Educated at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, then the University of Pennsylvania, George Thomas joined his father’s investment banking firm, Drexel & Company, after completing his studies in 1894. He married Edna Ridge in 1901 and they had two children, George Clifford III and Josephine Moorehead.
It’s not known if George was much of a golfer, but he was certainly recognized as a national authority on rose breeding, of all things, writing several books on the subject. It’s hard to imagine that this horticultural interest led to his involvement in golf course design but, whatever his motivation, he set out his first 9-hole track in 1904.
Through a family friend, he got the chance to design the public Marion Golf Course on Buzzards Bay in Plymouth County, Massachusetts – some three hundred miles to the northeast of his home – and that's where the seeds of his architectural career were planted, with this rudimentary course remaining in play to this day.
George then fashioned his first 18-hole layout on the family’s estate to the north of downtown Philadelphia and this course, originally named Mount Airy Country Club, was sold to Whitemarsh Valley Country Club in 1908.
His next design project was at Spring Lake Heights in New Jersey, where Spring Lake Golf & Country Club acquired a 150-acre property for Thomas and the Scottish professional George Duncan to lay out a new 18-hole course (according to the club’s website).
It stretched to more than 6,000 yards and featured an enormous par five 4th hole (now the 3rd hole) measuring in excess of 600 yards, known as “Hell’s Kitchen”. Another Scotsman, David Aitcheson, assisted with the construction and he became the club’s first superintendent.
Now was the time that the ‘Philadelphia School of Golf Course Design’ was being formed – involving pioneering architects and innovators such as Donald Ross, A. W. Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson and George Crump – and George Thomas developed friendships with all of these leading protagonists in this new design movement.
Thomas was one of six founding members at the Sunnybrook Golf Club in Philadelphia, where he met and exchanged views with the course architect, Donald Ross. He was also a member of Philadelphia Cricket Club, where he would have interacted with another of the club’s members, Albert Tillinghast.
The development of another couple of rather profound projects by his friends George Crump and Hugh Wilson – at Pine Valley in New Jersey and at Merion in Pennsylvania – were also influencing factors in his decision to pledge his future to golf course design.
Unfortunately, World War I intervened and Thomas enlisted with the United States Army Air Service, serving in Europe, where he reached the rank of Captain. On his return to civilian life, the nickname ‘Captain’ was to stay with him for the rest of his life.
Thomas moved to California in 1919 to pursue his botanical work with roses and that aspect of his career certainly blossomed – he was said to have cultivated more than a thousand varieties of roses – but so also did his fledgling career in golf course architecture.
He joined Los Angeles Country Club just as Herbert Fowler was appointed to upgrade the club’s two courses in 1921 and he oversaw the construction of the renovation work after Fowler returned to England.
Six years later, Thomas was then asked to remodel the North course and he carried out this work with Billy Bell, the former construction superintendent for architect Willie Watson. This was the start of a productive association that saw them construct another ten courses during the 1920s.
The most famous of these is Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, which has recently been restored by Tom Doak, and Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, where Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw renovated the layout in the mid-1990s.
George Thomas died of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills in 1932.
From The Evolution of Golf Course Design by Keith Cutten:
“Thomas never accepted a fee for his services as a golf course designer, yet he was acknowledged as a master of strategic design and course routing. In California, his bunker-style was grand in scale, defined by intricate sand-faced flashed between jagged peninsulas of grass. For drainage purposes, Thomas often made creative use of barrancas and swales.”
Golf Architecture in America: Its Strategy and Construction by George C. Thomas Jr. in 1927
The Captain: George C. Thomas Jr. and His Golf Architecture by Geoff Shackelford in 1996