PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Nick Faldo inhaled deeply, savoring the smell of the abundant eucalyptus trees at Riviera Country Club, an iconic golf course he rates among the few he would love to play for the rest of his life.
The six-times major champion was standing just outside the Spanish-style clubhouse at Riviera, looking out over the practice putting green and, below that, the par-71 layout which winds its way through the Santa Monica Canyon.
Venue for this week’s Northern Trust Open, fabled Riviera will always have a special place in Faldo’s heart - not only due to its unique challenge but also because it was the scene of his final PGA Tour victory at the 1997 Nissan Open.
“If you could only play one golf course for the rest of your life, this would be one of the choices,” Englishman Faldo told Reuters while his compatriot, Lee Westwood, practiced his putting stroke on the green below.
“It’s always going to be different through all the seasons. It’s got enough variety that, unless you were (Ben) Hogan and you hit your ball in the same divots, then it will play pretty different every single day.”
Riviera’s challenge comes mainly from its small greens, the shrewd arrangement of its bunkers and the subtle problems created by the winding canyon terrain.
“If you are on the wrong side of the fairway coming across a bunker on to the side slopes of the green, you can’t get close, you just cannot get close,” said former world number one Faldo.
“Then the angle of the greens as well, you’re hitting across so many corners on this golf course that you have to be precise, and that gets really tough.
“There are great holes, like the (driveable) par-four 10th which has really come to life in recent years. The guys hit it so much further now so they all go for that green but back in our day we didn’t.”
Faldo recalled that in his prime players generally aimed well left of the green off the tee at the 10th, but that it was key to gauge the correct distance.
“You had to get it far enough down there so you could at least wedge it right up the green,” said the 55-year-old Englishman. “That green is just nine, 11 paces wide on a down slope so if you come in at the wrong angle ... big problems.
“Like the playoff last year when there’s three guys from 30 yards away off the tee.
“I said to (fellow television analyst) Gary McCord, ‘Okay, I am predicting one guy will hit it on the green out of the three but I don’t know which one it is.’ That’s the quality of the hole.”
Faldo, who works as the lead golf analyst on television for CBS Sports and Golf Channel, was proved correct in his prediction during the three-way playoff for last year’s Northern Trust Open.
Bill Haas was the only member of the American trio to reach the green in two as Phil Mickelson wound up in a back right bunker and Keegan Bradley ended up on the fringe of the green.
Haas went on to clinch the title by sinking a curling 43-footer for birdie.
Designed by golf course architect George Thomas, Riviera will forever be nicknamed “Hogan’s Alley” in honor of the two Los Angeles Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open won at the venue by golfing great Hogan.
It was here that Hogan set his U.S. Open record low total of 276, which stood for 19 years, and it was the scene of his astonishing comeback to the sport from a near-fatal car accident when he lost out to Sam Snead in a playoff for the 1950 LA Open.
Nine-times major winner Hogan, who was renowned for his superlative ball-striking and workaholic approach to the game, has a statue in his honor overlooking Riviera’s practice putting green.
Appropriately enough, Faldo was standing right next to that statue while speaking to Reuters.
“Hogan’s Alley,” Faldo smiled. “I love the aura and the atmosphere of this place. Even the smell here, I love gum trees. It was always one of my favorite spots to play.
“This was a true ‘how Faldo used to play golf’ type of course. There’s a bit of strategy, a bit of thinking. There are big saucer greens here but pin-high is actually not good here because there is so much break (with putts).
“You are better to be short or past the pin because if you are pin-high, you can be just 15 feet away and you will have four feet of break all day long. That will drive you nuts on quite a lot of the greens. I love this place.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue