Los Angeles Country Club (North Course)
California, United States of America
Golf originated by the North Sea on links land. As it gained in popularity, the game moved inland, first to the unique heathland belt around greater London and later to parkland settings. In the United States of America, parkland courses out-number all other forms of golf combined, including ocean, mountain, desert, and prairie courses. What’s surprising is that perhaps the single finest example of parkland golf isn’t found in a bucolic setting on the outskirts of a major city but near the bustling intersection of Wilshire and Beverly Hills in California. The vibrant setting for the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club is akin to a golf course in Manhattan’s Central Park: distant skyscrapers heighten the golfer’s appreciation of the tranquil beauty around him and the deer and the foxes (!).
Of course, back when George Thomas went to work on the North Course, it was in the country. Times have changed (!) but Thomas’s design values endure. To the author, what Thomas accomplished between 1925 and 1928 constitutes the greatest burst by an architect in the history of the game. During that brief span, and joined by his design associate Billy Bell, Thomas created Bel-Air, Riviera, penned the cornerstone Golf Architecture in America and then oversaw the complete rebuild of the North Course. Superlatives fail to do the man justice.
Born and raised on the east coast, George Thomas was influenced by the Philadelphia School of Design and especially its two design monuments, Pine Valley and Merion. By the time Thomas moved to Los Angeles in 1919, he had built several courses back east. In 1921, the Los Angeles Country Club sought to upgrade its two courses that had been laid out by several members including Ed Tufts and Norm Macbeth. At the time, the Englishman Herbert Fowler enjoyed one of the biggest names in the profession, having built several pre-eminent courses in England prior to World War I including Walton Heath and the complete revision of Westward Ho!. After World War I, his design services were in demand in America and his figure 8 routing and resulting holes at Eastward Ho! on Cape Cod showed great imagination.
He ventured west to Los Angeles by train. For reasons unclear, the 36 holes that Fowler laid out for LACC in the early 1920s weren’t of the same caliber as his top tier designs. Thomas even oversaw the construction of the North Course on behalf of Fowler, who returned to England prior to the North Course opening. As much as any man, Thomas knew of its deficiencies. In 1926, LACC agreed to host the inaugural Los Angeles Open. Harry Cooper, an accomplished champion, won with a score of seven under par but the powers that be deemed the course insufficient. The author can only surmise that it must have centered around a lack of strategy and Fowler’s predeliction for straight holes – and Thomas would have been relentless in pointing that out.
By that time, Thomas had completed Bel-Air (originally a phenomenal work of architecture running through canyons) and was finishing Riviera. Thomas had both the reputation and ability to convince the club to let him have a go at modernizing the North Course. Compared to Fowler, Thomas emphasized playing angles. His quote that ‘Strategy is the soul of the game’ says it all. Off Thomas went! Only two holes (the first and eighteenth) ended up occupying the identical ground as Fowler’s holes once Thomas was done. As a side note, Thomas let Fowler’s infamous seventeenth, a tiny 110 yarder played to a wicked sub-2000 square foot green, go fallow without altering its one-of-a-kind perched green pad. To the delight of all, Hanse Design brought back this hole as an alternate hole during their 2010 restoration.
As Thomas was an eloquent writer, we know the importance he placed on topography. Thomas could have well been describing LA North when he wrote in 1926:
To my mind, the most important thing in the Championship course is the terrain, because no matter how skillfully one may lay out the holes and diversify them, nevertheless one must get the thrill of nature. She must be big in her mouldings for us to secure the complete exhilaration and joy of golf. The made course cannot compete with the natural one; that is why we so often hear how superior the dunes of linksland are to inland courses, because inland courses are, many times, uninteresting and flat; but on the other hand, there are many inland courses which are as fine as the linksland by the sea.
Of their Big Three designs around Los Angeles, the North Course occupied the best raw property for golf. Indeed, its diverse nature makes it one of the finest parkland sites imaginable and George Thomas’s 1927 re-routing took superb advantage of the numerous hilltops, valleys replete with washes, and ridges to create a series of distinctive holes that seem unique in world golf. As Gil Hanse puts it, ‘the course enjoys a perfect sense of place and balance.’
Coupled with Bell building the design features so well into the ground, they built a course that should have stood the test of time. Alas, Thomas passed away in 1932 during the Great Depression. Pearl Harbor and World War II followed and decades passed during which golf floundered. Even a club like Los Angeles Country Club isn’t immune to passing fades and fancies. By the 1990s, the course was plush and manicured. Verdant grass was a priority and the gnarly, sandy wash that was once a dominant feature of the front nine had been sterilized. Sensing the course had strayed from its Thomas roots coupled with a desire to save on water, the club pursued native areas in 2005. The unintended consequences were lost balls and grumpy members.
Having returned to LACC in 2003, General Manager Kirk Reese had a fresh set of eyes and appreciated that some form of action was required. He instigated restoration dialogue with the green committee and board. At the suggestion of local architect and author Geoff Shackelford whose books on Thomas including The Captain have long celebrated what made Thomas special even among other Golden Age titans, the club decided to call in Hanse Design. A series of eloquent presentations to the club by Hanse detailed what a special course they once had. Green Committee Chairman Don Rice worked with past Club Presidents Barclay Perry and Bob Cooper to steer the club in the best direction possible by making the scope of the project grander, not smaller. The end result would not have been so comprehensive if not for their help in pushing for detail items like bringing back Little 17 or tying the tenth fairway into the sixteenth fairway. Eventually, the club green-lighted work to commence, despite the unstable American economy.
