The American mid and senior amateur game got another shot in the arm last week when Los Angeles Country Club debuted the George C. Thomas Jr. Invitational. The first-year event drew a superb field from across the country, and it is a welcome addition to the amateur schedule. It is also added some badly needed west coast balance to the mid-amateur rota.
Established in 1897, LACC opened in the heart of Beverly Hills in 1911. The two courses, North and South, were originally built by a committee of founding members. However, it is the famed architect Thomas who is most closely identified with the club. An amateur architect from Philadelphia where he was a founding member of Pine Valley, Thomas moved to California in 1920 and helped Herbert Fowler with his renovation of the two courses.
In 1927, by then a member of LACC, he began to update Fowler’s earlier work. Thomas, affectionately known as the “Captain,” also designed neighboring Bel-Air and Riviera CC. He believed strategy was “the soul of the game,” and he was the chief proponent of the concept of “a course within a course;” with a change of a pin position or a tee ground, the character of a hole could change, as could par. The scorecard at LACC – 7,100 yards long from the tips – says par is 70, but it can play anywhere from 69 to 72.
More recently, golf course designer Gil Hanse was called in to renovate the North Course, to bring back that Thomas emphasis on strategic design that had slipped away over the decades. Hanse had overseen renovations at such gems as the Country Club and the Kittansett Club in Massachusetts, as well as Fishers Island Club in New York. He was also recently selected to design the golf course for the 2016 Rio Olympics. By all accounts, the work he did to restore the North Course was spectacular.
LACC is fairly unique in American golf. It has three par 5s and five par 3s, a reverse redan hole (No. 11), and a short par 4 (No. 6) that is 335 yards and provides plenty of options. And then there is the “little 17th,” a tiny par 3 that Hanse rediscovered during his renovation. The hole is not part of the regulation course, but it can be used as an extra hole or a wager-settler. The club calls it an “ode to George Thomas.” It is brilliant.
Hanse, himself, had this to say about the whole LACC renovation experience: “I learned more about architecture and the restoration of that golf course than I may have learned 15 or 20 years prior to that. George Thomas is a genius discussing courses within a course and different strategies and options.”
LACC used to host the Los Angeles Open occasionally in the 1920s and ’30s; since then it has somewhat deliberately fallen off the radar. It shuns the local tinsel town scene; by reputation, Hollywood-types are encouraged to look elsewhere for membership. However, the club had become enamored with the Hanse work, and a group of competitive mid-amateurs led by John McClure, Jerry Chang and inaugural champion Brad Shaw felt it was too good to remain a secret.
Chang was a four-year letterman at Stanford, who has six USGA appearances to his credit. McClure, who played his college golf at Oklahoma, has 12 USGA appearances on his résumé, as well as three LACC club championships. Shaw grew up at LACC and played his college golf locally at USC. They are part of a cadre of competitive mid and senior amateurs who play regularly on the North and which banded together to make the tournament come to life.
Some motivation likely came from LACC being selected to host the 2017 Walker Cup. The Thomas event gave the club a chance to see how the new design stood up to first-rate amateur competition and to test tee and pin locations.
If the response of the contestants is any indication, the secret that is LACC North is no more. The players I checked in with afterward overwhelmingly loved the course, as well as the tournament. Typifying most of the reaction was this observation from veteran competitor Steve Smyers, a noted architect in his own right: “The tournament was first class in every respect. The course was interesting and stimulating.”
Echoed Scott Rowe, “The club was very creative with the course set-up. This course is terrific.”
There was a lot to like about the event, as it was a competitors dream. The format was 54 holes medal play for mid and senior amateurs, no entry fee, no cut. Caddies were provided, and play was in twosomes, with re-pairing after each round. And while much of the nation baked in June heat, the temperatures in Los Angeles were in the comfortable mid-70s all week. Throw in a fabulous golf course and a receptive membership and you have a winning formula.
Earlier this year, the Crane Cup made a successful debut at the Floridian. Expected soon is an announcement concerning the Claude Harmon Invitational at Lochinvar GC in Houston. The Timuquana Cup will make its debut this fall on a wonderful Donald Ross track in Jacksonville, Fla. Add the Thomas Invitational, and you have an unusually expansive year on the mid and senior amateur circuit. No wonder these guys are leaving the flat belly circuit behind; these events are real alternatives that offer exceptional competition at tremendous venues.