Wilshire Country Club
California, United States of America
After World War I until the Great Depression, the golf scene in Southern California was one of the most vibrant in the game’s history. Sandy soil, a rugged coastline and rolling land studded with canyons and barrancas were available in this sun drenched, golf-conducive climate. Great architects including Alister MacKenzie, George Thomas, Billy Bell, Max Behr, Robert Hunter and Norman Macbeth populated the state. Other legends, like A.W. Tillinghast, Herbert Fowler, and Seth Raynor were drawn to the west coast. Less is known about Norman Macbeth than most others because he was neither a prolific designer or writer and the passage of time has not treated his works well. Several of his designs met their demise during the Great Depression and others had their playing features greatly compromised. There has been little good news – until recently!
Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design’s restoration work at Wilshire Country Club has brought a renewed appreciation for Macbeth and his work. Situated on 104 acres, Wilshire is surrounded by landmarks, including the Hollywood sign high on the hill to the north and Howard Hughes’s former mansion bordering to the south. Beverly Boulevard now bisects the the property as does a barranca that runs perpendicular to that road. Macbeth’s utilization of the barranca on over half the holes defines the golf. Variety abounds and leaves no doubt about Macbeth’s top-notch ability and understanding of the finest design principles.
His background provides clues to his appreciation of golf design. Born near Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Macbeth became an ace player and in his younger days battled the best, including John Ball, Harold Hilton and Ted Ray. After a brief stint in India, he emigrated to the United States in 1907 and resided for a time in Pittsburgh where he became friends with the Fownes family. After moving to Southern California, Macbeth along with several other members of the Los Angeles Country Club created 36 holes at its new Beverly Hills address. His involvement in course design is hardly surprising as accomplished players have regularly put their stamp on courses. From Old Tom Morris to Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, skilled players have often been considered expert on all matters golf. Macbeth’s undeniable masterpiece is Wilshire and it is the course where he lavished the most attention.
One assumes that the fiercely-bunkered Lytham and Oakmont courses influenced Norman because initially the bunkering at Wilshire was similarly blunt in appearance. Later on, the stylish efforts of MacKenzie and Thomas held more appeal and Macbeth saw to it that Wilshire’s bunkers so evolved. Still, it is MacBeth’s use of the barranca that makes Wilshire a design standout and nowhere is that more evident than at the third and fourth holes. Here, the barranca is especially serpentine and Macbeth capitalized on the design options. Witness the flags in the middle of the third and fourth greens; they are a scant forty yards apart on their respective peninsulas on opposite sides of the barranca. It is really a quite marvelous scene and the resultant shot values demonstrate that Macbeth subscribed to the strategic school of design. Terrain dictates play at the third where the natural grade of the land renders a green falling away toward the barranca (i.e.. left to right and away from the player). The ensuing hole requires a carry over the barranca but this par 3 guarantees a perfect stance and lie for the shot. Two dramatically different challenges are enjoyed in the space of a football field over a span of ten minutes!
Macbeth wrote in Pacific Gold and Motor in 1920 that Wilshire ‘… has one supreme virtue – that of naturalness; those narrow, winding stream-beds where the clumps of willow grow were put there by the hand of Nature herself, who, if she be not so cunning is at any rate infinitely more artistic than any golf architect.”
Macbeth gave back to the game, serving on various golf associations most of his life as well as the USGA green section in its nascent period. Turf was a special interest and he went so far as to build initially double greens for each of the one shot holes at Wilshire to experiment with what grasses worked best. There is no doubt that he would be delighted with the new strain of Tif-Dwarf 419 Hybrid Bermuda that was planted during the 2008 Phillips restoration. It provides tight playing surfaces which helps the course emulate the links brand of golf that Macbeth admired.
Macbeth’s Wilshire (actually located in nearby Hancock Park) was widely admired and big events, including four Los Angeles Opens, came here. Of course, time moves on. Oil wells once seen in the distance were replaced by homes and the widespread acceptance of the automobile lead to the creation of Beverly Boulevard which now divides the front and back nines. The game progressed from hickory to steel and eventually titanium while trees and shrubs grew – and grew. Wilshire’s defining features – short grass, scale and strategy were badly compromised in the process. Cramped holes that required straight hitting and not much else became a shocking departure from what initially existed. Something needed to be done and most fortuitously the Club hired Phillips who was fresh off his stellar work at the California Golf Club of San Francisco.
