LOS ANGELES — For the better part of my life, people have talked about the 10th hole at Riviera Country Club like it was a piece of golf’s holy ground. Jim Murray, the famous LA Times columnist, called it “a shrine of the sport, a citadel of the game.” At just over 300 yards, it was once seen as the ultimate risk-reward hole, with players having to strategically choose between laying back or bombing driver and trying to sneak one on to the severe green, but technology has essentially rendered that decision moot. Virtually everyone goes for it now.
As the newest member of a company called No Laying Up, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday than to post up near the 10th green, tracking every group as they came through, and writing about the 4-hour adrenaline rush. I decided in the name of good journalism, I’d even plant myself at the foot of a palm tree left of the green, the place where players frequently miss. With the pin front left, I figured (correctly) almost everyone would go for it. With nothing but my notebook to protect me, I bunkered down and prepared for an onslaught of urethane missiles headed my way. It felt like a worthwhile risk to take if I got to seek some eagle putts up close, hear some roars from the gallery.
Other than a couple near misses — Viktor Hovland and David Lipsky came closest to splitting my head open — I left feeling tremendously underwhelmed. A little bored, even. The fans who waited much of the day near the green, seeking similar thrills, appeared to feel similarly.
I walked away with one question I was eager to put to the players: Does the 10th, in its current iteration, actually stink?
“It stinks,” said Rory McIlroy. “It absolutely stinks.”
One player I talked to, granting him anonymity in exchange for his candor, went even further.
“It’s fucked,” he said.
Not every player sees it that way. Plenty of the players that I grabbed outside of scoring had nice things to say about the iconic hole, designed by legendary golf architect George Thomas.
“I think it’s an amazing hole,” said Tony Finau. “Everyone has a chance to make birdie, and everyone has a chance to make double. It’s a little bit firmer than it was in the past, and it has a bit more slope. But you know what you have to do. You have to keep it left of the green. I think it’s great.”
But the more players I talked to, the more aligned I found myself with McIlroy’s analysis. It’s partially a design problem — the slopes and the bunkering were not part of Thomas’ original construction — and partially a grass problem. You can, and should, blast it toward the green. But what happens from there is mostly luck. At best, it’s a test of your short game which (while intriguing) does not exactly get my adrenaline pumping as a fan. Truth in advertising would probably sound something like this: Come watch the players bomb good drives, get boned behind some trees, and then have a chip off! That’s right, I said a chip off!
I doubt the superintendent or the general manager at Riviera are taking suggestions, but if they are, McIlroy has a few. I figured his voice carries a bit more weight than mine.
“I think it’s the kikuyu,” McIlroy said, when I asked him to expand on his assessment. “They either need to re-grass 30 yards around up to the green so the ball runs, or you just have to keep those greens a touch softer than the rest. There’s no skill anymore. You’re not aiming it in the left bushes, but you know if it goes in the left bushes, it should be okay. It’s just not a good golf hole. It’s the same with No. 4. Even if you just did 20 yards of apron [that wasn’t kikuyu] it would be better. Royal Melbourne have done that. If Royal Melbourne can do it, there is no reason these guys can’t. If they want to get a U.S. Open here, which I think they’re trying, they need to do something.”
The highlight of the day? It was probably Denny McCarthy, who landed a 3-wood in a spot where, a yard left or a yard right, it would not have worked. But some combination of luck and skill sent the ball trickling onto the green from 287 yards away. McCarthy made the 6-foot eagle putt on his way to a sizzling 64 (the low round of the day) but even that didn’t sway him from his long-held opinion that it’s not exactly a test of skill.
“It’s an interesting hole,” McCarthy said. “You need to get lucky. I hit a good shot, but somebody could have landed it a foot away from me and ended up down in the swale or in the rough. I could hit a bucket of balls and not do that again. I think they might need to soften it if they want to play the greens this firm. With how much slope it has, it can sometimes get a little silly.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Tiger Woods make plenty of birdies in my time covering golf, and most of them made me feel something. The birdie he made Saturday on the 10th, his first hole of the day, was not one of them. It did not feel strategic or iconic. It just sort of … was. Woods blasted a 3-wood over the green, then hit a fairly indifferent putt to the fringe, then made the next one from 15 feet. Even he seemed somewhat nonplussed by it. When I asked whether technology and had made the hole a little boring, he was noncommittal. But he did concede that the strategy has changed significantly.
“When I first came here, no one went for it,” Woods said. “Balata and persimmon doesn't go very far, so no one went for it. We all laid up to the far left or to the right. And the second shot wasn't as hard because we played a spinnier ball. Then over the years that right side has gotten steeper from the sand and the slopes have gotten steeper, the shots have become more challenging. Then now with the length everyone hits it, guys are going for it, which we never did.”
The hole’s reputation is still so vaunted, it was the natural choice for CBS when they asked Colin Morikawa to wear a mic and do their weekly walk-and-talk. And Morikawa was great, explaining exactly why it’s polarizing and not beloved.
