15 Jun 2023 | Professional golf |

Clayton: A masterpiece finally on show

by Mike Clayton

Los Angeles Country Club image
The 11th at LACC, one of the finest courses in America is making its major debut. Photo: Getty

Mercifully, the US Open might give us all a respite from the current state of the professional game and debate over the path to a resolution of the dispute between Greg Norman’s tour and the PGA Tour.

In his early-week press conference at Los Angeles Country Club the defending champion, Matt Fitzpatrick, summarised the state of affairs best when he said: “The whole thing is confusing. I just don’t know what is going on. It’s pretty clear no one knows what is going on apart from about four people in the world.”

Of more interest this week is the Open coming to the LACC, a club which had steadfastly refused every advance from the USGA to bring the championship to the best course and the best venue (not always the same thing) in one of the biggest cities in the country.

Eventually a group of younger members changed course and the world finally gets to see Captain George Thomas’ masterpiece.

Philadelphia-born and independently wealthy, Thomas bred roses with The American Rose Annual of 1927 noting: “No rosarian in the United States has paid as much attention for so long a time to the testing of the world’s new roses as has Captain Thomas.”

Thomas also designed a handful of brilliant golf courses including nearby Riviera which annually hosts the Los Angeles Open.

His original LACC course lost its way architecturally long after he died as members and architects decided his brilliant work could be improved upon.

Most often, assuming you can improve the work of a master is a foolish mistake and it's why the restoration of work from the early part of the early 20th century is such an important part of the modern design world.

The formerly barranca-fronted straight par-4 second hole was turned far to the right and up the hill to make a par-5.

The original and brilliant short par-4 sixth hole was wildly altered when the green was relocated 20 metres behind the original, a change that the writer and architect Geoff Shackelford said in The Captain (the definitive book on Thomas’s life) “created a hole with little of the interest it once had”.

Shackelford wrote of Thomas' sixth hole: “The beauty of what Thomas did is he lures you into thinking 'if I can drive it all four days, I can birdie it all four days'.”

The bunkers lost their shape and character and invariably trees encroached across playing lines including at the magnificent par-3 seventh and par-5 eighth holes.

Shackelford’s view is: “The major changes appeared to happen as a result of the classic modern golf architecture malady: attempting to lengthen a course to make it more 'up to date'.”

Wisely the club hired Gil Hanse who, along with Shackelford, restored the important elements of Thomas’ course whilst lengthening it to cope with the modern player with the advantage of equipment advances Thomas and his contemporaries could have never imagined.

The 11th hole, a ‘par-3’ stretching as far as 290 yards (265 metres), will at least make an interesting contrast with the 15th which is slated to play around 80 yards (73 metres) probably on Saturday to a tiny section of green sure to scare the wits out of players.

The most fascinating concept Thomas incorporated into the golf was his “Course within a Course” where he designed four distinctly different courses within one for the members to play.

The second hole could (and can again) be played as a par-4 or a par-5. At the fifth, a hugely long, uphill par-4, he made a tiny wing at the front right of the green and built a tee almost 100 metres closer the green for the rounds when the flag cut there. It a pin position they’ll use this week with the tee moved up maybe thirty metres.

The long par-3s at seven and 11 could be stretched and made into terrific short par-4s and the finisher varied between a 390-metre par 4 and a 450-metre par-5.

This week it’ll be all of its 450 metres but a par-4, one often into the afternoon breeze.

The pars for the four courses were 70, 70, 69 and 73. What is surprising is the concept didn’t catch on and become the norm for courses all over the world.

Royal Melbourne’s long par-3 16th, for example, would be one of the finest short 4s in the country with sixty metres added and one of the best holes at Metropolitan is the par-5, eighth hole played off the women’s tee as a par-4.

Golf and members get so wedded to championship courses, course records, back tees, par, course ratings, handicaps and convention that the idea of creating the sort of variety Thomas envisaged is completely lost.

But done well his idea would make the game more varied and inevitably more interesting.

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