10768 Bellagio Road,
California (CA) 90077-3730,
- +1 310 472 9563
5 miles NW of Beverly Hills
Members and their guests only
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. Bel-Air hosted the 50th USGA Seniors Championship in 2004 to mark the 80th anniversary of the club, though the course 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.”
Bel-Air Country Club is the most fun I have had on a golf course in the USA west of the Mississippi River. Only the great golf courses on Long Island create a similar sense of joy. Cypress Point comes close but one can get very distracted by the beauty of the course, particularly the final five holes, as well as the unique challenges of the course. At Bel-Air everything is right before you with the possible exception of the tee shot on eleven. The holes at Bel-Air are great fun to play, well-conceived while offering good variety.
There are short and long par 3’s, par 4’s and par 5’s. There are uphill greens, level greens, and raised greens. There are elevated tees and tees that require uphill shots.
At Bel-Air Country Club, I was reminded of Ohoopee Match Club where I saw a drinks placemat that said, “no one cares what you shot.” From the moment I stepped up to the first tee looking at the fairway fall away below me and the fabulous view of the skyline and the UCLA campus just beyond the club’s boundaries, I did not care what I scored. I had played nearly every other top golf course in California with the exception of Bel-Air. While I was interested in seeing each hole and playing a course that represented the “biggest hole” in playing the top golf courses in California, I found myself immersed in the beautiful surroundings and the stories of the club. Because the club has attracted stars of the entertainment world as well as important business men, there are many stories.
The club has plans to tear down the existing clubhouse and relocate it about 80 yards closer to the entrance road. They are doing this for two reasons. The first reason is to improve the weakest hole on the golf course; the first hole which is far too short to be a par 5 for the very good players. The second reason is to expand the outdoor patio to 3-5 times larger since the patio represents the essence of the club. Indeed, I do not think I have ever played as good a golf course as Bel-Air where it is upstaged by the “loose vibe” and laughter on that patio. And to think I caught the patio on slow days as the “Covid-19” face-mask restrictions prevent members from showing up whether they want to play or not. I have sat in clubhouses with views just as spectacular such as at Cruden Bay, Tara Iti, Barnbougle Dunes or Cypress Point, but never have I had as much fun and had an inner smile as big as I did at Bel-Air both while playing and especially on the patio. As I kept hearing new stories, I found myself trying to remember the stories I had already been told.
Tom Doak recently completed a restoration of the club. He was awarded the restoration due to comments made in his “Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” where he lamented the work done to the course since Mr. Thomas built it. He was negative in particular about the number of additional bunkers added to strengthen the course as a way to make up for its lack of length. In addition, he pointed out that the shape of the original bunkering no longer existed. His comments were negative enough that it was one reason I did not stress at never having played Bel-Air. In his Guide, Mr. Doak gave the course a rating of 7 but insisted it could be a 9.
Per an article written by Ron Driscoll of the UGA, Mr. Doak was asked “if you could restore any course in the book, which would it be? He responded, “Bel-Air.” Although he did not think he knew anyone at Bel-Air, it came to his attention that he knew two people on the greens committee who insisted on talking with him. He was selected. As Mr. Doak said, “they had been working on the golf course here and there, off and on, for the last 50 years or more. And I thought it was getting cluttered up and more and more away from George Thomas’s golf course. You can’t really lengthen it because it’s so confined by the canyons, and they’ve been doing things over the years to make it a little tougher within those confines. My perspective is not to worry so much about making it tougher, but to go back to what was there.” As mentioned, the result of all of the tinkering that occurred was lots of additional bunkering and some ponds.
Working with many overhead photos of the original course, Mr. Doak removed many bunkers and re-shaped existing ones. He restored green contours and sizes. It is not a full restoration because one cannot take down the trees marking the boundaries of many of the holes as there are houses nearby and too often these days balls over walls and trees into a backyard can lead to lawsuits. Therefore, the trees remain. That is the only restraint on what Mr. Doak was able to do.
My understanding is that the majority of the members very much like what Mr. Doak did to recreate the wonderful bunkering and green surrounds that George Thomas first designed and built. There are a few members who think the course plays easier due to the wider fairways, removal of ponds and bunkers, and slightly larger greens, even if this is what Mr. Thomas built in 1926. In that article in the USGA, Tom Doak is quoted as saying, “Depending on how many (courses) he’s given credit for, Thomas designed only 10 to 15 courses, but those three (Bel-Air, Riviera, Los Angeles North) stand head and shoulders above the rest. And of the three, I think Bel-Air is the most unique because of the piece of property it is on. I try to describe it to people sometimes. They laid out holes in a canyon, then tunneled through to another canyon to play two holes. You take an elevator up to the clubhouse, you build a suspension bridge to get over to the next green. That’s something that, if I suggested it to a client today, they would think I was kidding.”
After purchasing the land for nine holes, course founder Alonzo Bell thought he had a deal for an additional 75 acres for the second nine. But the property was sold and became part of the UCLA campus. However, George Thomas and his co-designer William Bell routed the tenth hole, a par 3 over a ravine accessed by the famous swinging bridge. Additional land was then purchased that provided for six more holes (holes 11-16). Doak said, “it’s remarkable in that it’s on such small acreage. When George Thomas first looked at it, he wasn’t sure it was wide enough to build holes going out and coming back. He designed it so that the greens and tees are up on the sides of the canyon, and you play from the side of the canyon down to the middle and back up.”
I will first comment on two stories. When Howard Hughes was pursuing Katherine Hepburn, he landed a small plane at Bel-Air. He was presented with a bill for damage which he refused to pay and was either asked to leave the club or resigned. My member thought that Howard Hughes landed his plane on the eighth fairway, finishing in front of the seventh green. Sources are mixed on which fairway he landed the plane, with some articles referencing the seventh hole and some the fourteenth. Based on what I saw, the eighth fairway seems to make more sense given there is more land available, yet it is hillier than the fourteenth. In the end, does it matter? It is such a fun story.
The second story is regarding Johnny Weissmuller, a five-time golf medal winner and a bronze medal winner in swimming in the Olympics, who became the first Tarzan in motion pictures. Because he was a member at Bel-Air who loved to play golf, he insisted on breaks during filming to play golf. At the time there was a rugged, undeveloped piece of land with 50-75 feet cliffs between holes 3-7 where the filming occurred. It still looks like a jungle from the sides of the hill.
Atop the land where they filmed scenes for the Tarzan movies now sits one of the most expensive land/housing in the USA with the house/compound being rumored to have a $230M+ price. Other famous celebrities have lived bordering the golf course, which one would expect given the proximity to the entertainment capital of the USA.
I was asked the question whether it is Thomas’s best routing, or indeed one of the finest routings in the world. I struggle with placing Bel-Air above Riviera where Mr. Thomas was able to create an amazing golf course down in a canyon on a somewhat flat piece of land. Yet, given that Bel-Air sits on essentially four separate parcels, I do find it to be the more interesting routing because of the challenges it overcomes. There is less land to work with at Bel-Air, and yet the holes are nearly as interesting as at Riviera. Certainly, Bel-Air has the better terrain to Riviera and is even slightly above the terrain at Los Angeles North. For me, both Riviera and Los Angeles North are the superior courses due to the additional length which provides the opportunity to create more interesting and challenging holes. Bel-Air is the superior course for enjoyment and fun. Bel-Air is the equal to Los Angeles North is terms of quality of the green surrounds which is why I place Los Angeles North as the best of the trio. In sum, all three courses are among the best in the USA and it is easy to see why all three are often on the top 100 lists, both in the USA and in the world.
In thinking about why Bel-Air is so much fun, there is the view from the first tee and again as you round the corner of the dogleg on seventeen. There are four tunnels, two elevators, one swinging bridge, as well as views of houses that will take one breath away. The course is immaculate. Although it sits within several canyons, one never feels compressed other and walking through one of the tunnels. You end your round playing nearly under that swinging bridge. You take another elevator up to the patio. On the patio you think of the marvelous green complexes, particularly on the raised greens. You think about the placement of the greens near the fall-off areas.
The course does not beat you up. It is only 6505 yards from the Blue tees, par 70 rated 72.5/134 and is 6180 yards from the White tees rated 70.9/130. We played the Blue tees and with the exception of the uphill par 3 tenth hole, I felt the course played to the yardage as the uphill and downhill holes offset each other. My low round was a 79 with two birdies on nine and fifteen.
The holes that stand out the most to me are the fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, twelfth and seventeenth. I do not think there is a single “great” hole on the course, but there is not a weak hole on the course. Every hole held my interest or had a suitable challenge. For the longer hitters, the first hole is currently a weak hole. The back nine is favored by most players, but I felt as though the nines were equally balanced with the exception that the seventeenth is such a splendid hole followed by the thrill of playing beneath the bridge on the finishing hole.
1 – par 5 475/460. This is the weakest hole on the course, although the hole with the best overall views. This hole is significantly downhill and as a par 5 definitely needs additional yardage. The two longer hitters in our group both hit wedges into the green. There are ditches to either side of the fairway that I suppose become streams during a rainfall. About 75 yards from the green are two bunkers on the left with a line of trees on the right, one of which lost a very large branch as we later played the seventeenth. Fortunately, the branch came crashing down on an unattended cart parked by someone using the range. The green is on a bit of a rise and the play is to the left side, perhaps even off the mound on the left to bring a ball back onto the green that is steeply sloped left to right. Hitting short of the green with an approach shot will not allow a ball to go onto the green while missing to the right will send one’s ball kicking down to the right. The additional 80 yards will make this a worthy golf hole for nearly all players, as opposed to a decent hole for players of average length.
2 – par 4 395/390. I like this dogleg left. There are three bunkers just off the tee which should not be in play but represent some nice “eye candy.” The bigger issue is the large centerline bunker about 220 yards out. My two longer hitters easily flew the bunker, both opting to go right over it. The best line over the bunker for more distance is to go over the left side but one could get stuck on the hill to the left if the tee shot is pulled too far. Going right of the bunker could get you blocked by trees. This hole is a prime example of how the restoration could not be completely finished given the line of trees on the right side of the fairway between the houses and the course. The green is a very good one, fronted by a very large bunker with fingers and inner grass islands. The green is raised behind this bunker and is steeply sloped. I found the bunker and hit over the back of the green. While I thought the chip would go right, it actually went left about six feet. I did manage to save bogey. It is a tremendously sloped back to front and left to right green.
3 – par 3 160/150. My understanding is that this green had a small pond in front of it at one time. There are now four bunkers surrounding all but the left side of the green where there is a substantial fall-off. The front bunker is another one with multiple fingers. This hole plays not quite a club shorter as it is downhill. The hole has a vertical spine in it and various smaller depressions. It is a decent par 3, perhaps better looking visually than in playing it.
4 – par 4 445/430. The next two holes are on their own at the bottom of the “Tarzan” plateau. This par 4 is a flat hole where there are three bunkers nearer the green, but I felt the first two were completely out of play. This is perhaps the least memorable hole on the course other than the setting, but it does have another good green which is slightly raised with a lot of inner contour. My member host, a past club champion, said it is one of the greens that he struggles with both in speed and line. For me, I wondered why Mr. Thomas did not build a bunker both on the left side of the green or possibly behind the hole.
5 – par 3 145/115. This is a beauty of a par 3 surrounded by large bunkers on three sides. There are no bunkers on the left as it has a severe fall-off much like the third hole. The green is sloped substantially back to front. I hit the front of the green and spun back off but with a putt which I blew by the hole. This hole is nestled at the bottom of the Tarzan plateau. One should go inside the restroom here to see the picture of the hole back when Bel-Air first opened when there was a different angle to the green hitting through the trees.
6 – par 4 380/350. After passing through the first tunnel, you arrive at an elevated tee to a hole where the fairway slopes a bit right to left and the danger being keeping one’s ball right with it staying near the tree line. The other danger is there is another ditch/stream going down the left side of the fairway with the stream cutting back towards the green ending at its middle (although not much of a ditch at that point). There is a single bunker behind the green which is sloped left to right. The green is small on the left side but gets wider. I really liked the green site and the overall look of this hole.
7 – par 4 380/350. My third favorite hole on the course plays back against the road to a fairway that is steeply sloped left to right as it is built into the side of another chasm. Once again, there are also trees down the right side although they should not come into play. There are a couple trees down the left side about 130 yards from the raised green. Fronting the green built into the side of the hill is a single large bunker with multiple fingers. There is a single small bunker on the back right of the green which is steeply sloped back to front and left to right. One wants to stay on this hole and hit approach shots into the green over and over.
8 – par 4 495/470. In more important tournaments, they use the sixth tee as the back tee, thereby adding another 50 yards to the hole. This fairway goes up, has a ripple, then ultimately finishes on lower ground where the green is. There are some gorgeous houses bordering this hole. From the tee there are two bunkers on the right. This is followed by another single bunker about 90 yards short of the green with flanking, large bunkers on also near the green but short of it. My understanding is that there was another pond here on the left front of the green. The beauty of this large green is the substantial fall-off left and also behind the green where one’s ball could end up in the ditch/stream from the first fairway.
9 – par 3 325/310. This hole evidently had the most “restoration” done to it as there are no bunkers on it. I loved this hole and not because I birdied it. It is a true risk/reward hole from the normal back tees for the longer players. In tournaments, there is a tee behind the eighth green that adds another 50 yards to the hole. This hole has a ditch/stream going up the right side, trees and houses on the left and the fairway narrows as the green is placed back inside the canyon on either side. The green is thin but long with a raised grass wall (or was it the ditch/stream) crossing in front of the green and continuing along the side. It is a splendid, wonderfully fun hole.
10 – par 3 205. After going through the tunnel, up the elevator you arrive at perhaps the most daunting tee shot at Bel-Air to the uphill par 3 playing perhaps 25 yards longer. Part of the green sits behind a mound on the right front. The green is sloped sharply back to front and any putt going uphill will be pretty slow. I found this to be the most dramatic tee shot as you tee off right next to the clubhouse and pro-shop over the ravine with that lovely swinging bridge next to you and a chasm in between the tee and fairway. Up on your right next to the green you can spy the house where Richard Gere and Cyndy Crawford lived when they were married. But although the tee shot is dramatic, I thought this to be the least interesting hole on the golf course. For me it served merely as a transition hole to get to the best part of the course in the next canyon.
11 – par 4 395/385. After the next tunnel you arrive at a wonderful hole, a very nice downhill dogleg left par 4 where if you go left off the tee you will end in perhaps the only heavier rough on the course that requires a layup shot as the line to the green is protected by trees. The fairway tits to the left. There are two long flanking bunkers with the left one cutting into the front of the green. The green is raised and appears much smaller than it is. It is a brilliantly conceived hole that works perfectly with the shape of the land.
12 – par 4 385/355. This hole slightly goes to the right. The land fall-offs from right to left and if one goes right they will have a difficult shot into a green that is raised and hidden by the two “Mae West” mounds. The left side of the fairway has another ditch/stream but I felt as if it should not often come into play. This is the second hole with no bunkers on it. The green has some very nice inner contours to it. This hole reminded me the most of some of the holes I have played in the British Isles.
13 – par 3 220/200. This is likely the hardest par 3 on the course given the front bunkers but I was told it is also the hole where the most hole in one’s have been made. The green complex has a bunker set well of to the right and then one large bunker in front of the green. The green is sharply sloped right to left and one can use the mound on the right side of the green to kick a ball well to the left. The ditch/stream present on the twelfth hole continues down the left side but again should not really be in play other than at the left side of the green.
14 – par 5 580/560. The one long hole on the course has higher ground to the right side and the ditch/stream going down the left. There are no bunkers until you arrive at the green where three await you including a center bunker. The green is narrow in the front like an inverted beaker, then widens with a fall-off behind it. This is one of the better green complexes on the golf course but the green is easier than most of the others.
15 - par 4 445/430. My other birdie occurred here to a hole that bends to the right. There is a fairway bunker up on the right about 80 yards short of the green which should not be in play. One can see where numerous bunkers on the right were removed. At the green are two bunkers left and one small one short right. The green is long and narrow. My member host feels this to be one of the more difficult holes on the course.
16 – par 3 200/175. The green is nestled into the uphill side of the canyon so it plays about ten yards longer. Two long flanking bunkers are at the front of the green with the left side bunker looking like two bunkers given its fingers. The left side bunker eats into half of the green, making the front half of the green less than half the size of the back half. There are a few trees and hills on either side of this green which is two-tiered. I liked the hole a lot and perhaps should have listed it as one of my favorites.
17 – par 4 475/455. The most beautiful hole on the course as you come around the corner of this dogleg right. But first you throw your ball to see how far it can get through the final tunnel. I made it out to the other side while my member host made it to the ball washer. The view of UCLA and Marymount High School behind the green is tremendous. There are two bunkers on the outward turn with another bunker short left of the green. The green has a big fall-off to the left and behind. This hole is another one where Mr. Thomas took perfect advantage of the land.
18 – par 4 400/385. Playing uphill to a fairway that feels tighter than any other on the course, one steps to the tee feeling a little wistful about the round coming to an end. A ditch/stream is off to the right with the fairway sloping to the ravine. There is a shared fairway bunker with seventeen on the left and another one farther up on the left for longer hitters. There is a long centerline bunker that begins about 35 yards short of the green which is oval. The green is sloped back to front with a couple of other slopes built into it. High above the green and behind it is the swinging bridge to the tenth green. You take the final elevator ride back up to the cart storage area. While I often feel a bit sad for a round at a good course to end, the fun is just beginning as the patio and the wonderful view of UCLA and the skyline awaits. The view is better in late afternoon as dusk approaches.
The routing does remind me of Merion East, where the amount of land available is similarly compressed due to lack of acreage. Both Merion East and Bel-Air have a lot of movement in the land although Merion East has more. As Mr. Doak pointed out, George Thomas took full advantage of the land he was given with his routing, being able to put most of the tees and greens on higher ground and using the contours of the canyons to define the driving lines for his fairways. It is a very good routing. I am glad the course has been restored as best as it can. As my member host told me where ponds, streams, and bunkers were, I was glad to see the course relying on simplicity - just the land itself for its defense.
Bel-Air is one of the most special places I have ever played. I think Mr. Doak has made it a “9” if he were to update his book since his most recent “volume 3” has what he wrote in his original guide. This course is a 6 on the “fun” scale.
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!