Thursday, November 24, 2011

We Love L.A.! - Los Angeles Country Club

This post continues a series of updated write-ups for courses I have played again, and which specifically, this time I brought my camera. It has been some five years since I played Los Angeles Country Club (#59 in the world). The club is located in the heart of some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. While technically accurate that the course is located in the City of Los Angeles, the city is made up of many neighborhoods. L.A.C.C. is located in the heart of one of the toniest neighborhoods. The course is bounded by Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Century City, Brentwood and Westwood.

The distinctive white L.A.C.C. Clubhouse

The southern boundary of the course is Santa Monica Boulevard. Wilshire Blvd. divides the North Course from the South. Sunset Blvd. forms the rough northern boundary of the course. L.A.C.C. is an oasis within one of the largest and most densely populated urban areas in the world. What makes the course even more special is that the members of Los Angeles C.C. guard the privacy jealously, making a visit here feel like a real behind-the-scenes getaway. You approach a guard gate set back off Wilshire and give your name to get into the enclave. While I have been to many courses and had to stop at a guard gate (Sunningdale, Pine Valley, Southern Hills, Riviera, Loch Lomond), at L.A.C.C. it really adds an element of exclusivity that feels appropriate for this part of L.A.

L.A.C.C. is one of only a very few remaining golf courses in the United States where you must wear long pants - there are no shorts allowed. The course does not have a lot of movie star or entertainment industry members, contrary to popular opinion. What it does have is world class golf. It is our understanding that the U.S.G.A. would like to host events at L.A.C.C., but the club has repeatedly declined (they are hosting a Walker Cup in 2017).

The first time I was fortunate enough to play L.A. Country Club was made even more special by the treatment I was given in the locker room. On the day of my summer visit, the locker room attendant let me use Ronald Reagan's locker. Reagan was a one-time member of L.A.C.C. With an American flag atop the locker, it was with real pride that I had the privilege to be able to use the locker of this great American.

L.A.C.C.'s unique custom made tee markers

L.A.C.C. was designed by George Thomas, who also designed nearby Riviera and Bel-Air. Thomas created the present layout in 1927 when he and his sidekick Billy Bell remodeled a course built by British architect Herbert Fowler. One of the first changes evident this time around was that there are now a lot less trees at L.A.C.C. Over 1,000 trees were taken out in a recent renovation done by architect Gil Hanse, and it enhances the property and the course greatly. Specifically, it opens up vistas that were previously closed off and shows the unique nature of the rolling land forms this part of west L.A. is blessed with. The other noticeable change is that many of the tee boxes now are mowed as if they are fairway. They seemlessly blend the tee and fairway, giving an infinite number of places to put tees and opening up some interesting new shots.

There are two courses at L.A.C.C., and the world ranked championship course is the North Course, which plays 7,010 yards from the black tees to a par of 70. As was Thomas's style, he starts off L.A.C.C. with an easy (easy being a relative term if you are jet lagged and amped up on coffee) par five. Your line off the tee is the "B" on the Beverly Hills Hilton sign atop the hotel, visible behind the green, which sits 544 yards from the tee.

Thomas makes up for the easy starting hole by throwing a killer par four at you on the second hole. This beast plays 484 yards from the tips and 428 yards from the white tees. The second hole also opens up a stretch which lasts until the eighth green that is simply breathtaking. It is as good a stretch of holes as you will find on any golf course, over a uniquely hilly terrain. Thomas used the barrancas (Spanish for gully or ditch) and sloping hillsides to route a masterpiece at L.A.C.C.

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The tough par four third hole

You have to hit over a sloping hillside. Tee shots hit to the right side of the fairway will slide down the hillside and end up on the left side of the fairway. Your approach shot to the green has to clear a nasty barranca that fronts the elevated green. The other change Hanse made on the course was to restore the natural areas in front of the greens so that a shot that is not well struck will likely be findable now, but with a dodgy lie.


The difficult third green at L.A.C.C.

L.A.C.C. has only three par fives and five par threes, each of the latter, a gem. The first is the 210 yard fourth hole seen below. The hole plays downhill to a difficult to hold green. Note the barranca that runs in front of the green, penalizing short or topped shots.

4th green

The par three 4th hole

Like at Bel-Air and Riviera, all around you there are signs that you are in a very exclusive environment. Behind you, as you walk off the fourth green up on the hill is Lionel Richie's house. Wow.

Lionel Richie's house above L.A.C.C.

As Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford write in the L.A.C.C. North Course Commemorative Edition, published in 2010: "Every great course in the world features at least one par-4 under 350 yards allowing for multiple playing options. Designed with an eye toward risk and reward, these devilish little two-shotters accomplish one very simple axiom, as so eloquently written by George Thomas in Golf Architecture in America: The strategy of golf is the thing which gives the short accurate player a chance with a longer hitter who cannot control his direction or distance." Riviera's great par four under 350 yards is its tenth. At L.A.C.C. it is the sixth, and it's a doozie.

The hole plays 335 yards from the back tees, and you hit into a narrow valley where the ball will naturally kick right to left. If you are brazen, you can attempt to cut off the corner on the right and incur a big penalty if you miss. The hole doglegs sharply to the right and the approach to the elevated green is made quite tricky because it is such a small target. To me, the hole felt like any number of great risk-reward holes at Merion. It is the type of hole you could play dozens and dozens of times and still find exhilirating and challenging each time.

6th green

The ideal sixth green

The 242 yard (back tees), 219 yard (white tees) par three is the middle of the three par threes on the front that play a whopping 633 total yards! No little pitch shots on the par threes on the front!

7th green

The par three seventh

The seventh is followed by one of the coolest golf holes on the planet. The 537 yard eighth requires you to hit a tee shot through a narrow chute of trees to a fairway that slopes left and right. Your second shot requires you to carry the barranca. That is Century City seen over the tree tops below.

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Par five 8th hole, dogleg right, then left over a barranca

The hole doglegs first to the right and then to the left. The second and third shots are both finesse shots where the player is trying to optimize his or her position on the correct side of the fairway or green. It is a true risk-reward, shot making, three-shot hole!

8th green

The par five 8th green

The par three eleventh hole at L.A.C.C. gets photographed a lot because it features Downtown L.A. as its backdrop. The day I took the picture has too much haze to see the skyline, but on a brilliant day it is a great look.

11th from tee

The par three 11th reverse Redan hole

The eleventh is a 249 yard (back tees), 225 yard (white tees) demanding reverse Redan hole. The green slopes back to front. You can get away with a shot hit left because the ball bounces down the natural slope of the terrain onto the green. A ball hit to the right side is in serious trouble and will likely leave you a recovery shot where you won't be able to see the green surface.

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The right side of reverse redan 11th hole with its steep dropoff

In what has to be the most exciting non-golf related attraction next to a golf course anywhere in the world, off the thirteenth green of the North Course is the Playboy mansion. It is hemmed in by so many hedge rows it is hard to see anything, although you can normally hear the peacocks crowing.

The Playboy mansion sits behind hedges between 13th green and 14th tee

The entire right side of the fourteenth hole also has a building located off of it that at first appears to be a Ritz Carlton. In fact, it is the home of one of Hollywood's most famous producers, Aaron Spelling. The house has 123 rooms and is 56,000 square feet. Although Spelling is now deceased and the home is owned by someone else, it is an impressive and well maintained sight.

The par three fifteenth hole is one of the few on the course that can qualify as 'easy.' It is 133 yards from the tips, but you have to focus intently off the tee because the green is narrow and oblong to you.

15th green

The par three 15th green

As an Easterner (and poor golfer), the Bermuda grass at L.A.C.C. gave me fits. It is just so tough to hit through consistently, especially on finesse shots around the green where you are trying to hit a specific target.

The par four 455 yard seventeenth is the prettiest hole on the course. You drive from an elevated tee down into the fairway, then to a narrow, well bunkered green.


The 17th green

The little seventeenth hole is pictured below and is an 'extra' hole that was rediscovered during the recent renovations. It was love at first sight with this little beauty and me. It is just a visually stunning little gem. The hole can be used as an extra hole or just to hit into for fun.

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Little 17 from the front

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Little 17 as seen from the side

If you play L.A.C.C. bring long pants, leave your cell phone in your car and get ready for a delightful walk with caddies. The overall experience is first class from beginning to end.

Routing, variety and terrain combine to make it a world-class course. Given its geographic location, L.A.C.C. North will inevitably be compared with nearby Riviera. In my view L.A.C.C. is the superior course. Thomas simply had a better piece of land to work with at L.A.C.C. than at Riviera. Riviera is built within a valley and doesn't have the elevation changes or other elements that makes L.A.C.C. so unique. From a club standpoint also, I prefer L.A.C.C. to Riviera. Riviera is a large club with a corporate feel to it. L.A.C.C. is a more intimate, low key club.

