Los Angeles Country Club (North Course)
California, United States of America

A new dawn has come to Los Angeles Country Club. Its regal North Course designed by George Thomas and Billy Bell has been immaculately restored and the club now prepares to host the biggest events in both amateur and professional golf.

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. As for golf in the United States of America, it is of no surprise considering its vast interior that the sheer number of parkland courses out-number all other forms of golf combined, including ocean, mountain, desert, and prairie golf. More telling perhaps is that the finest example of parkland golf isn’t found in a bucolic setting on the outskirts of a major city but rather exists near the ever bustling intersection of Wilshire and Beverly Hills in California. The vibrant setting of the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club is similar to playing in Manhattan’s Central Park: the distant skyscrapers heighten the golfer’s appreciation of the tranquil beauty around him, the deer and the foxes (!).

To the author, what Thomas accomplished between 1925 and 1928 constitutes the greatest burst by a single architect in the history of golf architecture. During those scant few years, Thomas along with his associate Billy Bell created Bel-Air, Riviera, penned the cornerstone golf architecture book Golf Architecture in America, and then completed the rebuild of the North Course. Superlatives fail to do the man justice!

Growing up on the east coast, George Thomas came along during the age of the Philadelphia School of Design highlighted by the seminal designs at Pine Valley and Merion. By the time Thomas moved to Los Angeles in 1919, he had already built several courses. In 1921, the Los Angeles Country Club sought to upgrade its two courses originally laid out by several members including Norm Macbeth and Ed Tufts. 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.

Out he came via train to Los Angeles. 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. George 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 what its deficiencies were. In 1926, LACC agreed to host the inaugural Los Angeles Open. Harry Cooper, a pedigree golfer, won with a score of seven under par but the powers that be deemed the course to be insufficient. The author can only surmise that it largely must have centered around a lack of strategy as Fowler’s tendency was toward straight holes – and Thomas would have been relentless in pointing that out.

By that time, Thomas had completed Bel-Air (which in its initial form was a phenomenal work of architecture running through canyons) and was wrapping up Riviera. Thomas had both the clout and ability to convince the club to let him have a go at modernizing the North Course. Compared to Fowler, Thomas was all about playing angles. His noteworthy 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 lay 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.

Thomas had a love/hate relationship with this little beast. He went to comically painful lengths in his book to explain that he didn’t mess up with a left hole location during a big event, writing, ‘I never admired Macdonald Smith so much as when he proved to that crowd of golfers that the uncommon and tricky conditions existing could be met by the man who played with his head as well as his hands.’

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.

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 with golf out of the spotlight. 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. Unclear what to do, they called in Hanse Design at the suggestion of local architect and author Geoff Shackelford. Shackelford’s books on Thomas including the Riviera club history book and The Captain have long celebrated what made Thomas special, even among the other Golden Age titans. Gil Hanse’s eloquent presentations to the club detailing what a special course they once had paid off. The club green-lighted work to commence, despite the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse and the resulting instability in the American economy.

The first phase was to restore the fairways bunkers, including those short of the one shot eleventh hole. That work was completed in 2009 and met with unfettered acclaim. The club promptly proceeded with the concluding phase which involved restoring the greenside bunkers, new tees, re-grassing, new irrigation, restoring the wash and the removal of shrubs/trees. Such work was completed in October, 2010. New Greenkeeper Russ Myers was integral to the overall success of the restoration and continues to this day to refine and perfect the presentation of the course.

The removal of vegetation has opened vistas back up so that all golfers now freshly appreciate the scintillating property with which Thomas and Bell had to work.

The bunker restoration process worked as follows: Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford worked together to stake out the old bunker area, which was generally larger than what currently existed. Hanse would get on the dozer to either find the lost bunker or to shave down build-up. Wagner then did the detail work in creating the new form. Once set, Shackelford worked with Hawk Shaw Construction in stacking the sod and giving the bunker faces an evolved appearance that mimicked the famous appearance of Bell’s bunkers. This is an old course and the restoration would feel like a failure if the bunkers seemed ‘new.’ As it turned out, the bunker work (both placement and aesthetics) was a success to the point where the bunker schemes here now rival the best of any parkland course in the country including those at Oakmont, Merion, and Riviera.

Take the greenside bunkers at the wide but shallow twelfth green as an example of the bunker work that was accomplished. They know possess a natural, rugged quality as appreciated …

 

… in this close-up. Hard to imagine that the bunkers are less than five years old in the photograph above!

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 among the very best, including Gil Hanse’s own transformational work at The Country Club, Sleepy Hollow, 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 in its original state 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. The connected fairways extend 135 yards (!) in width and the only difference conceptually with this start/finish and the one at St. Andrews is the artful, sprawling bunkering here that lend the holes their strategic interest.

Once a bland getaway hole, this 1/2 par opener now holds its head high with the rest of the course.

Note how the green bleeds away back left, forcing golfers to try to get past the right front bunker in two that is eighty yards short of the green.

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 some seventy yards and uphill from its original spot on the far side of a barranca. As seen at Riviera as well, 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 far more ebb and flow between holes, which is part of their enduring charm. In Thomas’s day, The North Course was a prime example of Robert Hunter’s dictum that a course should not ‘have holes of similar character follow each other.’ Such a lack of monotony is a chief aspect to keeping a courses ‘fresh’ in players’ minds. That very core principal of Thomas’s was violated when the second green was moved. Nonetheless, the club board faced a tough decision in restoring the second green 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 for restoring both green sites. A contentious issue, time has shown it was the absolute 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.

The newly restored second green once again occupies its rightful space inside the elbow of the wash. If the golfer doesn't get away a cracker of a drive, then his thoughts surely should turn to how and where to lay up on this par 4 1/2.

The newly restored second green once again occupies its rightful space inside the elbow of the wash. If the golfer doesn’t get away a cracker of a drive, then his thoughts surely should turn to how and where to lay up on this par 4 1/2.

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.’ 

This view highlights the hole’s rolling topography and how each golfer above faces a decidedly different angle/approach.

 

A George Thomas design, Billy Bell bunkering and palm trees - life doesn't get much better.

A George Thomas design, Billy Bell bunkering and palm trees – life doesn’t get much better.

As seen from the high left side, the third green is shaped like a tooth with Bell’s famous fronting bunker eating into the front middle.

Looking back down the third fairway, the juxtaposition of man and nature is nowhere more acutely felt than Los Angeles Country Club.

Looking back down the third fairway, the juxtaposition of man and nature is nowhere more acutely felt than Los Angeles Country Club.


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 green. To my mind, five one shotters are not too many.’ And so there are five one shotters at LACC, which require the full gamut of shots from downhill to uphill, from a short iron to a wood. This one kicks off the set and if you wish to appreciate how the aesthetics of the course changed as part of the restoration, look no further than the before and after photographs below.

Thomas placed this hole here for a reason, namely to take advantage of the wash. Today’s green complex looks like it organically rises out of its surrounds as compared to …

 

… this sterilized version from 2005. While the shot/goal remains similar in both versions, the ‘before’ hole is indistinguishable from countless downhill par 3s around the country while the ‘after’ hole properly reflects the hole’s distinctive natural environs.

Additionally, the fourth now requires a wide range of recovery shots over a playing season.

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