There are about 40,000 golf courses in the world. Math tells us 400 courses should therefore qualify as one-percenters based on their quality. But golf courses can appeal to different people for different reasons.

Like football coaches and pound cake, there are many good golf courses, but few truly great ones. There are probably 1,000 golf courses that could be reasonably argued to belong in that one-percent club. But only fifty or so are above debate. The Nick Sabans of golf courses.

The PGA Tour makes its annual stop at one of the greats this week, The Riviera Country Club. Setting aside the modern Players Championship, Riviera has been the biggest week on the Tour’s schedule for decades.

Riviera hosted their first LA Open in 1929. MacDonald Smith won by six shots. Smith’s clubs hang in the Riviera clubhouse, a gift to the club from Ben Crenshaw.

The place oozes major history. Ben Hogan won the 1948 U.S. Open here. Hal Sutton held off a charging Jack Nicklaus to win the 1983 PGA Championship. In 1992, Riviera’s iconic elevated first tee is where 16-year-old Tiger Woods took his first swing in a professional tournament.

More history is coming soon to Riv. The Women’s U.S. Open in 2026, the Olympics in 2028, and the Men’s U.S. Open in 2031. It will be a run of professional golf tournaments unequaled in history.

So why Riviera? What did they do to deserve the acclaim?

The West Coast viewing time zone certainly doesn’t hurt. But mostly, it’s the golf course.

It’s only a couple of miles from the beach, but you’d never know that when you’re playing Riviera. Set down in the Santa Monica Canyon, today Riv is almost surrounded by palaces inhabited by the rich and famous of Los Angeles.

The hillsides that border Riviera were almost empty when George Thomas and William Bell went to work sculpting their masterpiece in 1925 and 1926. The pair had already built or redesigned a couple of dozen courses, including the Los Angeles Country Club and Bel Air, but it was at Riviera where Thomas’ genius for design and Bell’s artistry during construction reached their zenith. Thomas knew early on the course had the potential for greatness, telling a local newspaper “it will vie for America’s best in every detail.”

The great Dr. Alister MacKenzie agreed. MacKenzie stopped by Riviera while he was working on a masterpiece of his own up at Cypress Point. He was quoted as saying:

“Thomas had not only provided for every shot known to the game, but he had devised the sportiest and most interesting settings in which to make them, not overlooking such niceties as the direction of sunlight and the force of prevailing winds.”

The best and worst who have played Rivera over the past century are all in agreement. Legendary L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray had been a member of Riviera for over 40 years – and had never broken 90 – when he wrote, “I know and love every blade of grass on Riviera, every eucalyptus tree, every barranca, every sand trap, even the one in the middle of the sixth green.”

He later went on to say, “The worse it treats me, the more starry-eyed I get.”

Ben Hogan had better results. Hogan once called Riviera’s par-3 fourth hole “The greatest par-3 in America.”

In 1994 he wrote a letter to the club which included the statement, “The golf course was always such an inspiration to me, but the members hold a special place in my heart, as well.”

Three years later Hogan spent three days at Riviera filming a commercial for his company's new golf clubs. It was believed to be the first time the reserved Hogan had left his hometown of Fort Worth in ten years.

For Sam Snead it was the opening hole that was his favorite, because of the wide variety of outcomes that are possible. Opening shots are played from a claustrophobic tee box. Making 3 is a real possibility for today’s pros, but as Snead pointed out, there is out-of-bounds down the entire left side of the hole, which can bring big numbers into play.

Ron Whitten, longtime architectural editor for Golf Digest wrote about the sixth hole: “In the field of golf design, where imitation is passed off as inspiration, a truly original hole is as rare as an amateur architect. Which makes the Sixth at Riviera all the more remarkable. It was a true original, created by an amateur designer.”

Johnny Miller says of the ninth: “This is a tremendous hole for three reasons…” and goes on to describe in detail the challenges of the tee shot, the approach, and putts on the green.

The short tenth is one of the more discussed holes in golf because of the options for play off the tee and the severity of the green. The hole has become a trigger point for many in the debates on modern equipment and distance. Less known is that Thomas’ original version of ten had no bunkers anywhere on the hole. Or that Thomas’ idea for the hole came from the 12th at Pine Valley. Ben Crenshaw thinks it’s one of the most fascinating greens in golf.

Raymond Floyd said of the eleventh: “This is probably as good a par 5 as you would want to play anywhere.”

Fourteen and sixteen are two mid-length par 3s that show the beauty of Bell’s bunker work.

And the famous uphill eighteenth is Jack Nicklaus’ favorite hole on the golf course.

Great golf courses test all of a player's skills – length and precision, but also judgment and nerves. Great golf courses allow great players opportunities to show the skills that separate them from good players.

Most great courses look like their holes were laid over the land, not built into the land. More land was moved during the creation of Riviera than it appears to those looking at it today.

The eighteenth in particular was a man-made creation. Fortunately, that man was George Thomas.