Saturday 29 April 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Rory McIlroy to shake hand of history at timeless Riviera

Rory McIlroy will be renewing rivalry with Jordan Spieth in quest of a coveted title. Photo: Kamran Jebrelli
Rory McIlroy will be renewing rivalry with Jordan Spieth in quest of a coveted title. Photo: Kamran Jebrelli

Dermot Gilleece

At a time of year when club committees grapple with the perennial challenge of toughening ageing courses in the absence of available length, along comes this week's Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in the Hollywood hills. There, as a special bonus, Rory McIlroy will be renewing rivalry with Jordan Spieth in quest of a coveted title, starting on Thursday.

This, in fact, is McIlroy's first visit to one of the game's truly great venues. And he's making it part of his US Masters build-up because, quite simply, he heard it's "a great course".

Characterised by kikuyu grass originally blown across the terrain from nearby polo fields, there is much to admire about Riviera, which came into existence 90 years ago. Those addled greens committees, however, need not look beyond the par four 10th hole, which is a triumph of design, not least in its simplicity. Measuring only 315 yards and thereby reachable by a serious number of tournament professionals, it has plenty of sand but no water. Its difficulty lies essentially in a narrow, severely sloping green, angled from left to right. "The left front is the only place you can knock it on that green and have it stay," said last year's champion Bill Haas. "And you have to get a good bounce in the rough."

"It's a defensive hole," said Phil Mickelson, twice a champion there. "Believe it or not, you're just trying to make four." So, the next time your greens officer wants to build a back tee at that easy par four on your homeward journey, tell him to look instead at the green. Just like they've done at Riviera.

McIlroy is going to love a layout described by Johnny Miller as "definitely one of the greatest, no-nonsense golf courses in the world". Apart from the 10th, there's the majestic 18th and the quirky short sixth which features a bunker in the middle of the green. Then there is Riviera's colourful membership, liberally sprinkled with familiar Hollywood names.

I remember Tony Kelly, a long-time member of Woodbrook, telling me about a playing visit he made to Riviera in 1989, when his fourball partner was none other than OJ Simpson. A single-figure handicapper at the time, Kelly recalled Simpson performing well enough to earn both of them $32 in side bets on the match.

"I knew OJ mainly from the Hertz ads and was aware that he had been something of an American sporting icon," said Kelly. "He was a charming partner, very amusing, with a fund of funny stories. He was also a very good 16 and a powerful striker of the ball. In fact, he effectively won us the match by parring the famous 18th (420 yards off the members' tee). I must be one of the few people in these islands to have had a round of golf with OJ Simpson, which goes to prove that you never know who you're likely to meet on a golf course."

Six years after that meeting, Simpson was the central figure in what became arguably the most notorious murder trial of the 20th century. In a key assertion, defence attorney Johnny Cochran claimed that at the allegedly critical time of 10.10pm on the night of the double murder, his client was not at the scene of the crime but was, in fact, practising golf.

Cochran said Simpson liked to "chip or swing his four wood or three wood", so attributing to his client the sort of dexterity with a four wood which was thought to be the exclusive preserve of Christy O'Connor. Though Cochran's defence earned Simpson an acquittal, he was later jailed on other charges.

Which led to some charming reminiscences from television pundit Peter Oosterhuis, a one-time director of golf at Riviera. "I recall OJ as one of the most-liked guys in the club," said Oosterhuis. "After I moved on, I stayed in touch with many of the members who told me that after OJ left the club, his name somehow stayed on the handicap sheet. The guys at the club, who love a good joke, started posting scores for OJ. And his handicap dropped five shots while he was behind bars."

Meanwhile, the mouth-watering prospect of McIlroy and Spieth trading shots for the first time around Riviera, prompts inevitable comparisons with the celebrated rivalry between Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. These legends of the game each recorded two Los Angeles Open victories at Riviera, where Hogan also captured the 1948 US Open, causing the stretch to be dubbed 'Hogan's Alley'.

Having read gripping accounts of their titanic battle in 1950, marking Hogan's return to action less than a year after a near-fatal car crash, I felt moved on my last visit to retrace the great man's steps from the 18th green. It meant negotiating a grassy incline followed by 55 wooden steps before the clubhouse was reached, 60 feet above. We're told that despite limping on aching legs, Hogan was within sight of victory only for Snead to force a tie with birdies on four of the last five holes. Then, as an indication of how little the PGA Tour calendar has changed in the last seven decades, they competed in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am - being played this weekend - where Snead was involved in another tie, this time sharing victory with three others.

So, eight days after their tie at Riviera, they returned there for an 18-hole play-off for the LA Open, which Snead won by 72 to 76. The general consensus, however, was that by simply turning up, Hogan had won a resounding moral victory.

The requirement at Riviera to move the ball both ways, especially left to right, will make it ideal preparation for the Masters, which McIlroy has highlighted as his prime target this year. He will be treading where Jack Nicklaus picked up a cheque for $33.33 on his professional debut in 1962, and where Nick Faldo recorded his last tournament victory worth $252,000 in 1997.

Conscious of the Hogan connection, Faldo said afterwards: "This is the kind of course on which I was meant to win, and I played it exactly the way I wanted to." It came less than 11 months after Faldo's third Masters triumph, in a sequence McIlroy will be happy to reverse.

In the meantime, TV viewers can prepare for a verdant treat, where naturally spongy turf provides its own defence and subtle touches from the designer's hand, have created a timeless masterpiece.

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