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Fergal O`Leary saddles up for the Wild West

28 March, 2014

Fergal O’Leary saddles up for the Wild West

Fergal continues his quest to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. His latest adventure was in California

Olympic Club
I first visited the Lake course in 2007 and many of my opinions have remained unchanged. It continues to be very demanding off the tee, whether you have to nail it down a corridor of never ending trees, or shape it in either direction to find the fairway. Not many of the holes would be categorized as ‘breath-taking’ prior to the 18th. Many of the par 4s have a familiar feel to them. If you stand 150 yards out, the approach shots begin to look and feel the same. Each has a slightly raised green with a bunker left and right. I remember feeling this way on my first visit and anxiously waiting for a hole to stand out. I did appreciate the new 8th hole which has become the club’s signature hole, and feel that the new green location was a terrific change and welcomed improvement. Similarly with the 18th hole, the clubhouse in the background provides a magnificent setting and tantalizing finish into such a small narrow green surrounded by murderous bunkers. Other than a handful of memorable holes, and having played all of the Top 100 ranked courses in the country, I feel like the Lake course is slightly overrated. The routing is somewhat uneventful along the side of the mountain, offering plenty of parallel holes and uneven lies. Small subtle greens, challenging approach shots, and raw toughness characterize this old layout worthy of its inclusion in the USGA rotation. The club is progressively cutting down Pine Trees, opening up sight-lines, adding Tiger Tees and holding up its reputation for the best hot dog burgers in the world!

California Club
Since the outstanding restoration of the MacKenzie bunkers and routing by Kyle Philips, this club has gone from strength to strength. Little is known about “the Cal Club” due to its exclusivity and being slightly overshadowed by the Golden Age giants located in the Bay Area. When I teed it up here a few years ago, it captured my heart and quickly became a personal favourite. Of all the courses on my Golden State itinerary, the California Club was the one I was looking forward to the most. The restoration has been the catalyst for the club’s rising national and world ranking, and I can only anticipate continued future success. The conditioning may well have been the best of all the courses we played, with the greens running at 12.5 that morning. The routing is world-class and the bunkers are magnificently created offering an abundance of memorable uniqueness. Each hole was designed with such individuality and the progressive flow of the course is wonderful. You’ll find yourself saying “wow” on many of the tee boxes. You only need to play this course once to remember every single hole. The front nine is tight through the tall trees with wonderful rolling topology and exciting uphill and downhill holes. The back nine opens up with arguably the greatest bunker complexes in the world, particularly on holes 12 and 16. Thank you Dr. MacKenzie for leaving us with this masterpiece.

San Francisco Golf Club
When I think of tradition, history, privilege and a golf course which silently narrates the genius of times gone by, the San Francisco Golf Club is second to none. A.W. Tillinghast visited the Bay Area and created a layout which could only be described as architectural brilliance. The course challenges all golfing abilities, testing finesse, accuracy and imagination. It’s an honour to walk this property and learn about the many contributions that this club has made to American golf history. Those who are fortunate to enter the gates and tee it up will walk away short of breath. With a membership which once included golfing legends such as Eddie Lowry and Harvey Ward, this club is dripping with history. The gentleman and ladies which compose the sacred membership are incredibly proud, courteous, privileged and uphold all of the fine traditions of this game. While standing on the 11th tee, my heart was touched by none other but the former USGA President and living legend, Sandy Tatum. Time stood still as we watched the 93 year old send his drive down the middle of the 15th fairway, followed by a courtesy tip of the cap. Seeing him swing the club truly inspired me and reminded us that San Francisco Golf Club is a shining jewel amongst a constellation of golfing stars. Upstairs in the clubhouse, the club recently opened a History Room filled with pictures, books, trophies for all to enjoy and soak up the club’s glorious evolution.

