It had been rumored for years, so it hardly came as a shock when I read the course I grew up playing in Dublin, Ohio was closing after the 2014 season. While there is a very small chance that the course could still be purchased by the city and remain as is, I would say the closing and subsequent housing development is several years overdue. Sentimentally, I can’t believe that the place I spent so much of my childhood at, and the place where I learned the game, will cease to exist at this time next year. While the vast majority of you reading this likely have never heard of this course, I’m sure there is a similar place where a lot of your early golf memories are housed.
The reasons for the closing of Riviera Country Club are clear. Dublin is an continuously growing suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and of course plays host to the Memorial Tournament every year at nearby Muirfield Village Golf Club. When the club was built in 1970, Dublin had a population of less than 1,000 people. It’s now home to a population of greater than 40,000, with 3 high schools, a new development popping up every year, and more country clubs than fingers on your hands (holy white flight!). Seriously just look at the image below (Riviera is the course in the bottom left corner).
From a birds eye view, there looks to be more golf course than residential acreage. Remember that NONE of these courses were there when the Riv was built in 1970! An entire suburbia developed around it, and the track is now bordered by a middle school to the north, a high school to the southwest, another country club to the east, and houses everywhere in between. The course is so close to Muirfield Village that the club rents out its parking lot to paying customers during the Memorial tournament every year. Bottom line is…. the bottom line: the course is not making money anymore.
The course was founded by the American Italian Golf Association. Growing up playing the course, and later working in the bag room, the stories and legends of the past days of the club seemed to grow year by year, ranging from the alleged shootout in the parking lot in the 1970’s, to exaggerated betting numbers for some of the membership’s highest stakes players. To this day I have zero understanding as to why a course called “Riviera” was built in the middle of a bunch of cornfields (Ed. note: see below for answer). Over the course of my 10 years killing time at the club, I think at some point every member with a last name that ended with a vowel had been rumored to have some sort of tie to the mob (OK, maybe that’s why). Judging by the items I found left in golf carts over my 5 years working there, there is no doubt in my mind there was dirty money flowing through that place on a near daily basis. The rap sheet on some of these guys was long enough that even as a 17 year-old I knew not to ask questions, and as a guy working for tips, I quickly learned that some of these guys would be my best tippers. While the closure affects me and saddens me, the members and founders of the club are the ones that are truly feeling it. Long time member Dominic Guglielmi added the following:
“I have memories going back to being a little kid and going to the Christmas parties they had. My parents had their wedding reception there, and my grandpa literally helped build the course. He remembers building the sand traps on the right side of #8 near #7 tee, and every time I hit it there, I blame him. I could go on and on. There are so many memories.”
“I plan on being there at the course right up to the last day they are open. I don’t know if I can watch them take bulldozers to it though. It would be pretty emotional.”
When my family joined the course in the early 2000’s (for what seemed like a great deal at the time), I was ecstatic. My best friend Frankie was also a member at the club, and we would spend the next half-decade getting dropped off at 9 am and getting picked up after the sun went down. Hours were spent ruining the turf at the driving range, making the range picker’s life miserable, distracting actual paying members, admiring the older kids that could bomb it past us, and dreaming of the day we’d be able to pipe a driver over the hill at the back of the range that sure seemed a lot further away back then than it does now. Seemingly every day we’d be trying something new we had seen on the Golf Channel, tinkering our swings, and wishing we could buy the gadgets from the Golf Channel infomercials (you can hit an Adams Tight Lies off the cart path!). We’d walk at least 18 holes, eat some quesadillas, and either head out for more golf, play more games on the range, take a bucket of balls to the chipping green, have an 18-hole putting match, or watch golf in the clubhouse. I literally could not approximate how many rounds of golf I played at this course with Frankie.
