Spaniard Jon Rahm, Englishmen Matt Fitzpatrick and recent AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am winner Justin Rose, Japan’s Masters winner Matsuyama, and some profoundly talented young Koreans, Sungjae Im and Tom Kim.
And, of course, it will be Scott’s 15th trip to Riviera, a place he never, ever gets tired of. His first win at this iconic tournament was in 2005, but it was never officially recognized as a victory because the tournament went just 36 holes. Scott has merely shrugged at the semantics and gone about his duties with remarkable consistency. In 14 starts, the Aussie has seven top 10s.
Yes, it’s got an American address, but Riviera has an international following.- By Jim McCabe