Why Riviera’s final hole is my favorite place to watch golf

Riviera Country Club

The grassy hill behind Riviera Country Club's 18th hole is among the best places on earth to watch golf.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Poor Denny McCarthy. Sure, he got to play Riviera Country Club all by himself Saturday morning. He got to rip around, unencumbered by the tee sheet, circling the front nine in just 83 minutes. He completed his third round before the contenders had finished breakfast. I’m sure he enjoyed it.

But that sprint to the finish line, which he accomplished in just over three hours, also meant this lonely round would be capped by a mostly lonely finish. He tapped in for 68 in front of a couple dozen people, at most. There’s no fun in that. Especially here at Riv. 

The iconic golf club has done a few things right over the years. Hitching your wagon to Tiger Woods, a great host, and Genesis, a doting sponsor, is a good start. But what it has done best is preserve the ground of its 1st tee, which rests under the shadow of the clubhouse, and the hill surrounding its 18th green. The former leads to iconic photographs of golf history and the latter leads to some of the best golf viewing on the planet.

You can have your 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale; this setting is more serene. Tame. Pure. You can have your Masters experience, there’s nothing like it. But you can’t have it year after year. (Unless you’re really lucky.) You can have your 17th at the Players Championship, the island green with an amphitheater all its own. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but the golf here lasts much longer. It’s much more than a smooth 9-iron.

Jason Day called Riviera’s finish “like a little colosseum,” which makes sense. The grassy wall shoots upward like the slope of a black diamond. And the nylon rope separating player from patron sits right at the edge of the green. 

“You’ve got fans on top of you,” Day said. “That’s pretty cool.” 

Day weighed in long enough to clarify something even more important: that it’s a damn difficult golf hole. Pros hit blind tee shots into a fairway that banks from left to right. The rough up on the left also banks left to right. The rough on the right banks from left to a dead zone. Why is this great for the people up by the green? It makes birdies rare. It makes bogeys just as plausible. It makes golf a legitimate grind, which is when golf gets the most fascinating. When shot-making is heightened, the golf nerds can nerd out. The casuals can become avids. The oohs, ahhs and even the oh-no!s multiply. 

Settings like this one are why you pull out your credit card, buy tickets and actually go to a golf tournament. To hang out, see the best players in the world, and see things you wouldn’t see on TV. Like Rickie Fowler’s long iron spraying out to the right and crashing into the United Airlines 19th hole. Seconds later, you’d see Brian Harman launch his ball from 194 yards in to three-and-a-half feet. A full stroke gained on the field there, making you wonder — does this hole favor lefties? 

When Tommy Fleetwood’s birdie attempt squeezed off the edge of the hole, you could sort of tell he was upset. But you could really tell that Scottie Scheffler was flabbergasted. A peek into their demeanors on the putting surface these days. When Tony Finau’s birdie putt did everything but go in, he swung around to the crowd like a true entertainer, looking for some company in his disbelief. Not one of those shots was shown on the broadcast.

Spend enough time behind 18 and you’ll only want one more thing: a massive TV screen playing the CBS broadcast, like they have in fan village areas at the Open Championship or Ryder Cup. You’re at a golf tournament, after all. You should be shown as much golf as possible. Patrick Cantlay is leading the tournament about a half-mile away, it would be nice to see what he’s up to. Of course, the people making that broadcast are right behind you on 18, looking out from a lovely little perch of their own.

“This amphitheater is heaven sent,” Trevor Immelman said Saturday afternoon, taking it all in. Trevor sees a lot of golf courses, a lot of stadium holes, a lot of tournament setups. Maybe that’s why Jim Nantz let Immelman’s words hang in the air for a bit. On a mostly overcast day, the sun had finally peeked out, encouraging the crowd to take off those sweatshirts and jackets they’d been shivering in all afternoon. The newfound warmth and the soft cushion of Kiyuya grass suddenly made 18 the perfect setting for something golf fans know well: a Saturday afternoon nap. The same kind you’d take at home. Only with this one, the golf will actually wake you back up. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.