Notebook: Unearthed LACC History Will Play a Bit Part

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

| Jun 07, 2023 | Los Angeles, Calif.

Notebook: Unearthed LACC History Will Play a Bit Part

Among the holes designed by W. Herbert Fowler, the original architect of the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club, was a short par 3 that was lost to history for more than eight decades. The putting surface that competitors in the 123rd U.S. Open will walk past en route to the 18th tee is a replica of a green that created some consternation in its heyday.

The 110-yard 17th hole of Fowler’s North Course debuted in 1921, but barely seven years later, when George C. Thomas Jr.’s edition of the North opened across most of the same terrain, the hole had been dropped from the routing. Why? Perhaps the nickname used for it in a 2021 biography of Fowler by Derek Markham, “A Matter of Course,” offers a clue – it was called “The Terror.”

As Thomas explained in his own book, “Golf Architecture in America: Its Strategy and Construction” (1927), he had been entrusted with setting up the North Course for the final round of the 1925 California Open. An LACC member, Thomas was intimately acquainted with the course, having served as the head of construction for Fowler’s 1921 layout. Unfortunately, the short hole became something of a nightmare for the tournament field that day, due to what Thomas called an unexpected “gale of a wind” that buffeted and dried out the small green, making it nearly impossible to hold with an approach shot.

As Thomas recounted, one player took an 8 that included four putts, and a large crowd gathered in anticipation of more mishaps among the leaders. Thomas was there, too, mindful that “everyone was finding fault with the sloped green that I had built, and the flag that I had placed.” He was relieved when Macdonald Smith, an accomplished professional whose two older brothers (Alex and Willie) had combined to win three U.S. Opens, played the hole conservatively in 4 strokes and went on to win the event.

That perched green was abandoned for more than 80 years, until architect Gil Hanse was hired to restore the North to Thomas’ 1928 specifications. Research prompted discussions about bringing back Fowler’s “Little 17th” as an extra hole between the current 17th and 18th, and Hanse and his design partners, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford, reproduced it as faithfully as possible.

The par-3 17th hole on the North Course, designed by W. Herbert Fowler, debuted in 1921. It was dropped from the routing by George C. Thomas Jr. 7 years later. (USGA Archives)

The par-3 17th hole on the North Course, designed by W. Herbert Fowler, debuted in 1921. It was dropped from the routing by George C. Thomas Jr. 7 years later. (USGA Archives)

Hanse described the hole’s reconstruction in the 2021 Fowler biography: “It was part architecture, part archeology and part whimsy. It was sitting on the hillside, not quite preserved in amber, but still recognizable under the years of decayed organic material and the trees that had sprung up in its place.”

During practice rounds on Tuesday of U.S. Open week, players will take part in a fundraiser on the restored hole, with the closest shot earning a donation from the USGA to a charity of that player’s choice. “This golf course has so much history and rich architecture, and ‘Little 17’ is a cool part of that,” said Scott Langley, the USGA’s senior director of player relations. “To my knowledge, something like this has never been done at a U.S. Open, and we hope it adds a little fun to what will be a challenging week.”

The best part of the Tuesday competition? No one will need to concern themselves with conquering the hole when Round 1 commences on Thursday.

“The only word that I can think of to describe the hole is extreme,” Hanse wrote in 2021. “It’s extreme in its location, its diminutive nature, its contouring and the penalties it can extract. However, it is also extreme in the sense of joy it brings to those who are fortunate to be able to take on the challenges of this rediscovered gem.”

LACC Greens Not All That Meet the Eye

U.S. Open competitors should consider themselves forewarned: local knowledge could be an important factor in the 123rd edition on the North Course.

“The green complexes at LACC are some of the best I’ve ever come across,” said Hanse. “On average, they’re fairly significant in size, and they’ve also got some eccentric shapes. As a whole, they’re predicated more on slope than on undulation. They’ve got wonderful tilts and flows to them, as opposed to lots of humps and bumps. You often read more into them than actually exists.”

Hanse cites the 290-yard, downhill par-3 11th hole as an example.

“It’s an iconic hole at LACC, with the backdrop of the city skyline,” Hanse noted. “The area that you’ve got to land your ball in front of the green requires such a precise shot, and then the green doesn’t actually run away, it tilts back at you. You’ve got this combination of a green slope going one way with the land falling away. Watch the uphill putts there. I’m going to guess that a lot of them come up short.”

One key aspect of the restoration that Hanse undertook starting in 2006 was reclaiming areas of putting greens that had been lost over time. Darin Bevard, senior director of championship agronomy for the USGA, estimates that Hanse’s efforts increased the green sizes by an average of 15 percent.

“Mind you, you’ve got some big greens at LACC as well as a few tiny ones,” said Bevard. “If you take the example of a 5,000-square-foot green, 15 percent amounts to 750 square feet. When you start looking at 75 feet by 10 feet, that’s a big piece of ground. I will almost guarantee that hole locations became available that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.”

George Thomas provided a drawing of No. 15 of the North Course to Golfdom magazine in 1928. (©Golfdom, North Coast Media)

George Thomas provided a drawing of No. 15 of the North Course to Golfdom magazine in 1928. (©Golfdom, North Coast Media)

The Lost Bunker – Or Not

One of the most famous bunkers in golf sits just a few miles away from LACC, on the sixth hole at The Riviera Country Club, another George Thomas-William Bell design. That bunker in the center of the green on the 169-yard par 3 has produced lots of frustration among golfers, and it may have had a sibling at LACC.

“There’s a lot of speculation that there was planned to be a bunker in the middle of the 15th green of the North Course,” said Gil Hanse of the 124-yard par 3 that includes a pronounced hump mid-green. “We saw some aerial photographs that looked like it was there, but it was really hard to tell whether it was just the mound.”

Hanse consultant and Thomas biographer Geoff Shackelford is more certain of the bunker’s existence.

“There are three things that I would use in my case for it,” said Shackelford. “First, Thomas did a rendering of the hole for a golf publication that included the bunker. Second is the aerial with the bright white spot that appears to be a bunker where the bump in the green appears now. And third, an LACC member named Cliff Borland, who has since passed away, told us when we were doing the restoration that he recalled the bunker being there when he was a kid.”

A previous rebuilding of the greens in 1996 precluded Hanse and company from being able to confirm whether there was sand left behind when they began digging more than a decade later.

“I am thinking that Thomas got major pushback about it, and that it didn’t last very long, maybe just a matter of a few months,” said Shackelford.

Walker Cup Lessons

The 2017 Walker Cup Match not only provided USA Team members and future major champions Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa a sneak peek at LACC, it also gave the USGA a strong indication of how U.S. Open competitors would handle the North Course.

“Our efforts at LACC started with prep for the Walker Cup, which is a really good trial run for a U.S. Open,” said the USGA’s Darin Bevard. “It gave us an opportunity to collect data and watch play under pretty close to U.S. Open conditions, in terms of course setup, speed and firmness. That being said, direct U.S. Open prep has been a solid four years of discussing subtle course changes, fairway lines, and a few bunker adjustments and relocations.”

“One of the things at LACC is that there are very few fairway bunkers,” said Hanse. “And that’s because George Thomas believed that the landforms themselves would provide a lot of the challenges, angles and strategy. Other than a few minor adjustments, what we saw during the Walker Cup under firm conditions reaffirmed our belief that it would be enough of a challenge off the tee.”

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.