BlogPrelude to the U.S. Open

by Sal Johnson

This week the USGA is taking its U.S. Open to probably the last iconic course that hasn’t held a major championship, Los Angeles Country Club. It is one of the best courses in the world that nobody has ever heard of. We know the Open can never go to places like Cypress Point, Pine Valley, National Golf Links of America, Fishers Island, Sand Hills, or Seminole.
People don’t realize that Los Angeles Country Club sits on one of the world’s most expensive pieces of real estate. Picture putting a golf course on over 450 acres in Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London. I was told that on top of the value of the Real Estate, under the property is a wealth of oil. 60 years ago, the members turned down a million dollars a month to hide one well and pump oil out of it. One of the most famous boulevards in the world, Wilshire Blvd, runs a mile through LACC. Due east of the course is Beverly Hills, just two miles away is Rodeo Blvd. South of LACC sits Century City, one of the most prominent employment centers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and its skyscrapers form a distinctive skyline on the city’s west side. To its west are some of the wealthiest high-rise condominiums in the world, while to the northwest lies Holmby Park, in which the average home cost over $50 million. To the north is Holmby Hills, the wealthiest real estate in the world. Despite being in the middle of the most iconic property in the world, many Angelinas don’t even know that behind the scrubs is this hidden gem of a course.

I grew up in Los Angeles on the Miracle Mile, just east of Beverly Hills. During the 60s, L.A. was an iconic town where my friends and I rode our bikes everywhere. At ten, I remembered riding my bike down Wilshire Blvd and was amazed at how you could drive down this majestic road through an alley of buildings and fancy shops. Then, all of a sudden, you were on this road with big bushes on both sides. The foliage was so thick that it was hard to see through it, but there was this private road with a guard house and the big building in the background, Los Angeles Country Club. My first thought as a ten-year-old was that this place had to be a sort of heaven since I couldn’t get into it.
Over the years, I would ride my bike all around Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Brentwood, and West L.A. Driving through the streets of Beverly Hills was an extraordinary experience as the homes were prodigious; the street was big and lined with palm trees. On my rides, I would wander down streets that had fences with golf courses in the background, and I would be amazed at the openness of places like L.A. Country Club, Bel Air Golf Club, Brentwood Country Club, and Wilshire Country Club.
In 1969 we moved down the road to Palos Verdes, a community on a Peninsula stuck out into the ocean. The area was very hilly, so my bike riding days were number, but at age 14, I took up golf. I learned the game at the Los Verdes public course, which had the most magnificent views of the Pacific and Catalina Island. As a junior golfer, I could play in junior events, and I remember playing for the first time at Los Angeles Country Club. On the second hole, I remember hitting a drive, way right and, in looking for my ball, saw a big fence between the course and a small road. I remember thinking how easy it would be to go through the fence because 50 years ago, the fence had a lot of gaps and holes in it.
The day after my 16th birthday, I got my driver’s license and could travel to these iconic places. Playing at Los Verdes was time-consuming since it was very crowded, and it wasn’t fun playing nine holes in three hours. At that time, all public courses had cheap rates for juniors; I remember playing courses in Los Angeles like Rancho Park, the Wilson and Harding courses of Griffith Park, and a course back then called Western Ave, which today is Chester Washington Golf Course. But in my travels in my Mom’s beat-up Olds, I found places to park my car and play some of the great courses in L.A. I could play them all, but Bel-Air Country Club and LACC were my favorites. For Bel Air, I parked in the parking lot of Marymount High School, and for some odd reason, a gate was always opened that allowed me to play holes 2 through 8 with no problem. Because of how the course is set up, I couldn’t play the ninth hole because it ended just below the clubhouse, where you would go through a tunnel and up an elevator to the tenth tee. Since I was a “walk-on,” I couldn’t do that, so I could never play the back nine. Now I tried to find some way to access the back nine, but there was just one spot; back then, it was a vacant lot next to the 11th tee. But the first time I tried, I returned to my car with a ticket on it for illegal parking.
As for L.A. Country Club, sneaking on the course was a lot easier as there were small side roads I could get onto the 2nd or 3rd holes. I was able to play a lot more holes. I would get three at 5 pm and, in the summer months, could play holes two through 8, then holes 12 through 15, cutting over to hole 11, and if it was close to dark, would play 16 and 17.
At an early age, I realized what a great place L.A.C.C. was in the 70s. It was never very crowded, and for two years, I only got caught once. But I learned what a great place it was with greens that were so perfect and fast, challenging bunkers, and things that I was able to hone my game on. The course I played 50 years ago was different than it is now. I could play the course legitimately after 2000 and played it close to a dozen times. Unfortunately, I could only play it once after its rebuild in 2009, but what I remember most of the course is how it was before the Gil Hanse rebuild. The course used to be big ribbons of fairways; the course was in perfect shape, and, other than the bunkers, no hazards to speak of or rough. I found out later that the membership was old, and they didn’t want to have a tough course. But all of that changed in 2009.