Pebble Beach
Its reputation goes without saying and the anticipation never fails to excite. Seeing the holes with your own eyes ensures that the panorama will get your heart racing. There’s nothing quite like the first tee jitters you experience at Pebble Beach. The course opens with a relatively straight forward stretch until you reach number 7. Clearly a downhill 100 yard par 3 surrounded by the Pacific Ocean will draw comparisons to waving a red rag in front of a bull. The race is on and fasten your seatbelt. In my opinion, holes 8 through 10 are world class par 4s and really represent the crescendo into the back nine. Long tough holes with the ocean roaring next to you can trample your courage if ball-striking is anything less than perfect. I was thrilled to see how impressive the course conditions were, and even after a packed timesheet of golfers, the greens were still rolling true at 11 on the stimp at 4pm in the afternoon. This is a fairytale golf course with so much exciting history. The legends, fables and stories that we all remember come to life when you walk this hallowed ground. I always stop and think that this is one of the courses that people want to play before they die. Every single day, this course makes dreams come true for so many people. You’ll be surrounded by golfing fanatics from all corners of the earth who may only visit this course once in their life, and this is the special day that they will remember forever. For that fact along, Pebble Beach Golf Links is an experience of a lifetime.

Cypress Point
So much has been written about this legendary course crafted by Mother Nature and completed by Alister MacKenzie, yet the aggregate of all that has been reported doesn’t even come close to describing its unique natural beauty and world-renowned brilliance. Every time I open my eyes and the Cypress Point Club is all that I can see, it’s as close to an out of body experience that a golfer can have.

100 yards short of the 6th green is the location for Alister MacKenzie’s American home prior to his passing in 1934. He clearly wanted to be close to this gem. The club was founded by former US Women’s Amateur Champion, Marion Hollins who continued her partnership with MacKenzie to design the course. Having already teamed up to create Cypress Point and subsequently at Augusta National, the layout at Pasatiempo was destined for greatness. The course is characterized by dramatic elevation changes and natural hazards highlighting MacKenzie’s rugged site, yet they effortlessly blend into the surrounding environment. The design of the bunkers are original MacKenzie and have been wonderfully restored. Of all the MacKenzie courses I’ve played around the world, the bunker complexes are visually stunning and contribute to making each hole so memorable. With that said, the brutality of some of the greens give way to this course being described as “subtly diabolical”. It will break your heart at the drop of a hat. MacKenzie himself has been quoted as saying that the 16th is “the best two-shot hole I know” and described Pasatiempo’s undulating fairways as bearing a remarkable resemblance to those at the Old Course. Be sure to stop by the clubhouse to view the memorabilia case dedicated to this World Golf Hall of Fame architect.

Los Angeles Country Club
As part of the glorious restoration, Gil Hanse retained Geoff Shackleford, the author of George Thomas’ biography “The Captain”, to provide historical background regarding George Thomas’ and William Bell’s design concepts. Geoff assisted Gil as he perfected his architectural plans as well as during the actual construction. The fairways were constructed during the winter and spring of 2009. Gil is extraordinarily hands-on and always wanted to be onsite as much as possible to drive the bulldozers and craft the bunkers. The first bunker excavated during the 2009 phase was the second fairway bunker on the 17th hole that had been constructed as part of Herbert Fowler’s design in 1920-21. Much to the delight of Gil, who was operating the bulldozer, a cache of sand was discovered under the topsoil, signaling success in locating the original bunker. During 2009, fairway lines were established to compliment the new bunkering, and tree removal commenced, open up some lost vistas on the course and further revealing Gil’s vision for the North Course. It was during this interlude that the Board decided to pursue Gil’s design that called for re-establishing the original routing of the 2nd and 8th holes. The 2010 phase of the project began with the construction of the 5th green complex, followed by restoration of the short par four 6th green complex, the alter ego to Riviera’s famed 10th hole design by Captain Thomas several years before his work on the North Course.

After work concluded in the lower course (the 2nd through 9th holes, and the 17th hole), the construction effort shifted to the upper holes where tree removal exposed sweeping vistas not only across the differing elevations of the course itself, but also across the Los Angeles basin. Views from 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th holes span the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Observatory and the downtown skyline. One of the last initiatives of Gil Hanse was an ode to architect George Thomas to re-establish the old 17th, a short par three that played a key role in the final round of the 1926 LA Open. This hole, designed by Herbert Fowler and built by the Captain in 1920, was coined the “105-yard terror”. Fortunately the site remained untouched until 2010, except for the trees and brush growing upon it, so it was not difficult to rebuild the green to its original contours. Although not part of the regular course set up, this hole is often used by the membership as the 19th hole to settle up those precious bets. Unlike other courses in the area, the hybrid-Bermuda grass seed in the fairways provided for excellent turf conditions and played firm and fast throughout. With Gill adding many natural barrancas in front of greens, and hand-crafting bunkers that jut into the greens creating putting surfaces that resemble the shape of a molar tooth, it’s a real challenge to hit greens in regulation.