In my own world rankings I would personally reverse the order of these two courses and rank Riviera #59 and Los Angeles #36. Both are world-class, however, as is nearby Bel-Air.

Our lunch of braised beef short ribs and the little cheesy bread sticks were memorable. The only issue I encountered at L.A.C.C. is that it is impossible to buy something from the pro shop, because it only sells to members.

My two visits to L.A.C.C. have been among my most memorable and truly enjoyable in all my travels. To paraphrase Cecil Rhodes's comment about the English, "To be a member of L.A.C.C. is to win first prize in the lottery of life." Lucky bastards.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cabot Links

How many real links courses are there in North America? Not many. A real links golf course is one "built" on sandy soil near the sea and was formed over the millenium. The British Isles are chock full of links courses. In the U.S. and Canada, they are a lot rarer. The book True Links, published in 2010, lists only four true links courses in all of North America: Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Highland Links*. Cabot Links joins this small and special group.

Cabot Links is located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in Eastern Canada. This part of Canada is one time zone east of New York. Given the course's location, it would be natural to think that the course is located on the Atlantic facing east; however, it is not. Cabot is located on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the largest estuary in the world, which is on the Western coast of Nova Scotia. The location is blessed for a variety of reasons. First, because it is set right on the water; second, because this area is located in a micro climate and is impacted positively by the trade winds. This means it gets warmer weather than you would expect for this part of the world. Water temperatures can reach up to 74 degrees! And third, because of its western orientation, the sun sets over the water, creating some fabulous sunsets for those who play at twilight.

For our trip to Cabot we flew into Halifax, which is an hour and 20 minute flight from New York. This part of Nova Scotia is famous for the Cabot Trail, a scenic drive full of quaint Bed and Breakfasts and a haven for campers, hikers, canoeing and whale watching. The multi-hour drive up from Halifax was a scenic delight.

The golf course was designed by Canadian Rod Whitman, whose design philosophy is "strategic design coupled with great contour." His mentors were Bill Coore and Pete Dye. Cabot Links is located in the old coal mining town of Inverness, a classic company town whose early housing, built at the turn of the century, still stands today, and can be seen as you drive into Cabot. Mining ceased in Inverness in 1958; the town also has a fishing heritage, as is common in Maritime Canada.

The full eighteen holes were not open at Cabot Links when we played. They are expected to fully open in July 2012. We played the ten holes that are open, currently organized into a front five and a back five.

The hole numbers in this post reflect those that will be used in the final 18 hole routing. The second hole is a par five of 619 yards from the tips and plays up a very large sand dune. Your approach shot to the green will be a blind one to a putting surface whose entire right side falls down into an abyss. Approaching from the left gives the golfer a lot more options and some great bump and run choices.

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The 2nd green at Cabot with the abyss to the right

The sixth hole is a tricky, very short par four. Although only 307 yards, you have to drive the ball between a marshy area on the right side of the fairway and scrub on the left hand side. It really shouldn't be that hard a shot, but there is a big chocolate drop mound down the left side of the fairway in the driving area that makes the fairway seem considerably smaller. The green is long and narrow and set over another chocolate drop which is situated right in front of the green. The day we played, the pin was positioned right behind the chocolate drop, making it very difficult to hold the ball anywhere near the pin. The hole plays into the prevailing wind coming off the Gulf, making approach shots even trickier. The hole reminded me of two short holes at Cruden Bay: its third and eighth holes. They are reminiscent because of the dunes landscape and their quirkiness.

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The tricky, short par four sixth hole with its chocolate drops

Right behind the sixth hole is a charming, meandering boardwalk that predates the course and runs parallel to a handful of holes.

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The meandering boardwalk behind the 6th green

The eleventh hole is a very good par five of 582 yards that plays parallel to the ocean. Like many of the tee shots at Cabot, there is a forced carry off the tee, this time over what looks like an expansive Saskatchewan wheat field.

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The par five 11th hole from the tee

A good drive will leave you with a completely blind second shot over a sand dune that runs right through the hole, perpendicular to the water and your line of play. Similar to the second hole, your second shot will be a blind one up over the dune toward the green. The green is part of a double-green complex and the flag you are shooting for is to the left. The green and the area in front of it is pure links golf and an absolute joy to play.