Bold action was required and that is what Phillips does best. Wilshire needed the strategies that Macbeth had imbued into each and every hole recaptured. Doing so would enable Wilshire to reestablish its unique identity in the competitive golf landscape of greater Los Angeles. Since there is so little Macbeth architecture, his work at Wilshire stands out and appears startlingly fresh. The player doesn’t feel like he has seen such holes before or played a similar course. Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design needed to polish this tainted gem and restore the luster that folks like Bobby Jones enjoyed here.
The keys of a successful restoration were accentuating Macbeth’s use of the stream, restoring firm playing conditions and recapturing the strategic elements of the bunkers. Huge strides were made so that, yard for yard, Wilshire once again packs a punch and makes demands of the golfer in the appealing manner that defined the Golden Age of golf course architecture. On this course measuring just over 6,500 yards, a golfer must think and play like a chess master and not an automaton.
Golf historian, ardent Macbeth admirer, and long-time southern California resident Tommy Naccarato frames it this way:
Many modern architects have asked me what it is about Wilshire that makes it so enticing to golf architecture fanatics. Well, the first thing I recall thinking on my first visit there – before its most recent renovation – was just how links-like the course seemed despite years of tree growth and urban sprawl. It was unlike that of any other great course in the Los Angeles basin, which no question is due to the credit of Mr. Norman Macbeth, one of the truly magnificent character-personalities in Southern California golf history. When Macbeth came to Los Angeles, he brought with him a wide range of golfing talents and experiences to an area that had very little knowledge of how a golf course should really look and play. With the sport reaching fever proportions in 1919, Wilshire’s founding members backed Macbeth’s every move on an oddly shaped rolling ranch property through which a burn-like creek meandered. With a knowledge of golf course architecture learned on the links of Great Britain, Macbeth found an ingenious routing – one which artfully incorporated the burn-like creek into almost all of the holes in varying directions – which has changed very little to this day. Aside from a tremendous amount of unnecessary tree growth, which is now being rectified, the way in which the creek was altered due to the Los Angeles basin’s Great Flood of 1938 is the only really obvious change to the course from its origins. My great hope is that someday the stars will align and the club will figure out a way to work with the local authorities to restore the burn-like creek to how it originally played around holes 3, 4, 16 and 18. If this were to ever happen, I truly believe that the architecture of Wilshire’s golf course would be on a par with the architecture of the courses at the Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera and Bel Air.
Let’s find out what makes this a one-of-a-kind layout.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 525 yards; A sure way to appreciate an architect’s chops is to see what he does on flat land. MacBeth’s creation of a single mound left of the angled green combined with a trough right is the golfer’s introduction to Macbeth’s engaging form of strategic golf. The mound simulates a dune and Macbeth placed it to angle the line of play. The golfer who can hug the right sees down the length of the green while those that shy left face an increasingly awkward – and sometimes blind – shot into the green.
Third hole, 345 yards; As is nature’s want, the land tilts toward the barranca that runs north to south through the property before reaching Santa Monica Bay. The result is a most pleasant movement within these fairways. There are elevation changes of 8 feet or more at holes 3, 8, 9, 14, 16 and 18. Nothing too hilly mind you, just the kind of undulation that is well suited to the game. How Macbeth deftly incorporated this subtle grade into the design of the third is noteworthy.
Fourth hole, 170 yards; As mentioned, two separate greens were originally installed at each of the one shotters. Later on, the fourth became one green and during the restoration, Phillips proposed and the Club agreed to restore it to a nearly 10,000 square foot massive green. Its size creates a startlingly diverse array of shots and anything from a wedge to a 4 iron may be required during a full playing season. Before World War II, four greens measured over 9,000 square feet. This was clearly a strategem that Macbeth embraced and he employed it at every type hole imaginable: the drive and pitch third, the par three here, the par five sixteenth and finally at the mighty two shot eighteenth. One thing can be said about Macbeth: the man could build great golf holes.
Fifth hole, 380 yards; The barranca impacts play on thirteen holes (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18). Even more impressive is the varied manner in which Macbeth utilized it. For example, it circles around the sides and back of the third green while it fronts the fourth. It’s similar at sixteen and eighteen where it fronts one but snakes around the sides and back of the other. Drives left and right are menaced at 12 and 17, approach shots at 4 and 16 and both drive and approach shots at 8 and 18. Here at the fifth, the barranca slashes diagonally across the fairway to take a position left of the green where it swallows a pulled approach. Without doubt, the barranca is the property’s most unique feature and Macbeth’s astute routing took maximum advantage of it.