The restoration of the North Course took me by surprise. I hardly recognized the layout with all the tree clearance, incredible change in the bunker design and playing to new green locations. The current bunkers at LACC don’t resemble the bunkering at the other nearby Thomas layouts. Upon reflection, I considered the North Course almost unplayable for high handicap golfers as the entrance to every green is guarded by punishing bunkers, eliminating the ability to run the ball into the green. The current layout has turned many of the par fours into three shot holes for average players or individuals who can’t hit it very far. With the Walker Cup being hosted at this historic venue in 2017, the club will be well prepared for its first major showing of modern times as it rarely opens its doors to public eyes. Of all the courses on my itinerary, this was the toughest test.

Riviera Country Club
Captain George Thomas designed Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles Country Club (North) and Bel-Air Country Club within a few years of each other and practically all within a 5 mile radius. Among the many aspects that separate “The Riv” from the rest of the pack is the mind-blowing, yet impressive, growth of kikuyu grass throughout the property. When the country club and course opened in 1926, it was known as the Los Angeles Athletic Club Golf Course. Alister MacKenzie and William Bell helped Thomas in the design and planning of the course. They were in charge of assembling a labour force to build the course from scratch in the Santa Monica Canyon. The course has been modified a few times, most notably in 1992 when Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore redesigned the bunkers to look as they did when the course opened. Although the course has three alternate greens in play (6th, 10th & 16th) and an unusual aeration schedule (they punch much later in the year in order to have the greens perfect for when the PGA Tour arrives in February), I still think that The Riv is the most enjoyable and impressive layout in the Los Angeles area. The routing is wonderful and the positioning of the bunkers frame the visuals so well. The stunning par four 9th hole bringing you back towards the magnificent clubhouse is always my favourite hole and represents the brilliance of Thomas’ imagination. All of the holes at The Riv has a unique story to them, each so well designed and fitting perfectly into the flow of the landscape. The par four 10th hole may well be amongst the most famous on earth for its devilishly small putting surface running away from the approaching play. The club is moving towards a smaller membership, facilitated by tougher membership criteria and higher initiation fees ($250k). The conditioning is world class, as is expected from a facility of this nature. Watch out for the Hollywood celebrities and famous sports stars, this is where they play golf.

Valley Club of Montecito
“The Valley Club” was designed in 1929 by Robert Hunter and Alister MacKenzie, who was then at the height of his career, having recently completed Cypress Point in 1928. Some of the defining characteristics of The Valley Club are the high quality small greens, subtle breaks due to the mountain/ocean effect, peaceful settings with mountain backdrops, as well as MacKenzie-designed bunkers which works into the course with a ‘camouflage’ effect. The strength of the course is the sensible location of hazards and the ability of the designers to route interesting holes across the diverse landscape. Green and bunker shapes here are slightly less exaggerated than on a course like Pasatiempo, yet the design is similarly centered on sophisticated golf holes that all players can handle, but the scratch golfer can only master with calculated play. The artistic bunkering is outstanding while the greens, which are generally smaller than others by MacKenzie, blend naturally into their surrounds and are full of contours and sharp angles.

As with many courses from the Golden Age, The Valley Club had lost some of its character and style over the decades, but gratifyingly a recent program by Tom Doak has restored the integrity and quality of the initial design. Aside from returning MacKenzie’s greens and irregular bunker shapes back to their original proportions, Doak and his team also reduced areas of rough grass and reinstated closely mown fringes around the putting surfaces. The club continues to add tee boxes, adding length to many of the par fours and offering new (higher) vantage points to view each hole. Being a member of the MacKenzie society, The Valley Club took a leaf out of Royal Melbourne’s book and incorporated a unique blend of three types of bent grass into its greens and rye grass fairways, offering world class playing conditions. Thanks to the successful restoration, the Valley Club now owns one of the best-preserved and most authentic MacKenzie designs to be found anywhere in America. Having visited numerous MacKenzie designed courses on this trip; The Valley Club is often referred to as one of the best conditioned courses that often has only a half-dozen groups on the course at one time. With roughly only 300 members, The Valley Club is very exclusive and subsequently does not get a lot of play. As I packed my bags and headed to the airport, I smiled at the portrait of the good Doctor hanging masterfully over the fireplace. Days like this will stay with me forever.

Article written by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. All photos taken by Fergal.


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