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4 Unforgettable Days at Riviera

By Tim Cotroneo

Leading up to playing in your first Pro-Am is nerve wracking for any golfer. Imagine the excitement if that virgin experience is The Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

The email invitation for this event, with a history dating back almost a century, was suitable for framing. For this golfer, the Genesis keepsakes would continue to accumulate at a rate that would make Rory McIlroy’s clubhead speed appear tame by comparison.

By the time I arrived at my hotel in Santa Monica, CA, the thrill meter was already a nine on a scale of one to ten. Over the next four days nothing could have prepared me for the perks, the magic moments, and the golf that would follow.

Ocean Digs

I would soon learn that the good people at Genesis, the luxury vehicle division of Hyundai, would spare no expense in hosting, entertaining, and welcoming everyone connected with the golf tournament bearing their name. My accommodations would be at the oceanfront Hotel Casa Del Mar. If I wasn’t capable of sleeping during my stay in L.A., I couldn’t blame my plush bed and posh surroundings.

The Casa del Mar opened in 1926, ironically the same year as The Riviera Country Club. Hollywood stars frequenting this hotel, and this golf course, have found both venues to be the perfect places to either be seen or blend in.

The service at the Casa del Mar was extraordinary, and their visible staff exhibited a sixth sense for anticipating a guest’s needs. What’s amazing is that this nearly 100-year-old hotel exudes a vibe that is fresh, thoughtful, and exhilarating.

Pro-Am Draw Party at Riviera CC

After mingling at a cocktail party on the hotel’s main floor, my fellow amateurs and I were whisked to the Riviera Country Club located about six miles away in Pacific Palisades. Upon walking into this storied venue, I quickly perused the bounty of golf artifacts, photos, and memorabilia capturing the club’s history. I could also literally feel the excitement generated by the crowd inside.

A bass beat of music welcomed amateurs to the ballroom where the Pro-Am Draw Party was in full buzz-mode. Scores of smiling servers offered appetizers and drinks as I met pumped amateurs anticipating which pro golfer they would team with the next day.

Just before the draft began, Justin Rose emerged from the crowd, and he graciously bantered with Mike Antolini, the Tournament Director. Rose encouraged golfers to swing beyond their golf ball as his final tip before tomorrow’s reality check on the first tee box. My team chose Sahith Theegala as the pro promising to lead our way starting at 11:30 the following morning.

The Pro-AM: It’s Showtime

I met the two amateurs rounding out my foursome at Riviera about two hours before our teeing off. Justin Spieth was on the practice green, and we learned Tiger Woods was already on the back nine. 

Woods sudden announcement that he’d be playing in the Genesis tourney sent shock waves throughout the golf world. Still recovering from leg injuries from his car accident in 2021, this would be Woods’ first four-day golf venture since playing at St. Andrews in July of 2022. If you’re curious how important this Hall of Famer is to the international golf audience, you should know that Thursday’s opening round at the Genesis would see a 141% spike in the Golf Channel’s television audience.

For mere golf mortals like me, I mustered courage to contend with a semi-huge throng gathered around Riviera’s elevated first tee box. After photos with Theegala, each one of our names was announced before busting our drives at the 503-yard, Par 5, first hole. I sliced my drive, but then my caddie coaxed me into recovering with a nifty sand up- and-down for a par. Whew! It had to get easier after number one.

Caddies are the Best

Each amateur was designated a caddy, first on the practice range, and then throughout the round. My caddy had decades of experience, and he exhibited a Masters Degree in Riviera knowledge.

Perhaps your television screen conveys how diabolical Riviera’s greens are. You should know that on several occasions my caddy, Pete, halted me from aiming dead at the hole. Often the correct play was aiming a quantum leap to the left or right. Then there was the matter of speed. Downhill chips and putts can roll forever.

Theegala was accompanied by Rick Hunter, his long-time coach. When I pressed Hunter for tips, he cordially made suggestions regarding my backswing, as well as chipping on Riviera’s cunning short grass. All in all, Theegala was a great companion. He made a fan out of this golfer, and I’m looking forward to watching his episode on the new Netflix documentary Full Swing.

Thursday’s Opening Round at the Genesis Invitational

Not wanting the amateurs to feel neglected, Genesis invited us for cocktails and dinner at the Bel-Air Bay Club during the evening after our Pro-Am experience. Everyone was still on an adrenaline high following our round. 

Before we knew it, Thursday’s opening round arrived, and I had the pleasure of an inside-the-ropes credential titled Honorary Observer. The lanyard I wore around my neck meant I’d have my photo taken with the Genesis Invitational trophy on the first tee box. The credential also translated into my accompanying a designated threesome that included Keith Mitchell, a Chattanooga, TN, native who would go on to finish fifth after Sunday’s closing round.

What a Week

Mitchell wasn’t the only golfer I rubbed elbows with who finished in the money. Theegala tied for sixth overall and took home a paycheck of $700,000.

Of course Theegala and the rest of the field finished behind Jon Rahm. The amazing Spaniard’s victory at the Genesis Invitational was his third on this year’s PGA Tour. Host Tiger Woods handed Rahm the winner’s trophy.

By the time Rahm pocketed his $3.6 million dollar winner’s check, my flight had already touched down back home. Short of driving away with the Genesis Electrified GV70 awarded to anyone scoring a hole-in-one on Riviera’s 14th hole, my overall Pro-Am experience was a ten. In fact, my four-day Pro-Am experience playing one of the most iconic 18-hole layouts in America was in a word: Priceless!