At the tail end of the 1800s, a new sport called golf was gaining popularity on the east coast and slowly working its way west. Inspired by the performances of the great players of the day, men like Harry Vardon and James Braid, golf enthusiasts were forming clubs, raising money, and building golf courses. In the fall of 1897, one such group of like-minded Los Angeles residents formed the Los Angeles Golf Club and began looking for a suitable tract of land on which to build a course. They settled on a 16-acre parcel near Pico Boulevard and Alvarado Terrace. The group laid out a primitive nine-hole course and converted an abandoned windmill on the property into a makeshift clubhouse. Los Angeles now had its first golf course, the Windmill Links.
As the 1920s arrived, golf courses were being built at a staggering rate. In 1923 there were fewer than 2,000 golf courses in the United States. Six years later there were close to 6,000. It was during this time that course designers became “Golf Course Architects” and started to move and shape the land into strategic designs. The 1920s are still considered the “golden age” of golf course design; in Los Angeles the decade saw the opening of courses like Rancho Park, Wilshire, and Hillcrest among others. But remarkably, three of Los Angeles’s most legendary courses were created in a brief four-year stretch by a former fighter pilot and botanist who considered golf course architecture his hobby and never charged a fee for his designs: George C. Thomas, Jr.
By 1911, the organization responsible for the Windmill Links had moved locations for a fourth and final time. Their newest property, known today as the Los Angeles Country Club, included a 36-hole layout designed by several of the club’s members. A decade later, Herbert Fowler, a former cricket player turned golf course architect, was hired to upgrade the two courses. Fowler was a well-respected architect and at the time was working simultaneously on designs for Rancho Park, both LACC courses, and Presidio and Del Monte in Northern California. He was so busy, in fact, that he left a fellow architect and LACC member (George C. Thomas, Jr.) in charge of overseeing the construction of the club’s North Course.
Fowler’s LACC design was seen as less than stellar; by 1927 Thomas had convinced the club to allow him to redesign the North Course. Thomas utilized the natural hilltops, valleys, and sandy washes to create a balanced and strategic layout. By the time he was finished only the 1st and 18th holes were in the same location as Fowler’s 1921 design. But by the early 1990s the course had changed and given way to the golf aesthetic of the day–vast acreage of lush manicured turf. A groundswell to restore the course to Thomas’s original design reached a head in 2009 when architect Gil Hanse led a restoration project that restored bunkers, tees, and the sandy wash areas. Today the LACC’s North Course is once again a prime example of Thomas’s golden-age design work.
Despite what some consider “modernizations” to the design, the Bel-Air Country Club continues to be consistently ranked in the top 100 courses in the U.S. Built in 1925, the course is still regarded as a phenomenal work of golf course architecture. Running through multiple canyons over hilly terrain the routing of the course remarkably requires very little climbing. As is Thomas’s trademark, the Bel-Air is a course full of strategy and variety.
The original design for Bel-Air included a large section of land that was snatched up by the state for the development of UCLA. Thomas needed to find alternative acreage, and while standing on the site of the proposed clubhouse, he looked across a canyon and spotted a piece of scrubland he thought might be utilized. A former California Amateur champion named Jack Neville happened to be visiting the site that day and seconded Thomas’s thought by hitting a ball across the canyon and well onto the other side. This was the spark that led to Bel-Air’s famous 10th hole and the construction of the suspension bridge that takes players across the canyon to the former scrubland that is the course’s back nine.
Despite the opening of several Los Angeles golf courses in the early 1920s, the golf facility of the preeminent athletic club of the day, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, was confined to the rooftop of the club’s building on the corner of Seventh and Olive streets in Downtown Los Angeles. It was called the “Sky High Nine Golf Course” and amounted to little more than a billiard felt–covered putt-putt course enclosed with nets for full-swing practice. The club needed a championship golf course and LAAC Vice President Frank Garbutt was on a desperate search for the perfect location. According to legend, when the club’s assistant secretary brought Garbutt to a potential site two miles from the Pacific Ocean and just off an unpaved road now known as Sunset Boulevard, Garbutt yelled, “This is it! This is it!” Garbutt had finally found the perfect location for what would become The Riviera Country Club.
