Los Angeles Country Club: Ready For Its Close-Up

Los Angeles Country Club’s storied, if mysterious, North Course earns the U.S. Open spotlight

It’s time to pull back the curtains. After an absence of 75 years, the U.S. Open is returning to our nation’s second-largest city and to a first-time venue, the Los Angeles Country Club. Course connoisseurs are salivating at the prospect of watching the best in the game tangle with a legendary, if secretive, layout, LACC’s North course. Getting to this point, however, was a circuitous journey.

Dating to 1897, the Los Angeles Country Club relocated three times before landing at its present home in 1911 on the edge of Beverly Hills. The club’s North and South courses reside near the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards atop some of the priciest real estate in the nation.

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1st hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

In its early days, LACC had been a popular venue for important tournaments. The North course played host to five Los Angeles Opens, in 1926, 1934–36, and 1940. It also held the 1930 U.S. Women’s Amateur, when Glenna Collett romped to a 6-and-5 win against Virginia Van Wie.

At the 1954 U.S. Junior Amateur at L.A. North, Foster Bradley Jr. pipped fellow Southern Californian Al Geiberger, 3 and 1. For five decades thereafter, the publicity-shy club steadfastly rebuffed multiple overtures from the USGA and other governing bodies to host significant championships. A bid to host the 1986 U.S. Open was defeated by the board in a 5–4 vote.

As the 21st century dawned, winds of change whistled through the club. It retained Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner, and Geoff Shackelford to restore its George Thomas design. In 2009, it voted to host the 2017 Walker Cup. So enthusiastic was the membership in that effort and so enamored was the USGA with the course and its location that in July 2015, the club was awarded the 2023 U.S. Open.

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4th hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

The shock and awe for the first-time visitor starts with the grounds themselves. It’s almost impossible to contemplate that such a huge plot of rolling, rugged terrain, sprinkled with oaks, sycamores, pines, redwoods, and eucalyptus, plus creeks and tall fescues, could be situated within the heart of a sprawling, heavily populated metropolis. “It’s like if they had a golf course in New York’s Central Park,” said U.S. Captain John “Spider” Miller ahead of the Walker Cup.

Shackelford compares L.A. North to Augusta National for its lack of flat stances. “The topography is more dramatic than the usual U.S. Open venue,” he says. “Some of the fairways are very wide and we’ll see the ball running. It’s quite hilly, though the walk manages to make it flow pretty well and never seem like a climb. It’s amazing to have two of the most famous and heavily trafficked boulevards bookending the property but you rarely hear them and you feel far removed from city life.”

Aside from a fabulous neighborhood and an unexpectedly sensational piece of property, L.A. North benefits from the design genius of Thomas and the restoration skill of Hanse. They go hand in hand.

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11th hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

George C. Thomas Jr. emerged from a prosperous Philadelphia family to design several East Coast courses before relocating to Beverly Hills in 1919. Many of his friends referred to him as “The Captain,” an acknowledgement of his stint as an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War I.

Once established in Los Angeles, he immersed himself in course design, starting in 1920 with La Cumbre in Santa Barbara, then assisting Herbert Fowler with the redesign of L.A. North at The Captain’s home club. La Cumbre introduced him to William P. “Billy” Bell, a master shaper/builder/designer, and the two would fashion the signature Thomas bunker stylings with their intricate edges, slopes, and shapes. (Says Tom Doak, “In the contouring of sand hazards, not even MacKenzie was a greater craftsman.”) By 1927, he had completed his magnificent triumvirate of Bel-Air, Riviera, and a near complete reworking of L.A. North, the same year he produced his seminal treatise on design, Golf Architecture in America: Its Design and Construction.

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9th & 18th holes (photo by Channing Benjamin)

“It was close to an actual restoration,” says Hanse of the work they were asked to do. “We expanded greens back out. We brought holes back to the corridors that Thomas established in 1927. We reestablished the width and put bunkers back that had been removed for various reasons. The sympathetic part of the restoration was that we moved bunkers downrange for the modern game, and we added back tees. Stylistically, the bunkers are different from what Thomas and Bell left behind. We focused more on their overall body of work, and on some of the beautiful bunkers they created. So it wasn’t a pure restoration. The goal was ultimately to put it back as close to Thomas as we could.”

