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American Beauty: Riviera Showed Star Power at Northern Trust Open

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Ernie Els tees off in the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

It was a pleasing juxtaposition that the L.A. Open coincided with the Academy Awards. But while Sunday’s Oscars were a monument to star power, the golf tournament across town was all about the stage. Without the likes of a Tiger, Phil or Rory trodding the boards, Riviera Country Club dominated the conversation, and the telecast. It’s not easy to follow on the schedule the golf porn that is Pebble Beach, but Riv is the perfect counterpoint, an unending series of glorious holes without the distraction of all those ocean views. Riviera, built in 1926 by George Thomas, was celebrated from the beginning. The great Jazz Age architect Alister MacKenzie described it as being “as nearly perfect as a man could make it.” The late Jim Murray, the bard of Los Angeles, was a Riviera member, and ages ago he declared the place “a shrine of the sport. A citadel of the game.”

In more modern times, the course’s reputation took a serious hit with lackluster PGA Championships in 1983 and ’95. The fact that Woods has never won at Riviera and now doesn’t even show up is somehow used against the place. To be sure, there were maintenance issues over the years, underscored by the sad state of the greens during the ’95 PGA, but those days are long gone, and last week Riviera was displayed in its full glory, a firm, fast, fiery test that pushed a bevy of top players to the breaking point. Dustin Johnson, Sergio García, Jordan Spieth and Paul Casey all had a chance to win on Sunday, but they all bogeyed the 71st or 72nd hole, or, in García’s case, both. There was nary an island green or creek or ocean in sight, just sloping fairways laid out at challenging angles, ingenious bunkering and wicked greens. Ultimately James Hahn, 33, was the Cinderella story, as the 297th-ranked player in the world beat Johnson and Casey in a playoff for his first Tour victory. How stern is Riviera? A six-under total was good enough to get into the playoff.

“You can’t fake it around this place,” said Graham DeLaet, who tied for eighth. “It’s pure golf. The finishing hole is great, and [so is] everything in between. There’s just no letup on the golf course.”

DeLaet is one of the Tour’s premier ball strikers, and not for nothing does he call Riv his favorite course. There’s a reason the place is known as Hogan’s Alley, after Bantam Ben, who won a pair of L.A. Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open there in a span of 16 months. That was the heyday of the club, when Humphrey Bogart would spend tournament weeks sitting under a sycamore tree on the 12th hole, sipping from a thermos, and everyone from W.C. Fields to Charlie Chaplin to Katharine Hepburn to Spencer Tracy to Howard Hughes were regulars. Riviera no longer has those kinds of glittering Hollywood connections, but that’s just as well. The course is the real star.

James Hahn Defeats Dustin Johnson in Northern Trust Open Playoff
James Hahn won Northern Trust Open on Sunday. Prior to his win Sunday, golf fans knew Hahn mostly from his Gangnam Style dance at the 2013 Phoenix Open.

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