This is the time of year when attention turns to two of the oldest courses on the PGA Tour. Pebble Beach Golf Links and Riviera Country Club opened in 1919 and 1927, respectively, and have combined to host 129 tour events (currently the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Open), plus 10 men’s majors. Each winter we welcome these dreamy California landscapes into our homes as old friends. They are warm conversations that pause but never end.
It’s also the time of year for what-ifs.
Always exceedingly popular with golfers, fans, tour players and panelists (each course is one of only 21 courses ever to be ranked in every Golf Digest national course ranking since 1966—Pebble currently ranks seventh on Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest ranking and Riviera ranks 23rd), each course has deviated, in ways, from what it used to be. It’s tempting to indulge fantasies of Riviera and Pebble Beach reincarnated in earlier forms.
The Riviera that George Thomas and William “Billy” Bell built was distinguished by openness, comparatively shallow bunkers with fingered and scalloped matted-grass edges and a rugged dry-wash barranca that slashed through the east and southeastern sections of the site. Decades of sand-splashing and modern remodel work have created steep, flashed bunker faces with crisp lines that now, in most cases, can only be entered and exited on the low side, and the once ominous looking barranca, and the property in general, feels more like a garden than the austere, arid West.
Pebble Beach morphed several times in its early years and achieved an artistic apotheosis when Chandler Egan lengthened the course, shifted greens and made other significant alterations prior to the 1929 U.S. Amateur. These included the creation of “imitation dunes,” swaths of unkempt sand surrounding a number of oceanside holes like the fourth, sixth, seventh, 10th and 17th. Photos from this time period are powerful reminders of how much the course is now defined by thick rough and small greens.
Knowing that such compelling alternative versions once existed invariably begs the question: What obligation do owners, clubs and resorts have to preserving, or reviving, their first-generation architecture?
A strong case can be made in most cases for some mode of restoration—for the sake of art and historical integrity, if nothing else. But Pebble Beach and Riviera reside in a unique category in which its designs serve multiple purposes that exist independently from—and are perhaps at odds with—romanticized versions of the past.
As longstanding venues for tour events and major championships, their architecture and setups function to test performance. As two of the most visible, desirable championship courses in the U.S., they’ve also become cultural archetypes, intellectual golf property if you will; with Pebble Beach, instantly recognizable, representing a public golf ideal and Riviera representing similar aspirations on the private side.
Given the iconography of each course and how superbly they perform their stated roles, it becomes difficult to advocate for substantive change. What do either have to gain?
Recreating Pebble Beach’s exotic coastal dunescape of the late 1920s might be visually spectacular but it’s hardly practical, and that look only existed for a few years before being altered again during the Great Depression. And no amount of architectural tinkering can make Pebble Beach more popular than it already is. People travel there for the course’s history, to play golf along the cliffs and for the overall emotional experience, so much so that perpetually full tee sheets have encouraged the resort to raise green fees to $575.
If Riviera is lacking anything, it’s not architecture. The entire course remains a museum for the highest strategic ideals developed during the Golden Age, with nearly every hole presenting a singularly distinctive puzzle with unfolding solutions. And though Thomas and Bell might not recognize the bunkering as their own, the finely sculpted shapes have developed their own identity as some of the most sensuous hazards in the game.
Pebble Beach and Riviera are not alone among elite courses that have “permanently” evolved. The character of Pinehurst No. 2 is inextricably connected to the crowned, repelling greens even though Donald Ross did not design them that way (they are the result of top-dressing and other modifications). Pine Valley, long the template for holes shrouded in isolation, once possessed views across a landscape bereft of mature trees.
The most notable analogue is Augusta National, which long ago sacrificed the rough, naturalist shaping of Alister MacKenzie in favor of design elements better suited to elite tournament play. No course has been altered more significantly without losing prestige. And while some architecture buffs might pine for a return to MacKenzie’s Augusta, the extremely specialized architecture is peerless in producing the intended result: thrilling Masters competitions.
Could Pebble Beach or Riviera be improved through historical restorations? That’s a compelling debate. The trickier question is, how much would it be improved? And at what cost?
Does costly architectural remodeling make sense when setup and course presentation—mowing lines, tree management—have an equal or greater impact on shot variety and playability? Would any proposed restoration advance the prestige, or functionality, of each property?
As said, debatable. But if neither Pebble Beach nor Riviera make new overtures to the past, they’ll nonetheless continue to excite and deliver on their purposes, just as they’ve done for decades.
Old friends, warm conversations.