The history of L.A.C.C. is very diverse when you realize that the club is 126 years old. It opened about 7 miles east at the corner of Pico and Alvardo Streets, on downtown L.A.’s outskirts. It was named the “Windmill Links” because they used a windmill as a clubhouse. Around 1900 the course moved west a few miles down Pico on what is today Hobart High School. The new nine-hole course was very sporty and challenging, with many bunkers with chicken wire to keep them in place. Another hazard was that the course had railroad tracks running through it, which made it challenging. The course moved again down Pico to Western Blvd, but the third course was not deemed great.
That changed in 1904 when the club bought 320 acres at the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire Blvd. The purchase price of the 320 acres was $48,000 cash. Back then, there was no Beverly Hills, in looking at pictures, you could see more oil rigs than buildings. A few years later, the club purchased 150 acres just south of Wilshire Blvd, which is up against Century City, but when it was bought, it was up against the Fox movie lot.
In 1911 the original course opened. It was laid out by several of the members and was not very good. In 1921 Herbert Fowler was hired, and he took what was at the time the “Beverly Course” and turned it into the North Course. When the course hosted the first Los Angeles Open, it was panned by most of the professionals. The club hired George Thomas, who redid the course along with Billy Bell. Thomas was a wealthy Philadelphia man who had designed Riviera, Bel-Air, Palos Verdes Country Club, and Ojai Country Club. Thomas was so wealthy that he had a 20-acre estate beyond the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he raised roses.
As the area grew, it became the Beverly Hills we know today. The membership also grew very snooty. It rejected Jews and blacks and did not want those in the movie industry. Because of that, Hillcrest Country Club, just a few miles away, was built. Showing how wrong the discrimination was in the 40s and 50s, Texas oil baron Frank Rosenberg once tried to be a member at LACC, and without even an interview, the membership committee said no and politely suggested he try Hillcrest. According to L.A. Times writer Jim Murray, Roseberg was stunned to be rejected and, in telling a friend, was told, “They probably thought you were Jewish; the club is restricted.” Rosenberg then tried to get into Hillcrest, and when he told them he wasn’t Jewish, they told him, “We don’t admit Gentiles.” The members were so pretentious that after the 1940 Los Angeles Open, they shut their doors to any other events. They did change their minds and signed up for the 1954 Junior Amateur and the 1956 U.S. Amateur. But the membership didn’t like the 3,500 outsiders roaming their fairways, and the horrified membership said no, the ’56 Amateur.

The first well-known figure from the entertainment industry to be allowed into the club was former President Ronald Reagan. Talking about Reagan, when I played the course in 2002 and put out on 18, we could see through the window of the clubhouse grill room a person in a chair gazing out to the green. It was Reagan in his final stages of Alzheimer, a shame to see, but I found out later that he regularly spent hours looking out that window before he died. The club also allowed former Dodgers owners Walter and Peter O’Malley, and ABC Sports football announcer Keith Jackson was also a member.

One of my dearest friends was Frank Hannigan, who was in the 80s USGA Executive director. Hannigan told me that the USGA wanted to hold the U.S. Open at LACC for decades but was always told no. But in the early 2000s, things changed. Membership got a lot younger and more active. Between World War II and 2000, the course had over 1,600 members, but they were primarily in for the social aspect of the club, and many didn’t play, the reason the course was always so empty when I snuck on. But with the change in membership, they decided to spend some money to make what was a gem even better. They called Gil Hanse, who made a series of presentations to the club on his vision for the course. Hanse restored the fairway and green bunkers, giving them a more rustic look and making them more demanding if hit into. On several holes, the old barranca was grassed over and didn’t add any degree of difficulty. Hanse changed that by putting back the natural shrubs and sand; keeping them unkept made for a challenging hazard. So with the barranca being waste areas, it gave a tougher look to the holes. Hanse also added Bermudagrass, which made the rough harder when it was into. Hanse also increased the yardage to 7,423, which is a lot for a course with five par 3s. The course is also very flexible, and you can play it differently every round. The course will have some unique features. The par 4 sixth hole could play as long as the par 3 seventh hole which is pegged to play at 284 yards. But that won’t be the longest par 3; the eleventh will be downhill and play at 290 yards, so it will be the second longest par 3 in U.S. Open history (the 8th at Oakmont played to 200 yards in 2007 U.S. Open). The course will have three par 5s, and know of them will be easy. The first will play at 578, but it should be easy. But the 547-yard 8th will be one of the hardest in U.S. Open history. Hanse has given a lot of bite to the barranca that runs the length of these double doglegs. The last par 5, the fourteenth, is a brute at 623 yards. Over the fence off the tee is the old Playboy mansion. In the old days, when Hugh Hefner was alive, the tee and the 13th green were up against the property line of the Playboy Mansion, and you could hear all of the zoo animals that were up against the golf course. While playing the 14th hole, look right, and you will see what used to be the Spelling Manor. Built in 1988 for television producer Aaron Spelling, it was the second-largest house in Los Angeles. The house has 56,000 square feet with 123 rooms and looks like something out of France. Before the house was built in 1988, the home of Bing Crosby was on the site, so the ground is steep in history.
The last four holes will be very demanding, starting with the 124-yard, par 3 fifteenth hole. Hanse redid the green around bunkers, and this one-pin position in the back makes it devilish. During the 2017 Walker Cup, the hole was played at just 78 yards. The last three holes are brute of par 4; the 16th is 542 yards, the 17th is 520, and the 18th is 492. The holes will go down in U.S. Open history as the most demanding finish in golf as par will be a great score.
The USGA says the fairways will be some of the widest in U.S. Open history. But with Bermuda grass rough, the first time in U.S. Open history since 2004 at Pinehurst, it will be interesting to see how tough it will be for the players.

It will be interesting to see how popular the course will be among players. It’s in an unbelievable area, and NBC should have a field day with all of the drone shots of the skyline around the course. As I said earlier, the settling of the course among the buildings of Beverly Hills and Century Hill, along with all of the high-rise condos leading to Westwood, will give the course a unique look. Going to LACC is as exciting as an Open going to Pebble or Shinnecock Hills,

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