George Thomas and Bobby Bell, a pair of graduates of the Philadelphia School of Golf Architects, migrated their professional shingle to the West Coast around 1920. They quickly established themselves as a go to pair for pulling quality golf courses out of the challenging terrain of this part of the country. Along with Alister MacKenzie they went on to produce some of the finest golf courses in this region.
Ojai Valley Inn was created around the same time of it’s more storied sister Thomas-Bell designs like Bel-Air, Riviera, and Los Angeles Country Club. Set against the dramatic mountain ridges that surround the Ojai Valley, you will see genius of these two men in their ability to refine the effect of the rugged topography with innovative routing and implementation of the strategic design concepts that make their courses a joy to play.
The tight configuration of the available land for golf led them to an unusual course routing that includes three Par 5’s and five Par 3’s in a Par 70 layout that now measures just under 6300 yards from the back tees. But when you consider about 350 yards in exchange of a long hole for an extra short hole and the effect the hills and the wind have on lengthening many approach shots, there is nothing meek about the golf challenge Ojai Valley presents.
This set of green surfaces are as consistently small as any I have seen on a championship course, so finding the target requires great precision. They have segmentation and slope which means approach line and trajectory really matter if you are going to avoid putting humiliation on the greens. The signature high edge, flash faced bunkers that Bell brought to all of their creations coupled with the drastic fall offs adds intimidation to the mix. To have success out here it takes a tactical approach to driving to find proper approach positions based on the day’s pin.
There is a convenient grass turf driving range and short game prep area just below the golf shop, make use of it to get your swing tuned in before you embark to the first tee as the front nine opens with five holes that will get your immediate attention. They play across some of the hilliest terrain on the property and demand disciplined shot making right out of the gate to avoid inflicting serious scorecard damage early in the round.
The first two holes you have to put your tee shots in a relatively small landing area (see the Hole-By-Hole Analysis below) to have a credible approach to two very angular green complexes.
On the second if you succeed in finding the center of the fairway, you have a short club in hand but are staring through a large picture window at a steeply pitched green that hovers above a harrowing barranca from which there is no recovery.
Two short Par 3 holes on the front, the first of which you reach at the third, require delicate short shots into tiny greens with no bail outs. The 100-yard pitch on the third seems innocuous to the eye, but picking the right club given the elevation change and any wind can make this very small target particularly elusive.
After another bracketed carry across the “Deer Canyon” on the short Par 4 fourth, you face a classic George Thomas uphill approach over a browed Billy Bell flash faced bunker that guards the left front of the green. The pitch up the hill better have serious friction because the green is barely the size of your thumb nail.
Take a pause on the precipice tee of the hole they call “Condor’s Nest” to appreciate the glorious backdrop the surrounding mountains present as you look down at this long Par 4 unfurling below your feet. This represents a swift change in gear as four of the next five holes will give you plenty of room to unleash your swing and channel your inner Dustin Johnson.
The seventh hole, “Crosby’s Creek named in deference to the Hollywood star who played here often throughout his career, is the #1 Handicap hole on the card and it demands two well executed blows to have any chance to make a par. The key is to protect from the train wreck number if you are out of position off this tee, as a stream runs diagonally through the second half of the hole and will give you serious pause in your club selection to reach a very tight plateau green complex framed by trees and deep Billy Bell bunkers.
After the second of the short pitch Par 3’s you have a very handsome march up “Eucalyptus Alley” on the long awaited first Par 5 of the day. The green complex set into a hill just below the hotel is framed by stacked flash faced bunkers and makes for one of the many Kodak moments of your day.
Make sure to get a little snack and some cold refreshment from Libby’s Market as you make your way up the hill on the other side of the hotel to the tenth tee. This next series of holes have delectable visuals as they play on the high side of the property to start the inward half.
The look off this tenth tee is majestic as a sweeping long Par 4 falls below your feet and then works back uphill to the tight green complex. The mountain backdrop is the stage for the Pink Sunsets this place is known for.
Two scoring opportunities presents themselves on the long Par 3 and short Par 5 that follow as you work your way back to the thirteenth tee to play a mirror image Par 4 adjacent to the tenth.
Preparing for the final run you start wrapping back around the lower end of the property you experienced on the opening nine where elbow room is going to disappear and precise shot making will prevail. You need to take advantage of the getable Par 3 and Par 5 at fourteen and fifteen because the mysterious “Lost Holes of Ojai” are just ahead.
In the years of the Second World War the military had abducted the land under a few holes in a remote corner of the property which made them disappear. But in a restoration in the late 1990’s these two “Lost Holes” were rediscovered and, along with the stiff finishing hole, set up a dramatic final exam to your golfing day.
Part I is “Captains Pride” a unique survival par three that you may think does not fit the flavor of the course. But the spectacular view you take in from the precipice tee makes it the signature hole in all their publications. The parameters of this hole are as tight as any you have seen all day so a very conservative approach is requisite in avoiding a bad number at this point of round.
Part II is the multiple choice section of the test called “Inspiration”. The tee box on seventeen is perched by itself, cocooned by high mountain topography, which creates a tranquil respite that many have used for memorable wedding ceremonies. Nupitals aside it takes two dexterous decisions and well executed strokes to make a much needed par on the second of the reincarnated holes.
The essay section is the eighteenth, a steep march back up to the clubhouse which will put extra pressure on trying to win the back nine Nassau. The amount of defensiveness required in the final approach is totally dependent on your tee ball position. There are pars to be made with a dexterous pitch and putt from short right if the carry over the yawning Billy Bunker that fronts the left side of this precipice green complex seems too much to swallow.
If you picked the right tee length there is a good chance the tally ends up in the satisfactory range, but I assure you that on reflection you are going to feel you left a few out there. A return visit to get another shot at this intriguingThomas/Bell creation is something I look forward to as well.
Ojai Valley, California
Architects: George Thomas and Bobby Bell (1923)
Tee Par Rating Slope Yardage
Blue 70 71 131 6292
White 70 69.3 126 5908
Red 71 71.3 131 5211
(Click to review the downloadable Ojai Valley Inn Golf Course hole-by-hole descriptions)