As you would expect on a true links course, Cabot offers plenty of opportunities for bump and run shots that can either make you look like a brilliant golfer if you pull them off, or can make you look like a complete fool if you don't. I experienced both at Cabot, and I must say it is exhilarating to hit a long punch shot and watch it bounce along the humps and hollows and bound its way close to the hole. It is not so rewarding to stuff your wedge into the side of a hill and advance the ball five feet!

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The sand ridge running through the eleventh fairway

The eleventh green is a challenging one with almost no flat spots on it. The hole was my favorite on the course.

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The eleventh green as seen from a dune above, part of a double green complex

The short, 102 yard, par three fourteenth hole plays from the highest point on the property back down toward the water and directly into the prevailing wind. How can you dislike a hole with this water backdrop and when you get a birdie the first time you play it, like I did? The drop from tee to green is severe, so with no wind the hole will play as a half wedge shot. I have a feeling given the winds, though, that many mid-irons (or longer) will end up being hit here.

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The fourteenth green as seen from the elevated tee

The next hole, the fifteenth, is in my view the prettiest on the course. A par four of 418 yards, it is a gem. Standing on the tee box you could be forgiven for mistaking that you are at Royal County Down with the beautiful Gillis Mountain in the distance. As you play the hole, the water is lapping on the nearby beach, the links landscape unfolds in front of you in a beautiful fashion, and the mountain backdrop has a similar shape and feel to that of the Northern Irish beauty. The hole itself requires a forced carry from the tee, and the green is well protected by a bunker right in the front. The contouring of the land around and in front of the bunker allows you to play some bank shots on your approach if you want to. The small, kidney shaped green has subtle contours.

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A view of the gorgeous fifteenth hole as seen from the fourteenth tee

People often ask, what the best part of playing all these courses is? The answer is that it is moments like these, standing on the sixteenth tee at Cabot Links. Reminiscent of Maidstone's ninth hole, the sixteenth hole has a tee box right next to the water and the beach. All is good in the world as you stand here.

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The water view from the 16th tee box could just as well be at Maidstone

Aside from the view, a beautifully laid-out hole awaits you. The drive on this hole looks rather straightforward, but it is not. There are two hidden bunkers over the ridge on the right side of the fairway and one hidden over a hill on the left side.

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A view of the 16th green from the right side of the fairway

If you manage to navigate them, the approach shot requires finesse. As a true links, Cabot plays firm and fast; no hole more so than the sixteenth. All the golfers in our group learned the hard way on our first time around that on this hole, you MUST land it short and run it up to the green. The penalty for not doing so is to be in a small bunker behind the narrow green, which requires a delicate sand flop shot across the neck of the green, else you risk ending up in the small bunker in front of the green.

What separates a good golf course from a great one? The quality of the holes that are not natural locations for a golf hole. In other words, designing holes near the ocean or dramatic landscapes is no doubt a lot easier than designing inland holes, especially on a site like this. While many of the remaining holes still to open at Cabot are not as close to the water, if they are anything like the 171 yard par three seventeenth hole they will be equally as good as the holes along the water. Hint: the hole plays longer than the yardage and avoid the deep bunkers.

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The tricky par three 17th hole at Cabot Links

Cabot is a walking course and is an easy walk. We played the course in late September in short sleeve golf shirts. Lodges are in the process of being built, and a second course is planned to be built on headlands located nearby. The concept is to develop an East Coast Bandon Dunes and I would say they are off to a smashing start.

The service and food at Cabot were great (I recommend the fish chowder), and the people of Nova Scotia are naturally very, very friendly. At first, it's a little off putting sitting in a restaurant having strangers come up and talk to you. One of the rules of walking the streets or taking the subway in New York City is to never make eye contact with anyone; so my immediate reaction when approached by a stranger is to put up my guard and think, ok, what do they want? The truth is they don't want anything; they are just friendly to a person: gas station attendants, store clerks, waitresses, the caddie master, the course rangers, the golf pro, etc.

We played Cabot Links on a Friday afternoon and as the evening went on the locals started coming out to play. As a links located directly between the water and the town, it could just as well have been in North Berwick or Prestwick. The laid-back atmosphere of the town combined with a world-class set of holes creates a great environment. It's really not too much of a stretch to imagine you are back in the homeland. Nova Scotia is after all Latin for "New Scotland".

Post Script

I look forward to a return trip to Cabot in the summer months with the Mrs., while she enjoys the wide beach and I can play a guilt-free round of golf. I would especially like to play the holes designed around the harbor that weren't yet open to play.

* While True Links is a nice book, not including Maidstone on its list of true links courses is inexcusable.