Owners of the most valuable golf real estate in America, the Los Angeles Country Club is located in the heart of Beverly Hills and significant in golfing circles for its North Course, which was redesigned by member George Thomas in 1927. An amateur architect from Philadelphia, Thomas moved to California in 1920 and helped to supervise Herbert Fowler’s initial renovations of the club’s two courses the following year. His later work at Riviera and Bel-Air made him the hottest designer on the West Coast, and he was soon able to convince his home club to allow him to update Fowler’s design, starting with the North Course.
Thomas’s main issues with the existing course were the lack of strategic play and the fact that holes didn’t properly utilize the land’s natural golf topography. Although he kept much of Fowler’s routing, Thomas designed four entirely new holes and, with shaper William Bell, added great variety and flair to the layout by rebuilding each of the greens and replacing the straight-lined bunkers with a more irregular shape. He also came up with the radical concept of building a course within a course, designing his holes with great elasticity so that a change of tee or flag location could affect the character, or even the par, of an individual hole.
With the reopening of the North Course Thomas elevated parkland golf on the West Coast to a new level, his layout flowing beautifully across the pronounced ground contours and featuring one distinctive hole after another. Though the core of the course has survived largely intact, a number of holes were lengthened during the 1960s. Most of the work was done sensibly, but a decision to extend the 2nd hole by realigning its fairway to bend against a hillside was a major mistake as it is now the only poor hole on the course. The original, by contrast, moved the other way and approached a superb green set naturally beyond a barranca. The other major diversion from the Thomas plan was on the harrowing short par four 6th, which is thankfully being restored by architect Gil Hanse who is also removing hundreds of unnecessary trees and mercifully reversing the slow deterioration of Bell’s incredible green and bunker shapes.
Although changes have made the front nine slightly less consistent than the back, the entire round is full of wonderful holes with players continually confronted by interesting golf decisions and outstanding examples of strategic design. The use of ravines, ridges and a large sandy wash running across the site is exceptional. There are a couple of holes, such as the 3rd and 10th, that could use some length to bring the natural contours back into play for the longer hitters, but the layout remains relevant because its bunkers are expertly located and the putting surfaces place such a great premium on quality approach play. The par threes are particularly good, the 7th and reverse-Redan shaped 11th are longer holes cleverly shaped to allow well struck balls to chase toward tight flags while both the 9th and 15th are shorter but feature exquisitely built green sites with some truly treacherous pin locations. The two-shot holes are also challenging and diverse, from the wildly undulating 3rd and crested 5th through to the stretch of strong, well-bunkered par fours that close the round.
Despite some disappointment with the current set-up, today’s track is still one of California’s best and its weaknesses are really only apparent after careful study of the original plans. Interestingly, George Thomas regarded this as his finest piece of work yet he fully expected the better designs of his generation to be quickly surpassed by modern golf architects. This has still yet to happen, and a full restoration of the North Course would further cement its place among American golf’s elite.
The inexplicable loss of Thomas designed greens and bunkers over the years is being reversed slowly by architect Gil Hanse, who will do a great job if given the freedom necessary. His biggest challenge once the initial tweaking has been readily accepted by the membership, is to try to convince them to return the 2nd hole to its original form, which will mean alterations and further tweaking to the 3rd and 8th.
Should become a 2-Flag rated course when changes are complete.