George Thomas, an east coast native who cut his design teeth with others from the Philadelphia School of Design back in the teens, moved to the west coast in 1919 to establish a beachhead of quality designs in California in the full Golden Age tradition. With Bel-Air and Riviera already under his belt he took on the job of redesigning the two courses at Los Angeles Country Club at the request of their members. What he and his sidekick William Bell created with the North Course at LACC turned out to be the centerpiece of the George Thomas design portfolio in California.
Over the next 80 plus years a combination of meddlesome board decisions and some nature-based changes mollified the character of the course to the point where it had lost it’s soul. In the early 00’s an initiative by some younger members sought out Hanse Design to propose a plan to restore the North Course to the original design. Gil Hanse, with the capable help of his longtime associate Jim Wagner and some historical perspective from Geoff Shackelford, put together an ambitious restoration plan to bring the course back to it’s original character and full grandeur. The board had the good sense to fully embrace the restoration plan and in 2009 a staged restoration began to take place.
Gil Hanse’s Master Plan for the LACC North Course restoration
The work included rediscovering and restoring the original Billy Bell bunkering, returning to their rightful homes greens that had been senselessly relocated, thinning out the 80 years of overgrowth of trees and related ground vegetation that had compromised the views on the course, and establishing throughout the course the influence of the dry wash that had given this course it’s distinct character.
There is so much talk these days about recapturing the look and playability of courses of the Golden Age of Golf Course Design and that is precisely what Hanse and Associaties have done at LACC. The fact that the USGA and R & A are bringing a Walker Cup to LACC in 2017 and the U.S. Open in 2023 would tell you that the restoration was a roaring success.
Built on hundreds of rolling acres of some of the most valuable urban real estate in America LACC sits in the middle of Beverly Hills in the shadow of apartment buildings, palatial homes, and commercial development. They have maintained a reasonable buffer for the most part-while on the property you feel relatively secluded from all that with a few notable exceptions. The ground itself is a wonderful hilly piece of property that presented interesting possibilities for Thomas and Bell for the routing of holes and placement of tees, hazards, and greens. The genius of the design is that they used the flow of the land, the dry wash, and nature’s assets to create holes that do not intrude on the environment, they look like they were always there.
You contend with the dry wash everywhere-here as a forced carry off the 3rd tee
Stepping onto the first tee you take in the flavor of the course immediately. The grass platform for the teeing grounds are not distinct from the fairway in front of you. The vast continuum of short grass just melds into the course that is unfolding below your feet. The placement of the fairway and green side bunkers is very creative. They give clear direction to your strategic options off the tees and on approach. Many times you will realize that the movement of the pin 30 feet on the green can change both the preferred distance and angle of the approach you are trying to set up. This is why an investment in a good caddie is a must when you play LACC.
As you get out through the second and third holes the presence of the dry wash makes itself very apparent. Fortunately there is no water running through it and the fact that they do not seem to let it get overgrown means you can technically play from it without grounding your club. Having said that it is incumbent upon you to give the presence of the wash full consideration when weighing options of approach lines and club selection. Both of these holes will taunt you in terms of carry to reach the putting surface, especially if you are not in the fairway. First lesson to be learned at LACC is a bogie is an acceptable result when double or worse is possible taking on a shot that is just beyond your skill set.
First postcard view of the day…from the tee on the Par 3 4th
The par three fourth is one of the signature holes on the course-from it’s teeing ground the full splendor of LACC is apparent. Elevation change, wash, sand, even some exposed sand hills thrown in for good measure makes for a true Kodak moment. Once again Thomas gave you options that allow you to mitigate risk and protect your scorecard. Getting it close is a real risk/reward deal but hitting it to the fat part of the green should mean making par is very doable. If you forget what neighborhood you are in take a gander back up the hill from this green-that is Lionel Richie’s little bungalow looking down at you.
The neighbors are quiet, reserved guys like Lionel Richie and Hugh Hefner
In 1927 Thomas wrote a book called “Golf Architecture In America’ at about the same time he was doing this course where he talks about the notion of designing a course within a course. The idea was that holes could play to different strategy, even different par depending on how they set the tees and pins on a given day. As you will read in the link to the Hole-By-Hole Analysis below five through nine are all half par holes that speak to this notion-depending on set up and your degree of chutzpah they can be very different day-to-day.
Course within a course…219 to 242 yards across the abyss…7th hole is a Par 3/4
Six is a “drivable” par four where you have to be certifiable to try to go for the green. Seven is a par three where laying up may be the best option depending on the wind influence. Eight is a truncated, switch back, shish-link of a five par that throws all strategic convention out the window and dares you to play with a sense of abandon. If you survive the tee shot on tourniquet approach to the par three ninth a double has turned into a three with one swing of the club. The only thing I will guarantee is that once you have played through this fungible part of the course you will have goose bumps or the sweats depending on how you fared.
