OJAI, Calif. -- Although perhaps best known for Hogan's Alley, George C. Thomas Jr. designed several other gems in and around Los Angeles, including the Bel-Air Country Club, and the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club.
All three of these aforementioned tracks are, however, off-limits to all but the best-heeled and most well-connected Angelenos -- members and guests only -- which makes the experience at The Ojai Valley Inn all the more special.
Sitting at the end of a eucalyptus-lined drive in the shadow of the Topa Topa Mountains, Ojai Valley Inn is a full-service resort and spa 75 miles north of Los Angeles. First opened in 1923, the Inn is a stunning sprawl of authentic hacienda architecture, and over the years has been host to countless celebrities, as well as those who just want to be treated like one.
I, however, was not there for the mudbaths or for cucumber slices on my eyelids -- I was there to play the Ojai Valley Inn golf course, one of the only George Thomas layouts open to the public.
Thomas was a renaissance man who survived three crashes as a WWI pilot, won a best-of-breed at the 1903 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and created more than 40 varieties of roses for the commercial market in addition to designing some of the most challenging and esoteric courses of his, or any other, time.
His original design for Ojai has been altered a number of times over the years, the first instance coming courtesy of the U.S. Army, which took over the property to use as a training facility during WWII.
In 1988, Carter Morrish added his own touches, but not until 1999 was the original design resurrected with the reopening of "The Lost Holes" -- the seventh and the eighth -- which had never been reclaimed after the Army's occupation.
Though on the short side at 6,305 yards from the blues and 5,962 from the whites, the layout still manages to accomplish Thomas' stated concerns "... that the average golfer could enjoy his round without too great a penalty, and that a test must be afforded requiring the low-handicap man to play fine golf in order to secure pars."
Indeed, like most of his designs, and in contrast to more recent trends in course architecture, Thomas places a premium on strategic thinking, and because he was working in an era where massive amounts of earth could not simply be bulldozed and rearranged, Thomas achieved his design goals primarily through creative routing through the existing topography. And the canyons and creek-beds of the Ojai site certainly demanded ingenious problem solving through routing.
One welcome consequence to this relatively unintrusive design approach is the preservation of hundreds of spectacular, ancient oaks. Every hole has towering specimens worthy of the finest arboretum, which are set against the constant and dramatic backdrop of the Topa Topa mountains. It is visually stunning at every turn.
The first hole is a short dogleg left par-4 with an elevated tee, and for someone who has never seen a Thomas bunker, the first one on the course is staring you down from just past the dogleg. Thomas is justifiably famous for his bunkers, and they are certainly among this course's defining characteristics. You'll soon get used to seeing them flanking virtually every landing area and diligently guarding every green on the course.
Like his bunkers at Bel-Air, they are amoebic in shape; with their relentlessly curving outlines and protruding tongues, they look like something you might see plastered to the side of a VW bus circa 1968, or on the set of the Dating Game. With their fingers stretching out to mercilessly snare errant shots, they often leave you with difficult lips to negotiate or steep faces to clear.
The par-5 third hole is reachable for the big hitter who can keep his tee-shot in the center of a narrow shoot, but like any long shot into a green on this course, you will be flirting with greedy greenside bunkers that gobble up more than their fair share and are often too deep to see out of.
The seventh hole is the first of the recently reclaimed "Lost Holes", which, in the few years since they were reintroduced, have been acclaimed as two of the course's best. Just before the seventh tee box there is a plaque explaining their unusual history and proudly explaining that they have been restored "in exacting detail". As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and the details of these holes are, indeed, devilish.
The seventh is a downhill, 203 yard par-3. And although there are no water hazards anywhere on the course, this hole is effectively an island green: red stakes one pace off the left edge of the green; cart path and O.B. five paces from the right edge; sticky rough and trouble long; and a sea of sand in front -- 6 giant bunkers, that look like 14 from the tee box because of Thomas' signature curves and tongues.
The 403 yard, par-4 eighth requires a tee-shot with an 130 yard forced carry over a ravine with, as usual, bunkers in play right and left. Regardless of pin position, you might want to consider playing to the left side of this green, as the right side is guarded by a sinister, many-fingered bunker with a ten-foot face, and trees overhanging.
The ninth hole was the venue for the Silly Season's EMC2 Skills Challenge from 1992 to 1998, and requires a precise drive through a narrow gap and over a canyon, (which, when passing through, seems strangely tropical, with palm trees among the oaks.) To get in position, you must get over the ridge in the fairway, but even with a fine drive, you're not out of the woods, as the green is elevated with typical heavy bunkering.
One of the consequences of the 1999 redesign and inclusion of The Lost Holes, is that you no longer make a traditional turn at the 10th, and now have to go out of your way to get a snack or refreshment. There was a beverage cart sitting near the tenth tee, but the beer girl was a disappointingly middle-aged and not-too-sexy fella.
The tee shot at the tenth is also bit of a disappointment. The shot itself is interesting, and anywhere else it would be memorable for all the right reasons, but on this classic layout, with all its patina and grace, this shot seems a little gimmicky: after navigating your cart through some kind of service road of the resort.
The tee-shot is over the road, and without phenomenal length, is nearly impossible to find a fair lie. The steeply uphill green is guarded by just one trap that on any other course would seem brutal and gaping, but in the relentlessly sandy context of this course, is actually something of a relief.
The 11th is a prime example of Thomas' elegant routing. It doesn't require great length, but because it doglegs essentially 90 degrees to the right, you must hit your tee-shot far enough to get a look at the green. Hit it too far and you run through the fairway.
After a tiny little downhill par-3, you come to the 13th, where you just might want to lay up with an iron: too much club off the tee brings you dangerously close to a pair of giant oaks that can not be avoided and must be played over, under or around on your second shot.
The 14th is a 440 yard par-4 monster. The tee-box has breathtaking views with a drop-off to match, and while it's wide-open, the shot requires substantial carry. The fairway tilts left-to-right, and the green is protected on the right by a huge amoeba-shaped bunker.
The 16th, considered by many, including Los Angeles Magazine, to be among the finest holes in the state, is another example of how Thomas worked within the natural topography, rather than impose holes on the land, and achieved a harmony with what nature presented. After a semi-blind tee shot, the hole doglegs sharply to the right, and requires a short iron over a barranca while avoiding a mammoth bunker on the right.
The 18th is a par-five with another blind tee-shot over a hill. You're better off playing your third shot long on this hole, not only because the front is heavily guarded, but also because an amphitheater backboard will keep you from too much trouble and might even bring you back to the green.
It is a shame that the 18th doesn't finish at the clubhouse, and that you have to jump in your cart and drive through some hotel lodging facilities, but all things considered, that's a pretty small price to pay for a course that so effortlessly and gracefully fits into a tight series of canyons, presenting continuous vistas of the surrounding mountains, and shrouding you in one of the most beautiful natural oak groves in the west.
If you're looking for a true, old-fashioned, classic layout, with all the amenities of any top-notch destination resort, The Ojai Valley Inn is definitely worth considering.