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A Classic Comeback Story at LACC

Bradley S. Klein | Published on 6/9/2023

The restoration of the North Course at LACC has the story arc of a classic Hollywood script.

The 312 acres of The Los Angeles Country Club might be the most valuable real estate in the entire world of golf as it sits tucked into one of the most famous neighborhoods in L.A. The club is also home to some of the most compelling ground for the game, with the gnarly barrancas and cranky terrain that challenges golfers on the famed North Course, host site of the 123rd U.S. Open. Outside the gates there is all that concrete, glass and steel; but here, behind the ivied walls along Wilshire Boulevard, is a museum piece of Golden Age golf architecture at its best.

For decades, the club preferred the role of a Hollywood recluse, having opened its doors only sparingly to championship golf. Before the 2017 Walker Cup, the last USGA championship at LACC was the 1954 U.S. Junior Amateur. The PGA Tour hasn’t played there since the L.A. Open in 1940.

But things change, and thanks to the club’s sustained commitment to restoring the brilliance of what George C. Thomas Jr. and his colleagues achieved with the North Course almost a century ago, golf fans will get to experience something truly special when the U.S. Open is played for the first time there this year.

The club was founded in 1897 and arrived, after several moves, at its present location in 1911. That is when Englishman Herbert Fowler’s 36-hole design was built under the supervision of George C. Thomas Jr. and William P. Bell. That same duo would go on to design many other distinctive courses in Southern California, most famously Riviera and Bel-Air, before they were called back in 1927-1928 to revise significantly the LACC layout and give it the indelible stamp of its present incarnation.

Thomas (1873-1932) proved to be a particularly influential golf architect, in large part due to his 1927 book “Golf Architecture in America”, a volume that has lost none of its freshness and bold appeal on behalf of naturalistic, strategic design. He championed variety, alternative paths from tee to green, and what he termed “a course within a course.” That meant designing holes that could be played in totally different ways from one day to the next based upon flexible teeing distances and angles, fairway width, the placement of central and intruding hazards, and extremely varied hole locations within boldly contoured, well-protected parts of the greens. All of this became immediately evident in the complete renovation and rerouting of the North Course that Thomas and Bell undertook in 1927-1928. With 125 feet of elevation change across the site and a profusion of barrancas, sandy washes, native scrub and complex terrain, the course provided a perfect template for Thomas’ approach to design.

The barrancas, sandy washes and varied terrain of the property at LACC was a perfect canvas for George Thomas’ approach to design (1930s).

However, the North Course lost some of its ingenious complexity in the decades that followed. Trees grew in to overtake playing corridors. Linear irrigation did not extend out to embrace the intended fairway lines. Greens shrank and lost some fantastic hole locations. Bunkers got simplified into standard, circular shapes due to decades of wear and tear, losing much of the cragginess that Thomas and Bell originally crafted.

When superintendent Bruce Williams, CGCS, arrived at LACC in 1997 to take over maintenance for his 13-year tenure, water quality and availability were significant concerns. With encouragement from USGA Course Consulting Service reports, Williams began researching grassing alternatives that would perform better and be more drought-resistant than the existing mix of cool- and warm-season turf. The club also studied options for naturalized areas that would be aesthetically appropriate to the site and playable for golfers.

These discussions gradually morphed into a larger conversation about fully restoring the golf course. A detailed study undertaken by local golf architecture historian – and George Thomas biographer – Geoff Shackelford tipped the balance of opinion toward a major restoration effort. A national search led the club to hire architect Gil Hanse. He promptly drew on Shackelford’s insights to guide a historic reconsideration of the course’s playability and presentation. Site work undertaken in 2009-2010 was overseen by Hanse’s longtime associate Jim Wagner, with feature shaping by their in-house team, called Caveman Construction, and the heavier lifting by Hawkshaw Construction.

The scope of work included complete reconstruction of the greens, bunkers and tees along with restoration of the barrancas. Extensive tree work pried open corridors of play and long vistas that had been closed off. The team relied heavily on historic aerials and ground photography, along with concepts gleaned from drawings done by Bell pertaining to contemporary work done elsewhere. Hanse and team were especially focused on reintegrating the putting surfaces with surrounding fall-offs and low areas for a sharper delineation between an ideal approach shot and a slightly wayward one.

Barrancas and closely mown fall-offs around the greens provide some of the primary challenges of the restored North Course.


The North Course also got an entirely new grassing scheme, with the greens reseeded to a blend of ‘Tyee’ and ‘007’ bentgrasses. The primarily common bermudagrass fairways were replaced by ‘Tifway II’ bermudagrass sod. The hodgepodge roughs were cleared out to remove cool-season grasses and sprigged with ‘Bandera’ bermudagrass. The outer roughs were converted into naturalized areas planted with drought-tolerant grasses.


