Doak is About to Bring Bel-Air Back to Its Brilliant Basics
August 15, 2017 | LOS ANGELES, Calif.
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Tom Doak paused for a moment in his discussion of the upcoming restoration of Bel-Air Country Club, the George C. Thomas-designed course that is serving as the stroke-play co-host for the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship.
“I try to describe it to people sometimes, and they have a hard time believing that anybody would have come up with all of those ideas back in the 1920s,” said Doak, who has worked on more than 30 restorations of courses by Golden Age designers such as Donald Ross, Seth Raynor and Alister Mackenzie. “They laid out holes in a canyon, and then tunneled through to another canyon to play two holes. You take an elevator up to the clubhouse, you build a suspension bridge to get over to the next green. That’s something that, if I suggested it to a client today, they would think I was kidding.”
Bel-Air is hallowed ground – not only to its members – but to architecture aficionados, who consider Thomas’ designs among the most appealing in the game. Bel-Air opened in 1926, one year before The Riviera Country Club, the host course for this U.S. Amateur Championship, and a few years after the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club, which will host the 46th Walker Cup Match next month, as well as the 2023 U.S. Open.
Referring to that trio of courses, all within a few miles of each other, Doak said, “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. And of the three, I think Bel-Air is the most unique because of the piece of property it’s on.”
Course founder Alphonzo Bell thought he had a deal for 75 acres of land that would have held the second nine holes of the Bel-Air course. But the property was instead sold in 1925 to make way for the new campus of UCLA. Seemingly hemmed in to a nine-hole layout, Thomas and his co-designer William Bell (no relation to Alphonzo) came up with the 10th hole, a par 3 over a ravine (accessed by the famed “Swinging Bridge”) that also opened the way to laying out the rest of the second nine holes through adjoining canyons.
“It’s remarkable in that it’s on such small acreage,” said Doak, noting in particular the canyon that contains holes 11-16. “When George Thomas first looked at it, he wasn’t sure it was wide enough to build holes going out and coming back. He designed it so that the greens and tees are up on the sides of the canyon, and you play from the side of the canyon down to the middle and back up.”
Doak landed the restoration job due to an offhand comment he made upon publication of his updated book, “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.”
“Someone asked, ‘If you could restore any course in this book, which would it be?’ and I blurted out, Bel-Air. I didn’t think I knew anybody at Bel-Air, but it turned out that I knew two people on the green committee, both of whom asked, why aren’t we talking to this guy?”
As Doak put it, “They have been working on the golf course here and there, off and on, for the last 50 years or more. And I thought it was getting cluttered up and more and more away from George Thomas’s golf course. You can’t really lengthen it because it’s so confined by the canyons, and they’ve been doing things over the years to make it a little tougher within those confines. My perspective is not to worry so much about making it tougher, but to go back to what was here.”
Doak estimates that the course now has double the number of bunkers it had when it opened. One example is the aforementioned 10th hole, the uphill, 200-yard par 3 over a ravine. The original design had nary a bunker, and now there are four, one protecting each of the green’s four quadrants. Doak’s tentative restoration plan calls for the removal of all but one of those bunkers.
The course will close on Oct. 1 for nine months, and the shutdown will also give the club an opportunity to complete needed drainage and irrigation work.
“It’s going to be a fun place to work,” said Doak. “I’m excited to attract attention to the place and get people to see it again. It’s a really underrated golf course that hasn’t had the spotlight on it for a long time.”
Because it’s Bel-Air, a club with a glittering history that includes the 1976 U.S. Amateur as well as a membership that boasts a who’s who of LA society, there is keen interest in the project.
“When I told the chairman of the project that I wanted to get a couple of people who knew the greens really well to explain their subtleties to me, the first two people he suggested were the actor Jack Wagner and [Hall of Fame basketball player] Jerry West,” said Doak. “He explained, ‘They’re the two guys who, if I were playing them, they would make all the putts.’ It’s not just that they’re members; they love their golf course and they play it a lot.”
In the near future, they will again be playing a course that more closely hews to Thomas’ trailblazing template.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.