Friday, February 16, 2007

Riviera the PGA Tour's star this weekend

This is one of those weeks on the PGA Tour when the course - in this case Riveria Country Club - is as much a part of the event as the stars sprinkled across the leader board.

Forget that Tiger Woods skipped Los Angeles this week and all the conspiracy theories that he’s plotting his schedule to maximize his shot at breaking Byron Nelson’s 11 in a row streak.

It isn’t about Tiger this week. It’s about Riviera, one of the coolest places the PGA Tour goes.

I’ve been to Riviera twice during the Nissan Open and loved the look and feel of the place. It smells of eucalyptus and, with its big clubhouse sitting atop a hill overlooking the course, Riveria has the feel of someplace important. And it is, if for no other reason than Hogan won there.

Along one side of the course, houses are stretched along a bluff overlooking the property. Locals can tell you which famous person lives in which one. The last time I was there someone pointed out what they said was Mel Brooks’ house. I nodded a quick thanks in Brooks’ direction for ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ still the funniest movie ever made.

As a golf course, Riviera proves you don’t need water hazards to make it difficult. Like Pinehurst No. 2 and Shinnecock Hills, there are essentially no water hazards in play.

The par-4 second hole is a monster and the 312-yard par-4 10th is one of the great short par-4s anywhere. It dares players to drive the green that’s cut diagonally between two bunkers and is about as wide as Heidi Klum’s waist.

Then there’s the famous 18th, playing uphill toward the clubhouse. Television - even high definition ones - can’t do justice to the daunting challenge of hammering a tee shot up and over the hill on the closing hole.

It’s too bad the tour doesn’t play more courses like Riviera. It gets to special places like Harbour Town, Quail Hollow, Westchester and Cog Hill but over the course of a year, plenty of tournaments are played on layouts that aren’t particularly memorable.

This is a week to appreciate the place as much as the players.