One of the hot topics in the locker room last week was the one-year break the Nissan Open will take from Riviera next season so the course can rest up for the '98 U.S. Senior Open in July. I don't know whether to feel happy or sad. I grew up in L.A., and Riviera has been a big part of my life. As a kid I never missed the tournament, and later, when I was a member of the UCLA team, we were allowed to play the course once a week. Now, as a pro, Riviera is my favorite Tour stop.
On the other hand, the tournament is moving to my home course, the Big V, Valencia Country Club. I was 11 when my dad first took me there. I was awful. I must have hit a dozen balls into the drink. I'm sure I didn't break 70—on either nine—but I loved the course. The fact that it's across the street from Magic Mountain, the amusement park where my dad also took me a lot, might have been part of the reason. (Today my favorite nearby attraction is Jimmy Dean's, a burger joint that has a terrific bean-and-cheese burrito.)
After I graduated from UCLA in 1985, Valencia also played a key role in my pro career. The first stage of the '86 Q school was at Valencia. I was playing badly in the third round when we reached the 9th hole, an easy 512-yard par-5. I made eagle, shot 67 and finished third. I went on to get my Tour card. I consider that hole one of the most important of my career.
Although Valencia opened in 1965, it's one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets because it's off the beaten path, about 25 miles up the freeway from Riviera. Designed by Robert Trent Jones during his Big Is Better phase, the course has hosted U.S. Open and Amateur qualifiers plus a slew of mini-tour and college events. Valencia was public—and crowded—until 1987, when a new owner, Uniden, a Japanese communications company, turned the course into a private club. I was granted playing privileges in 1991. That's one of the great things about being a Tour pro—no green fees.
Everything at Valencia is big—bunkers, greens, water hazards, even the trees. I don't usually play from the championship tees (7,105 yards) because the course is plenty long from the blues (6,681). The best holes are the four monster par-3s. The hardest is the third, which has water all the way down the right side. The hole is 180 yards from the blues, but 237 from the championship tee. Valencia's also a tough driving course because six par-4s dogleg to the right and are at least 390 yards long.
Nothing can take the place of a classic like Riviera, but Valencia's a solid substitute. I'll sure be smiling when I tee it up there next year. It's not often you get a home-course advantage.