PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Oregon’s Daniel Miernicki had putter in hand but wasn’t even looking at the hole. He was content with hitting his 50-foot shot some 35 feet right of his target.
Miernicki, a 6-foot-4-inch senior and one of the longest hitters at the NCAA Championship, had dreams of driving the green when he started Tuesday’s first round on Riviera’s famed 315-yard 10th, a short par 4 with a unique set of challenges.
He tried to take distance off his tee shot, but the ball still bounded behind the skinny green. The shot came to rest on a downslope in the rough, some 4 feet below the green’s surface. A bunker stood between Miernicki and the hole location on the green’s right side. He could’ve tried a flop shot, but didn’t want to risk starting his day with a double bogey. So he played 35 feet right of the hole. A missed 3-footer meant bogey.
“It’s really risk-reward,” Miernicki said of the 10th. “Actually, it’s just hard.”
Short holes often reward the smart play, leaving an easy birdie for the humble and punishing the bold for the slightest mistake. Not Riviera’s 10th. Both paths are difficult. The penalty is severe for the slightest miscue. And that’s what makes it so fun to watch.
The green is guarded on three sides – front, right and rear – by bunkers and angled from left to right. A fairway bunker on the left forces players to make a decision. It’s 290 yards to carry the trap. Those who hit it over that bunker and land in a small area left of the green face a seemingly easy chip.
Most other shots around the green, especially to Tuesday’s back-right hole location, are difficult. That location is surrounded by bunkers on a portion of green that seems only 25 feet deep. For players who choose to lay up, the ideal tee shot is far on the fairway’s left side. There’s no agreement on the proper way to play the hole, though.
“We asked our guys to be committed to what they’re doing because both plays are right,” said Alabama head coach Jay Seawell. “You can play that hole correctly both ways. The younger guys all say go for it. Jerry Pate called me and said, ‘Lay up, lay up, lay up on 10.’ Same thing with Lee Janzen. It’s a generational thing.”
As proof that prudence doesn’t always pay off at the 10th, Alabama’s two bogeys Tuesday at 10 were made by players who laid up.
The 10th, despite being within range of most players’ tee shots, played to a 4.22 average in Tuesday’s NCAA Championship first round. There were more bogeys (39) than birdies (21). Eight double bogeys and an ‘other’ also were recorded, against a lone eagle.
The hole challenges PGA Tour players on an annual basis. Bill Haas birdied it in a sudden-death playoff to win this year’s Northern Trust Open, but he needed a 43-foot putt to do so. His competitors, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, both missed the green with their second shots after driving into awkward positions around the green.
It’s a short hole that has stood the test of time. There’s a scorecard in Riviera’s clubhouse, signed by Ben Hogan, from the days when the course was 6,522 yards. Riviera has been lengthened more than 700 yards since, but the 10th has grown just 4 yards, from 311 to 315.
This is the first time the collegians have seen it in competition. Most possess the physical skills to overpower the hole, but not the precision to take advantage of it.
“I think the college kids, because they’re college kids, probably don’t have as much fear of the hole as the pros do,” said USC head coach Chris Zambri, who missed the cut (76-70) in the 1996 Nissan Open at Riviera. “They don’t give it that much thought, and they walk off with a lot of 5s. It’s a hole that requires a lot of thought.”
UCLA’s Anton Arboleda, the NCAA Championship’s first-round leader after shooting 67, showed the simple way to make birdie. He hit over the left fairway bunker and was left with a simple chip shot to the back-right hole location. He hit it to 3 feet. Washington’s Chris Williams, the nation’s No. 5 player, was in a similar position, but hit his chip shot too hard and watched it roll off the green, down a slope and behind a bunker. He saved par with a 10-foot putt.
“It’s probably the hardest hole under 470 yards that I’ve ever played,” Williams said. “It’s probably the coolest hole I’ve ever played, too.”
Williams hit driver because, “We laid up in the practice round, and that was not an easy (approach) shot. I thought I may as well try to get up near the green.”
Oregon’s Eugene Wong, who played with Williams, showed that the safe tee shot doesn’t guarantee an easy second shot. He laid up to 85 yards. He thought he hit his wedge shot well, but the ball landed on the downslope of the front bunker, didn’t check up and rolled some 25 feet on the green, eventually settling in a similar position as Williams’ shot. Wong made bogey. The 10th green slopes toward a back bunker, making it even more unforgiving.
Texas’ Dylan Frittelli made birdie after laying up, hitting a 93-yard wedge shot to tap-in range.
“We got a lot of advice from members who have played here, Tour pros who have played here, and they all said lay up,” Frittelli said. “We’re just playing the percentages.”
Frittelli’s Texas teammate, Jordan Spieth, gladly laid up on No. 10, as well. He tried to drive the green when he played the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open here in February, but was “dead” in the front bunker, with no chance to make birdie.
“There’s a lot of ways to make it hard, and it’s not that hard of a hole,” Spieth said.
There’s also no consensus on the proper way to play the hole. “They’ve been talking about how to play that hole for 50-plus years, and there’s all kinds of opinions,” said Washington head coach Matt Thurmond. “I don’t think there’s anybody who has figured it out. All the options are good, and all the options are bad.”