When you think of Babe Ruth, you think of Yankee Stadium. When you think of King Arthur, you think of Camelot. When you think of Caruso, you think of La Scala.
And when you think of Ben Hogan, you think of Riviera.
Riviera is an integral part of the Hogan legend--and therefore, the golf legend of our century. And of course, Hogan is an integral part of the Riviera legend. If Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth Built, Riviera is the House That Built Hogan.
Hogan won four U.S. Opens in all, and three of them were on courses other than Riviera. But Riviera was his first and most important. It was a watershed moment for the Hogan Myth, which is to golf what the Lincoln Myth is to history.
Riviera was perfect for Ben Hogan--and Ben Hogan was perfect for Riviera. It was a thinking man's golf course, no drive-and-an-eight-iron felt pool table here, you cerebrated your way around.
It looks benign. It invites attack. But it's like one of those choirboy killers. Behind those big blue eyes and pink cheeks and that soprano voice lurks the heart of a sociopath. Little Red Riding Hood's wolf in grandma's nightcap.
Hogan knew this. There are places to be with your tee shots at Riviera. And places not to be. You don't play smash-mouth golf at Riviera. It doesn't respond to brute strength, to bullying. The architects didn't need railroad ties, man-made ponds or even doglegs to make it worthy of the foemen's steel shafts. You can't play caveman golf here. You don't drag the course home by the hair. It might drag you.
It bides its time with you. In 1983, the last time a major was played at Riviera (the PGA, which takes place again this week there), I remember the great golf writer and author, Dan Jenkins, had become annoyed with the course. "Riviera has lost its punch," he complained. "It's gotten soft. It's past its prime. Gibby Gilbert just had a 29 on the front nine." I was unimpressed. "Dan," I suggested, "why don't we wait at least till he gets to the back nine before we trash the course?"
Gibby Gilbert shot a 40 on the back nine. Riviera just stood there with a "Who me?" smile on its face.
Hogan tamed it as no one had. He won three tournaments on it in 18 months, and one of them was his first U.S. Open.
But Riviera was more than "Hogan's Alley." It was a great shining ornament on the L.A. sports scene. No venue in golf commands greater respect.
Hogan knew where to be to make threes at Riviera. I knew the places to be to make eights.
The beauty of Riviera for a pro was that it is not one of those courses where your card goes 4-3-3-5-3-11! Or 5-4-3-4-12! Riviera didn't have disaster holes. It had holes where, if you played them impeccably, you got your par or bird. If you played them sloppily, you got your bogey. It didn't humiliate you. It just boxed your ears. Taught you a lesson. Chided you gently. Tsk, tsk, tsk! Shame on you! It was as if it were disappointed in you. Like, "Don't you know better than to use an eight-iron there?"
Some golf courses are 18 holes of malice. Serial killers with flags in them. That was beneath Riviera's dignity. Riviera had class. It was not a mugger.
I remember as if it were yesterday, the first time I walked on its hallowed acres. I felt like Balboa getting his first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
I had seen other golf courses, but Riviera for the first time made me conscious of the beauty of the game, of its mathematical precision, its dramatic possibilities. The soaring eucalyptus trees, the lush green of the fairways, the penal undergrowth of the rough, the treacherous invitation of the greens. One of the great theaters of American sport.
Byron Nelson won the first tournament I ever saw there. Byron winning a tournament was fitting--Ruth hitting a homer, Dempsey (or Louis) scoring a knockout, Notre Dame beating Army. The natural order of things.
Even the galleries were first-class. Ted Williams was in the crowd the first L.A. Open I ever saw. Humphrey Bogart used to sit out under the tree guarding No. 12. In a trench coat and nursing a thermos full, I am sure, of 20-year-old Scotch. Clark Gable was abroad on its fairways. So was W.C. Fields. Bing Crosby. Bob Hope. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford. Howard Hughes was there. Howard Hughes took up the game, but he was too much of a perfectionist to persevere with it. Golf is no sport for a perfectionist. Hogan came closest. And he said once that one perfect shot a round was all you could expect. The rest were compromises.
Hogan compromised less than any golfer who ever played the game (with the exception of Jack Nicklaus). Mike Souchak once confided ruefully at Riviera, "Hogan just knows something about hitting a golf ball the rest of us don't."
That made Riviera perfect for Hogan. The course would take care of the guess-hitters trying to find their way through this haunted house.