“It’s the hardest hole,” Morikawa said. “I don’t think people understand how much slope is on this green. There is so much bank off the right, so much bank pushing away from the front edge, that all of our balls end up back of the green. And when you’re over there, any pin that’s on the right side of the bunker, you’re chipping out to the middle of the green and taking a 40 footer. This is why it’s one of the most loved, and the most hated holes.” (Morikawa, despite a great drive just short of the green, was left with an awkward chip; he bumped a 5-wood right where he was looking – just right of the flag – and settled for par.)
Golf courses, no matter how well maintained they are, can’t be maintained like a painting. They naturally ebb and flow like living things. Thomas’ original design, based at least partially on the 12th hole at Pine Valley, didn’t even include bunkers because Thomas thought the version at Pine Valley was too difficult. But over time, they were added (likely by Thomas, who played the course often) and gradually the slope became more severe.
“I think its original design was a great hole and I think it’s kind of gone overboard,” said Harris English. “Especially that back part of the green. We have some really good short Par 4s on Tour. Hartford has one of them (No. 15), and so does Phoenix with 17. They give you a chance to make eagle if you hit a good shot and bogey if you don’t. This hole, good shots don’t really get rewarded. Misses, you’re just trying to chip it on the green somehow. It’s a fun hole to play, but it’s not very fair.”
I’m open to the argument that its lack of fairness is what makes it interesting. If everyone is annoyed by it, then maybe it’s a bad hole that serves a decent purpose. The 10th demands that players keep their cool when they get a bad break. But how much better would it be if everyone could pick their own strategy off the tee and still be rewarded in different ways? Justin Thomas is one of the few players who stubbornly chooses to lay up, but even that seems to offer little safety. He laid up in the first two rounds and made two bogeys. He went for the green on Saturday and made a birdie.
“I think there are a few different ways to look at the hole,” said Sahith Theegala, who made birdie on Saturday. “Is it a great hole? Yes, I think it’s one of the best short par 4s ever, if not the best. Is it a fair hole? I think no. I think you’re at the mercy of the golf course. The green is pitched a touch too much. But that’s what makes it fun and diabolical. If it wasn’t diabolical, no one would really talk about it. You can hit a perfect tee shot and get absolutely hosed.”
You can also hit a perfect tee shot that chases onto the green and sends the crowd into a frenzy, and then be bored out of your mind by the time you get a chance to putt. The reason? The natural rhythm of the hole is all stops and starts. It's a pace of play nightmare. Here is how it unfolded much of the day: A group would hit. They’d walk to the green. They’d locate their ball and chip, or if by some miracle they found the green, they’d mark. Then the marshal would signal the next group on the tee to go ahead and hit. The first group would finish out the hole. The next group would locate their balls and mark, waving the group behind to go ahead and hit. If you found the green, like Seamus Power did on Saturday, it might be almost 15 minutes before you got the chance to putt.
Imagine having to wait 15 minutes to know if a 3-pointer by Steph Curry found the bottom of the net after he let it fly. Some of that might be a golf problem, but imagine how it will feel on Sunday if Max Homa or Keith Mitchell is trying to chase down Jon Rahm and one of them drives the green. Now imagine they have to stand around and wait 12 minutes before they get a chance to stand over it with a putter. And that’s the best case scenario!
“I think it’s an overrated driveable par 4 in this day and age,” said Adam Hadwin. “Good shots don’t get rewarded. I’m a firm believer that you can set golf courses good and hard, but if guys hit good shots, they should be rewarded with decent looks. You can hit perfect tee shots on 10 and have to lay up. We all have to play it, so I get it. I’m 2-under on the hole through three rounds. I’ve played it well. But I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve played here, hit a decent shot, and I am chipping to 25 feet. I have no shot toward the pin. And if you don’t hit a great tee shot, there is not an incentive to try and do something. You’re just bringing 5 and 6 into play.”
I’m not an expert on golf course architecture, but I feel comfortable saying that the best driveable Par 4s should give players options off the tee. If the Tito’s Vodka tent that’s left off the fairway (and left of the cart path) could find a different home, you could easily make that area tantalizing for more players like Thomas. Give him a better angle into that kidney-shaped green, and the contrast of styles would be exhilarating. As it stands now, it’s just gotten a little boring.
“It’s going to get to the point where the high numbers get taken out,” said Tommy Fleetwood. “No one is going to make 6s and 7s, they’re just going to make bogey at worst. I still think it’s one of the signature holes on the Tour, but it’s borderline. The beauty of a short hole is that you should have options."
I wanted to love it. It seemed like I was supposed to love it. But by day’s end, I found myself spiritually aligned with J.J. Spaun, who had nothing good to say about the hole at all.
“I think you should either take on the risk with the tee shot, or take on the risk with the second shot,” Spaun said. “Right now, you can hit a great tee shot and be totally screwed. You can hit a great chip and be totally screwed. You can hit a good putt and be screwed. There is no correct play.”