Gynormous driving areas like the 10th still require precision decision making
The inward nine is even more dramatic and just as thrilling. The tenth shares fairway with the sixteenth, a characteristic you see repeated a number of times through the round. This gives the course the appearance of great width and allows you to see through to others holes as you play. It reinforces the seamless character mentioned with continuous tee boxes to the fairways and reinforced often by continuous short grass between greens and the next teeing round. Thomas is playing with your mind because in spite of the width presented there is always a favored area, usually 20 to 25 yards wide that you want to place your tee ball in to have a sporting chance of taking on the challenge of the hole.
Reverse Redan….an uncomfortable approach down to the 11th green
The other postcard par three is the downhill eleventh. Here they reversed the classic Redan with an abruptly downhill tee shot that must be played off a side hill short left of the green to feed the ball onto a green that runs away to the right. Like most Redan holes, trying to take on the pin directly will likely put you in the nasty short side bunker or over the green with a thankless recovery shot at hand.
Green side bunkers are deep and nasty
You cannot talk about LACC without paying homage to the Billy Bell Bunkers. They are deep, intimidating, thoughtfully placed, yet totally playable. The toothy edges and gnarly brow grass is what people notice but the steep faces tend to avoid plug lies and the playing condition of where you end up-both sand and slope-lends itself to a typical bunker shot swing as long as you are wisely willing to accept 25 feet for the first putt.
On many of the par fours Bell embedded a bunker in the center front of the approach creating a notched arrangement in the front of the green. This provides a pinable section on either side of the bunker but often one of those sides hangs perilously above nastiness you do not want to engage. More decisions….this course is all about making clear headed decisions. Jim Wagner, with the help of Geoff Shackelford, labored tirelessly to restore the sod walls on the bunkers to support the signature jagged look that Bell had originally built into these hazards.
The Billy Bell Bunkers will make you take pause on planning your approach line
The three par fives are all holes you can try to reach in two if you are very long and very disciplined. The fourteenth is one of my favorites because even as a three-shot hole the lay-up and approach are fraught with difficulty if you bite off more than you can chew. It looks so simple yet the slightest deviation in execution can mean severe consequences to your scorecard.
I have read elsewhere that the genius of George Thomas was his ability to create something special on a short hole with little topographical feature. He did this repeatedly at Riviera and the short approach and putt fifteenth is another gem. The slender, crescent shaped green orients to tightly fitting bunkers with just enough elevation to mask what should be a simple, short iron approach. The hole can be as short at 75 and as long as 135 but I guarantee you more people are shaking their heads side-to-side rather than up-and-down when they are walking to the sixteenth tee.
Every great entertainment experience has a memorable finish and on that score LACC will not disappoint. With the Nassau bet in the balance the last three holes will determine the winner based on judgment, execution, and a little bit of existential fate. The walk to the house encompasses three par fours where success comes from thoughtful drive position followed by flawless execution on approach leaving an uphill putt where you can threaten the hole.
Wow quotient is high from the elevated tee looking down the 17th fairway
If you find the fairway off the tee on the sixteenth the approach is a repeat of the tee shot into the reverse Redan arrangement you saw on the eleventh just off your left shoulder. From the tee on the seventeenth the full monte of LACC sits below your feet-the wash, layered bunkering, and a wide driving area with a very focal sweet spot. The second is one of the most articulate approach shots you will hit all day as the green is set on a diagonal to your aiming line behind a nasty bunker front left and no bail out salvation anywhere. The finish is a walk back up the subtle ramp you played down on the first with a driving area that makes the 18th at the Old Course look narrow. Once again the position of your tee ball is critical to getting an accessible angle at a green tightly ensconced by furry sand.
Driftwood trimmings work well with the rah-rah logo
The ambiance of this place is traditional with a kitchy twist. The unusual pennant style of the LACC logo is everywhere on the course- on hole stanchions, tee markers, pins, practice green flags, scorecards, hats, and the shirt you will want to take home with you. This theme lends a youthful collegial feel to the facility that just seems to fit.
Bonus Coverage: #17 Alt the extra hole rediscovered in the restoration
Most important George Thomas created a course that is a graceful combination of raw nature and good, balanced design, a golf experience that will cling to your memory long after the walk is over.
Los Angeles, California
Designer: George Thomas (1927)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
Black 70 7010 74.6 139
White 70 6466 72.4 135
Red 70 6089 70.2 131
Green 70 5610 67.7 122
(Click to read the Hole-By-Hole Analysis of Los Angeles Country Club-North Course)