I also have incredible memories playing evening golf with my dad there. We would take a cart out and get in as many holes as we could, often completing 9 holes in about an hour fifteen if we had the course to ourselves. I would try to show off that I was good enough to play the black tees now, and would bore my dad with the hole-by-hole details of my round from earlier that day. With the wind down, and the sun setting, my fondest golf memories were learning the game from my dad during those hours. The course was so peaceful, and the game felt so simple during those times, and to a 15 year-old kid, there wasn’t a single worry in the world. We’d often end the nights playing the dramatic par-3 9th hole, over water, in the complete dark, which required absolute silence after hitting the ball to listen for either the thud of the ball hitting the green, or the splash of the watery grave in front.
The course itself is really nothing special. It’s built on the flattest piece of land you’ll ever see, all 18 holes sandwiched into a pretty small piece of real estate. Not short, but not exceptionally long ethier. Some really well designed holes, and some boring ones (the 12th hole is a 220 yard par-3 that remains the only hole on the course that I’ve never birdied). I can safely say that I have memories from every single hole. The sprinklers coming on behind the 4th green and destroying my dad as he prepared to chip. Frankie taking a cart out to the 16th hole to meet my dad and I on one of our evening 9’s, and on his first swing sticking a 6-iron to 2 inches (and Frankie subsequently hitting 6-iron on that hole every single time regardless of the wind or the distance). Driving the green on the 1st hole from 370 (that no one believes to this date). Constantly choking on the 18th hole in my quest to finally break 80. Playing for free with some of the NLU crew back in our college days after spending the day at the Memorial drinking and betting on the hill adjacent to the 12th green.
While the course itself wouldn’t wow an outsider, to me, it will always be my home course. My passion for the game was born here, and I can honestly say that this place helped shape my life. I went from a spoiled member of the club with no concept of money or the real world, playing unlimited rounds and hitting an unlimited amount of range balls, to working in the bag room and learning the values of a work ethic, client service, and saving money. The days spent on the clock in the bag room are almost equally as memorable. I remember working 20-hour days during the club championship (sleeping in my car for 4 hours in between), and betting on my favorite members with other employees. Getting called up to “The Big Show” (Tuesday night Men’s League) was a rite of passage, and the hardest shift to get assigned to, as that’s where the biggest tips came (I’ll never forget the first and only $100 tip I got). Anyone who was anyone played on Tuesday Night’s, and the “organized” prize money had to pale in comparison to the side pots. Mondays meant the course was closed, and open for employees to play. It was the norm to zoom around three times in about eight hours, stopping after 27 holes to change into a fresh cart. A heated putting competition broke out on the concrete in the cart barn during the down times, which always ended with us trying to act busy when a rogue member came in wondering where his clubs were.
I knew every member’s name (well, every member that was a good tipper). If you took care of me, I took care of you. There were certain guys who were consistent, and you knew who they were. Then there were the wild cards, who may stiff you on Wednesday, then drop a $20 spot on you on Friday (likely contingent on how much they won or lost that day). When I was a freshman in college, I got my wisdom teeth taken out, and my gums got infected. I had to come home and have emergency surgery on the night of the 2004 presidential election, and my surgeon happened to be one of my favorite members, and (not coincidentally) the best tipper. He laughed when I tried to slip him a $20 as a joke when I was hopped up on morphine. The days of working for tips taught me a lot about client service, and it influences the way I tip to this day.
The memories of Riviera Country Club will never fade, but it does not sit well with me that the course will no longer be there. Even though I’ve played Riv maybe once a year for the last 5 years since moving away, and I can’t imagine not having this course to go back to when I want to re-live some of the best memories from my childhood. In June I plan to play the course one last time with Frankie for old time’s sake and see if I can get that birdie at number 12 that’s eluded me all these years before it, and the rest of Riviera, disappear into history.
It’s been a year and a half since this post. The club did not open in 2015, and the property is left to drift into oblivion before the bulldozers come in and turn it into housing. I sent my wonderful mother out on assignment on her bike to photograph the course as it stands today, in September of 2015. I can recognize the holes from the pictures you took, but you likely won’t be able to tell that there was a golf course here with decades of memories. It’s hard to put into words the gut feeling I get when looking at these photos, but I figured they were worth sharing. RIP, Riviera.