Phase one restored the fairways bunkers, including those short of the one shot eleventh hole and was completed in 2009 to unfettered acclaim. LACC quickly proceeded with greenside bunker restoration, new tees, re-grassing, irrigation, the removal of shrubs/trees and re-establishing the wash. Such work was completed in October, 2010. Hanse thinks that ‘The two stage process of doing the fairways bunkers first followed by the rest gave the club leadership the confidence that we were on the right track. The membership buy-in was crucial as it eventually allowed us to get the second and eighth greens returned to Thomas’s positions.’ New Greenkeeper Russ Myers was integral to the overall success of the restoration and continues to refine and perfect the presentation of the course. Hanse expresses it more succinctly: ‘Overstating Russ Myers’s importance to the entire project is impossible.’
The bunker restoration process worked as follows: Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford staked out the old bunker areas, which were generally larger than what had evolved. Hanse would get on the dozer to find the lost bunker or shave down years of build-up. Wagner did the detail work creating the new form and then Shackelford worked with Hawk Shaw Construction in stacking the sod to give the bunker faces an evolved appearance that mimicked Bell’s work. This is an old course and the restoration would feel like a failure if the bunkers appeared ‘new.’ So successful was the project, that the bunkering (placement and aesthetics) and use of hazards here rivals those at the best parkland courses in the country including Oakmont and Merion.
Central to the success of any restoration are: How well thoughtout and complete was the scope of the project? How good was the in-the-dirt work? How much were the worst holes/features improved? By all measures, the restoration of the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club ranks at the top with the very best, including Gil Hanse’s own transformational work at The Country Club, Sleepy Hollow, Quaker Ridge, and the East Course at Winged Foot.
Holes to Note
(Please note: the Long Tees on the North Course measure over 7,200 yards and provide as strict an examination as any parkland course in the country. Indeed, the North Course may well be the hardest course in the state on a calm day. Both it and the Bell tees of ~6,600 yards are referenced below.)
First hole, 580/545 yards; Thomas groused, ‘We hear complaints of anything and everything that keeps poorly executed shots, which were played without proper thought, from reaching a situation as advantageous as that secured by another man who has carefully planned and placed his ball.’ Clearly, the man had little time for people who displayed a sloppy approach to the game. More than any architect alive or dead, Thomas’s work required the golfer to think and continually weigh options shot after shot. As a result, the author puts George Thomas among the handful of all-time greatest architects, so the fact that LACC once started and ended on such weak notes never made sense. Of course, the answer lies in how the first and Home holes had evolved. Once grand in scale, the two holes had become artificially separated by rough and a row of spindly trees. Today, the golfer stands on the first tee and sees an ocean of short grass shared between the two fairways as he prepares to tee off under the watchful gaze from members in clubhouse directly behind. Reminiscent of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the connected fairways extend 135 yards (!) in width. Instead of a burn and Valley of Sin, sprawling bunkers and angled greens lend the two holes here their strategic interest.
Second hole, 490/440 yards; At the heart of any restoration is returning the holes to their original form, though allowances such as additional tees and fairway bunkers can be made to counteract changes in technology. In 2005, the front nine suffered mightily from three greens that were not in Thomas locations, namely the second, sixth and eighth. All three were put back by Hanse Design which helps the North Course now lay claim to being the most pure example of Thomas’s work. The second had been turned into a par five by moving the green right nearly 100 yards and uphill from its original spot on the far side of a barranca. As seen also at Riviera, Thomas thought an easy par, hard par was the ideal start to a round. As these back-to-back par fives played in 2005, most players had a wedge into the first and a wedge into the second. Thomas courses always featured more ebb and flow between holes, which is part of their enduring charm. A lack of monotony is a chief aspect to keeping a courses ‘fresh’ in players’ minds with the North Course being a prime example of Robert Hunter’s dictum that a course should not ‘have holes of similar character follow each other.’ That core principal was violated when the second green was moved. Nonetheless, the club board faced a tough decision in restoring its location because the eighth green had been pushed back thirty yards and occupied roughly where the old second green had been. Committed to Thomas’s legacy, the board ultimately gave Hanse Design the go ahead to restore both green sites. A contentious issue, time has shown it was the proper decision. The give and take of not only the first two but the first eight holes was markedly improved and a slew of 1/2 par holes now greet the golfer.
Third hole, 400/400 yards; Though many modern architects might flatten the landing area, Thomas and Bell did not as they treated natural fairway contours as integral with the hole’s strategy. In this case, the golfer may elect to forgo distance off the tee in order to gain a flatter stance for his approach. If so, he is left with a mid-iron approach to a green strikingly bunkered front center. Given the visual intimidation of this Bell bunker, many golfers are long with their approach, which provides its own challenge as the green races away from back left. According to Shackleford, ‘Recapturing the green sizes, and thereby some of the best hole locations, was one of the biggest components to getting the character of the course back. Thomas’s green contours were never more than just extensions of the land, however he did love to create all sorts of wings and and caverns to have the option to set courses up in interesting ways. Obviously, the entire third green, which is kind of a starfish now with holes in front and back left/right took that green from being a circle to having the potential for radical day-to-day variety.’
Fourth hole, 210/200 yards; Thomas wrote, ‘One shotters are most important. In these holes one gets a keener interest on the tee shot than the others, because it may be played to the green by most men. To my mind, five one shotters are not too many.’ And so there are five one shotters at LACC, where a full gamut of shots from downhill to uphill, from a short iron to wood are required. This one kicks off the quintet and to appreciate how the aesthetics have changed in the past five years, look no further than the before and after photographs below.