By Jeff Skinner
Pebble Beach is a tough act to follow but the PGA Tour is up to this task this week when it visits another iconic gem of a course at Riviera Country Club. It may not possess the breathtaking views of the Pacific but the course certainly rivals Pebble in history and design. Players love playing here and architects love studying this 1926 George Thomas design. Tom Fazio touched up Riviera in 2008 and Ben Crenshaw reworked the greens to their original contours. “George Thomas was very talented.” said Crenshaw. “Riviera has so many fabulous things about it. The bunkering is wonderful, very bold. They have a grand scope about them, and there is also every conceivable type of hole. The course is so well balanced and requires you to work the ball so well.”
While many courses on tour today favor the long bombers Riviera will test their shot making skills rather than their length. The strategically placed bunkers and numerous doglegs force players to think their way around this layout.
Generations of pros have tested their game at what originally started as the L.A. Open, changed to the Nissan Open and then morphed into the Northern Trust Open. The list of winners reads like a Hall of Fame roll call. Hogan, Demaret, Snead, Nelson, Mangrum, Palmer, Venturi, Irwin, Watson, Wadkins, Miller, Couples, Kite and Mickelson all have claimed victory here. Two of the best names in golf, and I literally mean names, Macdonald Smith and Lloyd Mangrum have four wins each at the L.A. Open. Macdonald and Mangrum just sound like perfect golfing names, but that’s another story.
Proving that ball striking can trump length here are Corey Pavin and Mike Weir who both have back to back victories here. But longballers have their share of wins here too: Mickelson and Freddy “Boom Boom” Couples have two wins here. And The King, Arnold Palmer won here in 1963, ’66 and ’67.
Looking for more history at this iconic event? No problem. In 1962 Jack Nicklaus didn’t win but he did cash his first check as a pro, $33.33. Babe Didrickson Zaharias was the first woman to ever play in a PGA men’s event in 1938. In 1969, Charlie Sifford, the first African-American on the PGA Tour won. Tiger Woods made his PGA Tour debut here in 1992 as a sixteen year old amateur. Woods was a part of history again when he lost to Billy Mayfair in a head to head playoff battle in 1998.
But they don’t call Riviera Mayfair’s Alley, or Smith’s Street, or Mangrum Boulevard. They call it Hogan’s Alley and for good reason. Hogan claimed his first L.A. Open Title at Hillcrest Country Club in 1942 and then he claimed his second title in 1947 with a Riviera course record of 280. He laid his claim to ownership of Riviera in 1948 when he set another course record with a total score of 275 for his third L.A. Open title and then returned that same season to win his first U.S. Open Championship. It was then that Riviera was nicknamed “Hogan’s Alley.” 1948 was a great year for Hogan as he had ten professional wins including two majors, The U.S. Open and The PGA.
Hogan’s comeback from his horrific car accident to win the U.S. Open at Merion in 1950 is well documented but few realize that Hogan almost won before his historic and unlikely win at Merion. In the 1950 L.A. Open Hogan battled Sam Snead in a rain delayed tournament that finished in a two man playoff on a Wednesday. Hogan had only started hitting full golf shots a few months before the tournament and struggled to walk eighteen holes. Few gave Hogan any chance at returning to championship golf after his accident. But there he was with his legs wrapped in elastic from crotch to ankle, in pain the entire time, taking his rival Snead to a playoff. It spoke volumes as to the determination and skill of one of the greatest golfers in history. Hogan lost to Snead that day but he knew he would be able to play championship golf again. And he found it out at Riviera Country Club, Hogan’s Alley.