George C. Thomas, Jr., has had a lasting impact on a trio of Los Angeles courses
When it comes to discussing the most classic and enduring golf course architects of the 20th century, the conversation almost always starts and ends with George C. Thomas, Jr. And three of the most notable courses on his resume are right here in Los Angeles – Riviera Country Club, L.A. Country Club and Bel-Air Country Club.
Thomas was raised near Philadelphia and began designing a course on his family’s estate as a teenager. He was later was inspired by architecture greats Donald Ross, George Crump, A.W. Tillinghast and others. While his early work focused on courses on the East Coast, he relocated to California in his late 30s and made his name in the Golden State by designing some of most memorable courses in America, each which has stood the test of time.
“When you play a course and remember each hole, it has individuality and change,” Thomas wrote in his book Golf Course Architecture in America, published in 1926. “If your mind cannot recall the exact sequence of the holes, that course lacks the great assets of originality and diversity.”
LACC wasn’t originally designed by Thomas, but his work on the club’s North Course in 1921 with Herbert Fowler and again six years later alongside William P. Bell created the layout that became a classic. While it has undergone some changes over the decades, a project in 2010 by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackleford restored it to Thomas’s original design.
The site of the 2023 U.S. Open, it has hosted a number of other USGA championship events (most recently the 2017 Walker Cup) and was the original home of the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles Open. LACC North was listed at No. 19 on Golf Digest’s 2019 Top 100 course rankings.
Thomas again collaborated with Bell on Bel-Air Country Club in 1926, and its setting among the hills and canyons of West Los Angeles make it one of the most unique layouts in the country.
Among its quirks are tunnels cut through hills to take players from one green to the next tee, a suspension bridge and an elevator after the 9th green. Bel-Air hosted the 1976 U.S. Amateur and the stroke-play matches for the U.S. Amateur in 2017.
“Depending on how many he’s given credit for, Thomas designed only 10 to 15 courses, but those three stand head and shoulders above the rest,” said Tom Doak, who restored Bel-Air a few years ago, of Thomas’ trio of L.A. tracks. “And of the three, I think Bel-Air is the most unique because of the piece of property it’s on.”
Riviera, host of the PGA Tour’s Genesis Invitational (February 18-21), is perhaps the most enduring of Thomas’ three most notable Southern California designs and was ranked No. 23 on Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in 2019.
Having hosted the U.S. Open (1948), PGA Championship (1983, 1995), U.S. Senior Open (1998) and U.S. Amateur (2017), it is set to be the site of the Olympic golf competitions in 2028. Its 10th hole – a 315-yard, par 4 – is considered one of the best short par 4s in the world for its intriguing risk-reward proposition.
While Sam Snead, Ben Hogan Byron Nelson, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson have won the Tour event at Riviera, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods never have. Riviera has stood the test of time – in 1985, Lanny Wadkins set a record by shooting 20-under-par 264 in the Tour event there, and despite massive improvements in golf club and ball technology in the 36 years since, the record remains intact.
“If you were too young to see the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins, 73-0, don’t despair,” legendary L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote after watching Wadkins set the record. “Get a film of Lanny Wadkins beating Riviera Sunday and the rest of the week. If you had to miss Dempsey knocking out Fred Fulton in 14 seconds, this will re-create that mood.”
Thomas, who also designed Red Hill Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga, which he considered his masterpiece, died of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills in 1932.
Greetings, fellow golfers, and welcome to SoCal Golf Insider! We are Rob Lyon and Eric Marson and we've been reporting and writing about the game throughout the region since 1995. Here, we will provide you with the latest news, features, reviews and more on all things golf in Southern California. Let’s tee it up!
Got some news to share about what's going on in the SoCal Golf community? SHARE IT HERE.