News & Opinion

Riviera’s 10th holds key in distance issue

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – The annual visit to Riviera Country Club is one of the most enjoyable weeks on the PGA Tour for many reasons.

For the players, it comes down to one simple thing: The golf course is spectacular. Even when it’s not at its best, which would be in the winter months, Riviera is a solid test that draws the best players year after year. There is a lot to be said about a golf course that never yielded a victory to Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.

Starting in 1962, when the tournament was called the Los Angeles Open, Nicklaus struggled with playing Riviera. In 12 career starts, he managed no better than a runner-up, in 1978 to Gil Morgan, and third-place finishes in 1975 and 1984.

Woods, an L.A.-area native who is hosting this week’s tournament, which benefits his TGR Foundation, also has not won in 12 appearances in what today is known as the Genesis Open, dating to a 1992 invitation as a 16-year-old amateur. Woods finished second twice, including in 1998, when he lost to Billy Mayfair in a playoff when the tournament was staged at Valencia Country Club because Riviera was hosting the U.S. Senior Open later that year. In 1999, Woods finished second again when the event returned to Riviera, this time to Ernie Els.

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At only 315 yards, the par-4 10th hole at Riviera Country Club provides an elusive target and holds a key lesson in the ongoing distance debate: Longer doesn't have to mean tougher.

MORNING READ/ALEX MICELI
At only 315 yards, the par-4 10th hole at Riviera Country Club provides an elusive target and holds a key lesson in the ongoing distance debate: Longer doesn't have to mean tougher.

One of the best holes at Riviera is the 315-yard, par-4 10th. In 1926, course architects George Thomas and William Bell designed a head-scratcher for future generations of Tour players.

Last year, the 10th played to a 4.055 scoring average, with players using everything from iron to driver off the tee. While the driving average on No. 10 ranked third-longest for the tournament, at 280.4 yards, the percentage of greens hit in regulation was 53.9 for the week, 235 of 436. Those statistics support the fact that good design is the most effective way to solve the distance issue.

On Thursday, the USGA and R&A issued a news release outlining their progress with a driving-distance report that is expected to be released later this year. Instead of waiting for the governing bodies to complete their study, I suggest we approach the distance issue in a different way.

While the data are nice, I look at Riviera’s 10th hole and suggest that courses should be built with better design that will inherently halt creeping driver distance.

Based on 2018 PGA Tour statistics, an 18-hole, par-72 course could be constructed at less than 6,500 yards that still would produce a stroke average of 72.385 from the world’s top golfers. This composite course was constructed only from U.S. venues on the PGA Tour schedule and does not include major-championship or overseas sites.

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The longest of the four par 3s would be Quail Hollow’s No. 4, at 167 yards; the longest par 4, Firestone South’s No. 1 and Spyglass Hill’s No. 8, both at 399 yards. Because the PGA Tour did not feature a par 5 of less than 500 yards last season, this hole ate up the most yardage: Pebble Beach’s No. 14, at 573 yards.

If I had mixed and matched major venues in the equation, such as Augusta National’s par-3 12th, the scoring average would have gone up a bit and the yardage of the course would have decreased some as well.

So, is distance much ado about nothing? The PGA Tour does not believe it’s an issue.

“Our team's very comfortable that they don't have to adjust their setup and scoring average,” commissioner Jay Monahan said Tuesday in an interview here. “While it's come down, it's not coming down significantly. And then when you look at the ShotLink data, there's a real focus on driving distance. But driving distance as a share contribution to winning isn't going up.”

Monahan explained that data involving approach to the green, greenside play and putting have a greater influence on success at PGA Tour events, compared with driving distance.

Architect Bill Coore, speaking earlier this year in Hawaii, agreed that design is the major issue that often is overlooked in the distance debate.

A well-designed par 4 does not have to be 450 yards, and a course need not be 7,500 yards to withstand the onslaught of technology.

An older editor of mine advised me to make my writing tight and bright.

That’s certainly a refrain by which golf-course architects, new and old alike, could design.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli