George Thomas is the star of the greater Los Angeles area when it comes to golf having designed the three best courses in Los Angeles – Bel-Air, Los Angeles North, and Riviera, all of which I have played (Bel-Air recently, review to follow).
I had read and heard of the nice resort inn nested in the hills of Ojai, which is between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I had also read and heard good things about the golf course there, designed by George Thomas, although updated/rejuvinated/bastardized/ruined (take your pick) by the owners and others who worked on the course such as Jay Moorish. I had never seen the Inn or the golf course despite having lived nearby in Camarillo 37 years ago for a summer, and having friends who live in Montecito. I always elected to play the more renowned courses. If I had a free day, I would play some other public options such as La Purisma and Sandpiper.
But after recently playing Bel-Air the first time I wanted to see the course in Ojai.
I booked a twilight rate at $99.00 but as there was no one on the course I went off a bit earlier. I decided to walk and carry my bag after being assured there are only two big hills – the long uphill walk to the ninth tee and the walk up the seventeenth fairway. However, this is not something I would advise. As a runner I know it is often harder on one’s knees to walk downhill and there are quite a few steep declines. The property has several other long uphill walks, although nine and seventeen are easily the hardest. Thankfully, I avoided the worst part of the walk on seventeen – a steep decline followed by a long, sharp uphill as I walked near the sixteenth green after my tee shot. This allowed me to avoid a significant valley. The round took three hours as I was behind a twosome – a man with an electric trolley and his wife in a golf cart, otherwise due to the emptiness of the course I could have completed the round in 2.5 hours. I also took a guest shuttle from the eighteenth green back to my car which would have been nearly a 2/3rds mile walk.
The course had opened only six days before after being closed for nearly three months due to the Covid-19 shutdown in California. Therefore, the course was in poor condition, particularly the sixth green. The fairway grass was longer than usual (not much roll), and many of the greens were pock-marked and bumpy. I decided to focus on the architecture rather than get annoyed by putts that jumped in their air or veered off unexpectedly.
Garret Morrison did a review titled “The Lost Course: Ojai Valley Inn” that does a wonderful job of explaining why this is no longer a George Thomas design although it is marketed that way that way by the Inn. Indeed, near the first tee is a rock that says, “I believe I am absolutely impartial as to the courses which I have helped to build, but I consider the Ojai course as far and away above the best of them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this course contains more feature holes than the Los Angeles North course, the Municipal and Red combined, while there is not a weak hole at Ojai,” – George Thomas (Pacific Golf and Motor Magazine, 1925).
Yet in looking at the original scorecard, the course was built as a par 72 totaling 6625 yards with the front nine (now the back nine) being the most changed due to the effects of the Depression, use of the course by the military in WWII, and continued construction of addition facilities for guests of the inn. For example, Billy Bell and his son abandoned the original third and fourth hole and converted a par 5 and a long par 4. These four holes became two par 3’s and two short par 4’s. The bunkering was changed substantially to a more manicured finish. The famous sixteenth hole had pits for bunkers instead of smooth bunkers with eight inch lips – sadly the pit bunkers are now gone. Previously the hole was felt to be similar to the third at Pine Valley.
The greens rebuilt by Jay Morrish have little resemblance to the original look and shapes, with several greens in new locations. The greens are usually on the small side and lack significant shaping. T
he many bunkers built on the holes that were on the mesa have now been reduced.
There has been a large building built between the current ninth and eighteenth holes – although I did not think it detracted from the course as much as some others.
In essence the course has lost most of its quirkiness and uniqueness.
In sum, this is a golf course that essentially uses the same land that George Thomas once used for his course.
But as posed in this article, the question remains, “is the course worth playing?”
The answer is yes, but I would not go out of one’s way to do so unless they have played everything else in the area. The reason for playing here remains the terrific land on several of the holes going over barrancas and up and down the hills. The land is special on many of the holes.
Please note that in my review I played some of the tees that were closed which improved the experience quite a bit. These tees made the holes both more challenging and more interesting. In essence, these tees were more strategic. This occurred on three holes and I will note them.
The course is now 6252 from the back tees, only 5900 from the white tees. It is a par 71 rated 71/131 and 69.3/126. I played the back tees even though four of them were closed. The GHIN app has it as a par 70 with the fifth hole being a par 4.
1 – par 4 373/371. Playing from an elevated tee this hole goes significantly down, then back up to the green. There is a hill on the right that one should be able to clear and the ball will run forever. Because I waited a bit for the twosome in front of me and did not want to wait for them to clear completely, I decided to hit to the flatter part of the fairway before a second downhill. While this provided a somewhat level lie, I think its best to simply blast away and get as far to the bottom as one can even if this leaves a shot where one can only see the flag. There is a single bunker front middle of the green and the green is sloped back to front. It is not much of a golf hole as there is not enough going on at the green.
2 – par 4 358/330. This dogleg right takes one twice over the barranca. There is a bunker on the outward corner but only the longest hitters will reach it due to the slope of the land from left to right towards the barranca. The second shot is over the same ravine through a gap in the trees to a thin green placed on higher ground with two bunkers at the rear. It is a nice hole but I think the back tee should be moved 20 yards back as there is room to do so without causing liability issues. Having a short club in hand after a fairly easy tee shot is not much of a hole.
3 – par 3 115/105. This hole plays downhill over the same barranca. The green is slightly crowned with flanking bunkers. I believe the Inn owns the land behind the fence behind the tee. If they do, this hole would be better 20 yards longer. There should be two more bunkers added around the green. The bunkers should be twice as deep as the ones currently there. The view is nice but it is not much of a hole.
4 – par 4 297/274. Playing over the barranca with a forced carry of the tee, the ground falls significantly off to the right if one does not find the fairway. You play uphill all the way to the green which is perhaps the smallest on the course and has one deep bunker that has a raised lip off to the front left. This hole is okay as it is close to a driveable par 4. However, much like the third hole, I felt the hole could be improved by moving the tee box to create a dogleg left and pick up another 60 yards. However, this is likely too expensive due to the tree removal that would be required. It would definitely improve the hole by making the right side of the fairway even more perilous.
5 – par 5 440/433. The GHIN app has this as a par 4 which makes more sense. Playing from a very elevated tee with a terrific view of the mountains, you are playing down to the valley below as a slight dogleg left. The left side is heavily tree lined and if one hits it safely but on the left side, there are tree branches that come into the fairway to capture a second shot and knock it down (obviously that happened to me). This is another somewhat small green with a single bunker on the right side. Balls hit greenside should miss to the left as the hill will stop a ball and give one a chance at recovery. The green tilts to the right. As a par 5 this is not a good hole. As a par 4, this is one of the better holes on the golf course.
6 – par 4 312/299. My host at Bel-Air loves this hole but I do not know why. It is slight dogleg left with an inner bunker. There is a collection of bunkers on the right side perhaps for the longer hitters and one left. The green is small and angled right to left. The green was distressed and lacked sufficient contouring. As I am not a long hitter, the risk-reward element to this hole did not apply. I did not care for this hole and felt it to be the weakest on the golf course.
7 – par 4 392/379. I thought this to be the best hole on the golf course. It is a dogleg right with a rise in the fairway that I did not quite make all the way over to catch the slope on the other side for additional distance. You must either go long off the tee or stay on the left side to be able to see the green as trees line the right side paralleling a small stream. The green is elevated with a large bunker fronting most of it while trees pinch in from the left. The green is large and has a nice tilt to it. This hole would be good on any course.
8 – par 3 128/119 – playing slightly uphill surrounded by woods, one feels disconnected to the rest of the course on this hole. The hole is shaped like a triangle with a bunker on the right and a fall-off front and left. It is not much of a hole.
9 – par 5 517/499. After a long hike up a steep hill to get to the ninth tee, you are rewarded with an hole that rises, although gentler. However, you will not get much roll on the ball. Hitting off to the right will cause one’s ball to fall further from the fairway, bringing the line of trees into play that ring the practice area for the remainder of the hole. Off to the left is a newish facility that takes up half of the length of the hole and is unsightly. The fairway rolls and dips as it climbs to a green that is nestled into a side of a hill and fronted by four bunkers, also fairly deep. There is a significant two-tiered green. I hit my third into a bunker and in trying to fly it 30 yards to a back pin on the upper tier, I stayed on the hill behind the green. I hit my ball perfectly off the hill and manage to save bogey. This is the best green complex on the course and would be a very good par 5 without all of the distractions to either side. I did like the hole due to the green.
10 – par 4 419/404. Holes 10 and 13 are very similar. After a long walk from the ninth green past the pro shop, through a gap in the rooms, past the market and beyond the front of the Inn after the thirteenth tee, you finally arrive at the tenth tee. It is elevated with a wonderful view of the Inn and mountains. This hole offers a wide fairway and has a single fairway bunker on the right that is out of play. I do not know why the bunker is there about 330 yards off the tee. At the green is a large bunker left and a smaller one on the front right. The green is narrow, but deep. It has subtle slope to it but again lacks sufficient contouring. It is a nice hole, but could be better.
11 – par 3 227/181. Although the back markers were set at 185 yards, I walked back and played it at 227. This is a nice par 3 with the green angled away right to left offering a thin target from the tee. There is a large bunker the length of the left side. The green has a mound on the left but lacks sufficient contouring. This is another hole that could be much better.
12 – par 5 487/458. Much like the ninth, the only interest to this hole is a decent green complex. The land dips about 110 yards from the green which has a bunker short left and then three on the right side going to the back right. The green is slanted back to front and to the right. I liked the hole but wonder if it would be better as a par 4 even if that means shortening it.
13 – par 4 405/399. Crossing over the tenth tee, this is another elevated tee playing to a wide fairway. There are scattered trees down both sides and well as two bunkers separated by 20 yards on the right. The green is angled left to right with a fronting bunker and one behind the green. The green has a vertical spine in it. I liked the hole and felt it has a more interesting green than the tenth.
14 – par 3 203/186. When first built, the green for fourteen was the green for the thirteenth and it played as a par 5. But now additional rooms have been built which made a change to the routing. This long par 3 has a grouping of trees on the right that I found which results in a near blockage of any aerial recovery shot unless one finds a gap in the trees which I did. The green is surrounded by three bunkers. I liked the hole but did wonder about the original design which would have been one of the better holes on the George Thomas course.
15 – par 5 571/510. There is an elevated tee here that was closed but which I played. The fairway is wide. From the tee I played, it is a slight dogleg left although that tee does bring a building into play if you hook a tee shot. The fairway is out-of-character to the rest of the course as both sides are heavily tree lined. The green has flanking bunkers and one front middle which makes it unique as well with that third bunker. From the 510 tees this is a boring hole. The back tees are likely only open for competitions. It is only the back tee that makes the hole interesting.
16 – par 3 203/179. There has been an attempt to restore this hole to as originally built but they did not replicate the greenside bunkers, they only somewhat replicated the bunkers fronting the green of which there are six although it looks like all sand from the tee. This has a green with a nice rise and hump in it. I liked the hole. This tee has the same terrific view as #5.
17 – par 4 403/385. Playing over a barranca, there are fairway bunkers left and right on a fairway that slightly tilts to the right. Trees go down the entire right which falls down to another barranca. The green has been relocated on this hole. There are three bunkers at the green. I thought this to be the best hole on the back nine. The original design had no bunkers on the fairway.
18 – par 4 402/389. As you walk off the seventeenth green with the fifteenth green to the left, there is a bench where the tee used to be for the eighteenth. From this tee which likely adds 30 yards to the hole as well as creates a dogleg left, you would hit over the final barranca. As it now is, the bushes are grown high to block one’s view of the fairway on the other side. Because I have a reliable tee shot, I stood on the bench for a view and hit from there. After walking down the bridge where they filmed some scenes for the movie, “The Two Jakes,” I came out to find out why they closed the tee. They do not want people to hit into the outdoor garden area of an entertainment structure they built. However, after walking back to the back tees now in use, I felt the “closed” tee to be a safer option simply because those back tees bring that outdoor entertainment area more into play for both longer hitters and slicers/faders of a ball. I found the middle of the fairway easily from the closed tee and was not close to the garden area. My reward was a very long approach shot to a green that is uphill and set off to the left. There is a tree over-hanging the front right of the green and very much in play. There are two flanking, large bunkers also at the front of the green. If one could play the “closed” back tee, this is perhaps the best hole on the golf course. From the current tees, this is only an okay finishing hole. Looking at the aerials of the course, they should consider either re-opening the back tee or building a new tee at the bottom of the hill off of the seventeenth green and converting the hole into a par 5. I think this would make the hole more interesting as well as reduce the chances of a tee shot landing into the outdoor party/garden area.
I am glad I played Ojai. However, similar to the article written by Garrett Morrison, I wish I could have played the original course. Even if the owners of the Inn did not want to put a lot of money into the course, I think a better rejuvination could occur if the green complexes were returned to their original placement of bunkers and style (where the hole still exists), lengthening a few holes, restoring the original fairway bunkers on the mesa holes, and making the internal contours of the greens more interesting. The INN could have something special again that I think they could charge a slightly higher fee as well as draw more people to play it. I do not think it would add much, if any, to the annual cost of maintenance. The land is very good here due to the barrancas, forced carries, and changes in elevation that results in a good variety of holes but I cannot recommend playing this course more than once unless one lives in the area.
Date: June 30, 2020