A key element of this Hollywood restoration involved recapturing Thomas and Bell’s original scraped-out, craggy bunker style that fit so perfectly on the rugged site. Much organic material had to be excavated, the bunker edges reshaped to look as if they had been eroded, and the faces grassed with tall fescue and creeping red fescue. Thomas’ original green sites for the second and eighth hole were revived, and attention was paid to recapturing his “course within a course” with expanded hole locations, wider fairways and scattered teeing grounds. In a nod to modernity, a few fairway bunkers were pushed downfield, as long as the landforms retained their visibility and original strategic intent. Back tees were added throughout the course to bring the playing distances in line with what would be needed to host modern championship golf.

Reviving George Thomas’ original green site for the 8th hole was an important aspect of the restoration work performed by Gil Hanse and team.

Russ Myers, who succeeded Williams as superintendent in 2010, was on hand for the bulk of the restoration work and served at LACC until 2015. He said that the success of the restoration changed the whole perspective at the club. It also focused attention in the region on what was possible in terms of restoration and paved the way for similar projects elsewhere.

Under the guidance of director of golf course and grounds Chris Wilson, who has been in charge of course maintenance at LACC since 2015, the club has further upgraded the infrastructure on the North Course. Putting surfaces were reseeded to ‘Pure Distinction’ bentgrass to enhance resistance to Poa annua invasion and the bunkers were all outfitted with 4-inch perforated drain pipes and porous aggregate liners.

In the run-up to the 2023 U.S. Open, further tweaks have been made. Half a dozen back tees have been added, bringing the total yardage for the par-70 course to 7,421. Fairway widths have been adjusted, and certainly not in all cases narrowed. In an approach to setup that USGA chief championship officer John Bodenhamer describes as “go with the architecture,” the North Course will provide opportunities for utilizing the terrain and creating alternatives in setup from day to day. On the first hole, a 578-yard par 5 that falls 45 feet from tee to green, the fairway has been narrowed to 26 yards at the main landing area where a bunker intrudes into the line of play. By contrast, on the 480-yard, par-5 fifth hole, which climbs 50 feet from tee to green, the fairway has been widened out to 56 yards because of the humpback fairway that tilts dramatically from left to right.

Bodenhamer stresses the importance of utilizing the course’s flexible design in the U.S. Open setup. A great example can be found at the sixth and seventh holes, a drivable par 4 followed by a very long par 3. The effective yardage of the dogleg right, 330-yard sixth hole allows it to potentially play shorter in the air from tee to green than the 284-yard, par-3 seventh hole, which can also play considerably shorter than that heroic distance.

When it comes to shifts in rhythm, the back nine on the North Course is noticeably different than the front and will take some adjustment for competitors to get comfortable.

The reverse-Redan, par-3 11th hole, with its dramatic view of downtown L.A. in the distance, can play as long as 290 yards and calls for that rarity in championship golf – an approach shot landed short that runs up onto the putting surface. By contrast, the par-3 15th hole, only 124 yards on the scorecard, will likely be set up on at least one day of the championship to play only 90 yards to the devilish, well-protected front hole location. In the 2017 Walker Cup it played only 72 yards for one session! Of course, for the next round it could easily be set up to play 155 yards. These are great examples of the ever-changing test that Thomas envisioned for the North Course.

The short par-3 15th can cause plenty of trouble, even when it plays less than 100 yards.

The miniscule par-3 15th provides the staccato mark in a long finishing run of holes: the 623-yard, par-5 14th hole, and the string of long par 4s to the clubhouse of 542, 520 and 492 yards.

Plans call for the bermudagrass rough to play at 3 ¼ to 4 inches; beyond that it does not allow for the option of a full recovery shot and basically only accommodates pitch-outs. One thing to watch for is the absence of a distinct intermediate cut around fairways. Plans call for a “bevel cut” by mowers specially set up for the perimeter route that will mow at 1 ¼ inch on the fairway side and 3 inches on the outside. According to Darin Bevard, USGA senior director of championship agronomy, “That effectively highlights the contrast between fairway and rough while preventing a player’s ball from coming to rest against a wall of grass.”

Like so much of what Los Angeles produces, this U.S. Open will provide very compelling viewing from a television or computer screen. But being on the ground will be a real treat for players and spectators as they get to see firsthand the Golden Age architecture that George Thomas intended and experience the craggy, scruffy aesthetics contrasted against the backdrop of Century City or downtown. Hopefully we’ll get a storybook ending to this classic comeback script.


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