Confronting competitors will be a 7,381-yard par-70 course that is unusual for a U.S. Open setup in that it features three par fives and five par threes. Thomas’s “Course Within a Course” concept—alternate tees, routes, yardages, and a mix of hole locations to instill maximum day-to-day variety—won’t be as prevalent as it was in the match-play format of the Walker Cup, but the mix of shot demands will still be outstanding.

L.A. North is loaded with individually memorable holes, yet they are also pieces that fit seamlessly into the larger puzzle. Not even the tiny, 124-yard par-three 15th, bobbing in a sea of meaty par fours, looks out of place. This pint-size powerhouse will play at just 78 yards to a front pin, likely on Saturday, as it did at the 2017 Walker Cup, when U.S. star Will Zalatoris called it, “the coolest hole I’ve ever played.”

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15th hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

The crescent-shaped putting surface is 43 yards deep and is pinched in every way by bunkers. Yet, it is the dimple-sized restored mound in the middle-left of the green that dominates the hole in the way the pot bunker does in the middle of the 6th green at Thomas’s Riviera. Miss it on the wrong side of that protrusion and a brutal two-putt awaits.

Remarkably, the 15th might not even be the most memorable par three on the second nine. At 290 yards (intended originally by Thomas to be a par four from that distance), the reverse-Redan 11th is a showstopper in a city full of them. With its massive scale, two huge fronting bunkers deceptively positioned well away from the green, and a view of the downtown skyline, the 11th will be among the most photogenic holes—and one of the toughest to par. Downhill and often downwind, 2017 British Amateur champ Harry Ellis hit 3-iron into 11 at the Walker Cup. It’s 250 to 255 to the front, though landing it short, it will bounce and roll for five to 10 yards.

Its counterpart on the first nine is the 7th hole. It’s a tad misleading at its stated yardage of 284 yards, because on two days it will play at 295 and the other two days around 265. Francesco Molinari played the course several times early in 2023 and hit hybrid each time—from the 265 tee.

Thomas liked his par fives to be reachable in two and that will be possible on all three examples at L.A. North, even at the 625-yard 14th. The 8th hole measures 547 yards—shortened 30 yards in the Hanse restoration—though a barranca off the tee and a naturalized area of sand and fescue left of the green can thwart seekers of an easy birdie. The 14th won’t be easy to reach, let alone hold. A severe left-to-right fairway slope 100 yards from the green leads to a handsome eucalyptus grove and a difficult recovery.

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8th hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

Nevertheless, as with any U.S. Open, coping with the par fours is paramount. Six two-shotters stretch to 480 yards or longer, including four of the last six holes. Several pivotal par fours tangle with a barranca, a dry, sandy creek bed that twists through the property. The Hanse restoration brought the barranca back to its full strategic value.

“The barrancas became a centerpiece of the restoration,” says Shackelford. “There is just something really unusual about a natural wash juxtaposed with the city setting.”

Nowhere is the barranca more prominent than at what many consider the premier par four at L.A. North, the 520-yard 17th. The wash runs up the right side at the 300-yard mark and widens as it nears the green. A diagonal string of bunkers adds to the challenge and the aesthetic appeal is enhanced by a Spanish cupola in the background that belongs to the Beverly Hills School District. Shackelford hopes that a forward tee is used on some days. “It’s a really stellar hole when players can hug the barranca for a better angle on the second shot to one of the greatest greens and approach shots in the world.”

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17th hole (photo by Channing Benjamin)

Other distinctive par fours include the drivable, 325-yard 6th, which houses the smallest (3,424 square feet) green on the course, and the 507-yard 13th, which rolls out perhaps the trickiest green, with its back-front sloping first section and then a middle wrinkle that tilts down and away to the right toward the canyon.

Assuming firm conditions in June, Hanse believes that the ultimate challenge will be to access hole locations and use slopes properly. “The cerebral player will do well,” he says. “He’ll have to think about angles and strategy. That was part of Thomas’s genius. He really understood that.”

By 1928, one year after he renovated L.A. North, Thomas’s interest in golf course architecture had waned and he turned his attention to scholarly treatments of roses and Pacific game fish. He died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home in 1932, at age 58. He never once accepted a fee for his design services. The evidence of his priceless talent will be on full display in mid-June.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Summer 2023 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.

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