Garbutt gave Thomas carte blanche to build The Riviera golf course, famously claiming, “Only the best is good enough.” Thomas hired William (Billy) Bell as his construction manager. Bell was a former caddy master and golf course superintendent, who worked alongside Thomas on numerous projects including LACC and Bel-Air. Bell was actually Thomas’s design partner on many projects and enjoyed a prolific career. He is credited with designing or redesigning close to 100 golf courses in his lifetime.
Legend has it that Thomas and Bell drafted 15 designs of The Riviera before settling on a final layout. But Garbutt wanted the course finished as soon as possible and, true to his word about sparing no expense, helped secure 10 large tractors and road scrapers to expedite the process. This was the first time machinery of this type had been used on a golf course and ushered in a new era of course construction techniques. Another first was the installation of an irrigation system which included close to 100,000 feet of pipe and 860 snap-valve irrigation heads. At a cost of $58,000, The Riviera now had the first underground hoseless irrigation system.
After 18 months of construction, The Riviera Country Club officially opened on June 24, 1927. At a final construction cost of almost $250,000, it was the second most expensive 18-hole layout in the world and more than three times more expensive than the average 18-hole course. On opening day, architect George C. Thomas was presented with a lifetime membership and given the honor of hitting the inaugural first shot off the No. 1 tee. To this day, The Riviera remains Thomas’s most “untouched” design.
The Riviera, along with the LACC and Bel-Air, have long been considered golfing institutions. That one man was responsible for creating three such different yet legendary courses is nothing short of remarkable. These three courses stand the test of time not just because they are beautiful and challenging layouts but because they are strategic masterpieces. And as Thomas himself said, “The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game.”
CSQ&A with Don Emery
General Manager, The Riviera Country Club
CSQ Can you tell us the role that The Riviera Country Club has played in LA sports and entertainment growth?
DON EMERY The Riviera has a long history of supporting athletes, both amateur and professional. It started in 1929 when the Club first hosted the Los Angeles Open. Almost ninety years later we are still proudly hosting that event, which is now known as the Northern Trust Open. We also host the annual Riviera/ITA Women’s All-American Championships, which showcases the best women’s college tennis players in the country. And we are extremely proud to be the site of the upcoming 2017 U.S. Amateur Golf Championship. I believe it is vital to the growth of sports in Los Angeles to support and encourage young athletes, and we are very lucky to have a supportive and gracious membership who understand the importance of opening up our facilities for these types of events.
CSQ What do you consider the most important responsibility for someone in your position?
DE It’s essential for any leader to put together a strong team of talented people. I’m very lucky to work with an outstanding staff who are all dedicated to constant improvement, or what we here at The Riviera refer to as “polishing” – working to improve every aspect of the member experience. The Club’s COO, Megan Watanabe, and all of the senior management share this vision and encourage everyone on our staff to be the best they can.
CSQ How do you connect your piece of the entertainment and sports puzzle into a more global marketplace?
DE I feel it’s important as a city to show that Los Angeles is a prime location for major sporting events that have global reach and recognition, such as the U.S. Open and the Super Bowl. Los Angeles is known as the entertainment capital of the world, and I believe we need to work together to include major sporting events under that umbrella.
CSQ What advice do you have for those wanting to expand their business into the field of hospitality?
DE Everyone is in the hospitality business. Whether you are a law firm, a real estate development company, or a car dealership, how you treat your customers and your staff should be founded in hospitality. Our core values at The Riviera, the values the Club’s owner Noboru Watanabe put in place many years ago, are “Respect Life, Healthy Life, and Enjoy Life.” Those values speak to the true essence of hospitality, and I believe if you embrace those values on a daily basis, both personally and in business, you can’t go wrong.