Bel-Air Country Club is a throwback to The Roaring Twenties and the course here is one of the finest layouts that came from the remarkable George C. Thomas design stable, one that also includes such stellar track as Riviera and Los Angeles Country Club.
Working with his partner William Bell, Thomas routed the fairways around several large canyons where, because the terrain is so tortuous, it requires quirky little tunnels (before holes 6 and 11), an iconic white coloured suspension bridge (after playing from the 10th tee) and even an elevator (from within a tunnel after the 9th) to transport golfers around the property.
The great and the good of Hollywood have been associated down the years with the social scene of Bel-Air and it was here that Howard Hughes once landed his aeroplane on the 14th fairway to impress Katharine Hepburn, who lived just off the course. As she was receiving a golf lesson from one of the club pros at the time, Hughes is said to have emerged from the aircraft and joined them for some practice.
Cosmetic revisions to the course have been made over the years by the likes of Dick Wilson, George Fazio and Robert Trent Jones but the layout remains a Thomas masterpiece, hosting the 50th USGA Seniors Championship in 2004 to mark the 80th anniversary of the club, though the course was actually opened for play three years after its formation in 1924.
Renaissance Golf Design embarked on a restoration project at the end of 2017, reducing the number of bunkers from 76 to 42 originals, removing two ponds and changing half the greens. All this came about because, in the words of Tom Doak, "the course was further from George Thomas's design than most people realize."
Writing in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses Tom Doak commented as follows: “I rarely think about what courses I’d like to restore if I had the chance, but Bel Air has to be at the top of the list. Thomas’ plan for Bel Air may well be the most spectacular routing ever conceived.”
The course starts with one of the most dramatic first tees in the game. It is perched on top of a hill overlooking U.C.L.A. and the Westwood section of Los Angeles. Set in the canyon below is a short 491 yard par five that is a great starting hole and in keeping with George Thomas's design philosophy of a relatively easy start. The course has a different character than Thomas’ other designs in the L.A. area. Riviera is basically laid out in one large canyon, while L.A.C.C. is routed over rolling and open terrain. Bel-Air is routed through four different canyons and weaves its way in and out of them masterfully. In addition to the first hole, I particularly liked the sixth and seventh holes. The seventh is a par four of 391 yards and runs parallel to the sixth but plays down into a canyon. The hole uses the slopes of the hillsides to great effect. The tenth is the most memorable on the course, a demanding par three of 200 yards over a ravine. The club’s iconic white suspension bridge adds to the grandeur of the place. I can't think of a weak stretch of holes on the course and the finish is particularly strong. Both Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan called the seventeenth one of their favorite par fours. The hole doglegs right and slopes right, and the sloping fairway sends balls not perfectly hit into the rough. Missing the green on your second shot yields a terrible penalty. Bel-Air has an ambiance and feel to it that makes it Zen golfing at its best.
The course is steeped in history and it was a thrill to see the famous swinging bridge by the 10th hole and poking around the clubhouse seeing all the historical artifacts they have on display.
As for the course itself, it is very much Riviera-lite, right down to similar opening holes and green complexes. The course is in immaculate condition with a real Southern sensibility with a routing through pine trees. My favorite holes were on the backside 11-13 as the course follows a stream making for picturesque and relaxing holes.
As of Spring 2016, the course is undergoing noticeable renovations (although they are not affecting play) and I think it will be all for the better as the greens and some areas need a bit of a touchup (the greens did roll fast and true but small tweaks won't hurt). After the work this course will be topnotch and a must play for anyone lucky enough to get on!