Wilshire’s Reclaimed Glory

Sometimes it takes a while for the identity of a place to reveal itself

You’d beexcused during the first few holes at Wilshire Country Club if you didn’t have a clear sense of the site. The course sits in a leafy envelope, with towering canary pines and eucalyptus trees insulating the fairways from the surrounding residences of Hancock Park. Even as late in the round as the ninth tee, the prelude to a rolling, up-and-over 437-yard par-4, you might have trouble discerning the proper line for your drive. Until, that is, you look up and see the distinctive “HOLLYWOOD” lettering on the distant hill and, to its right, the neon El Royale sign atop the legendary Spanish art deco apartment building – the former hotel that was a residence of many studio-era film stars. All of a sudden things become clear. The ideal aiming point is just between these two landmarks. And then you know where you are.

Welcome to one of Los Angeles’ historic golf courses. Wilshire Country Club wasn’t always so well ensconced. Upon its founding in 1919 as one of them town’s pioneer country clubs, Wilshire sat right out in the open, on a broad, un-treed tract far beyond the western edge of in-town development.

Back then the land was valuable for its oil, and long after its opening there were vast fields of working derricks visible in the distance. Gradually, the area beyond filled in, with the Farmers Market, Beverly Hills, Century City, and Pacific Palisades rising up out of the parched land to form the landscape of modern Los Angeles. But as the Hancock Park neighborhood around Wilshire CC took on more homes and as traffic along Beverly Blvd. and Rossmore Ave. picked up pace, the club, with its spacious, California Mission-style clubhouse, retained its character as a retreat from the business world and as the site of major golf tournaments. And now, thanks to a craftsman-like restoration of the golf course by architect Kyle Phillips, Wilshire’s strengths are more evident than in decades.

In first assessing Wilshire, Phillips says it was obvious that “the layout and rhythm of the course were exceptional. At the same time, this once strategic gem had been slowly compromised by years of so-called ‘improvements’ to the point where its original inspired bunkering and multiple angles of play had been all but eliminated.”

As with any restoration, it was one thing to determine what the course used to look like. Quite another to implement that vision. Phillips acknowleges he was surprised at first “how hard it was to convince the majority of members the full value of restoring the course to its former glory.” Much of what made the course special came from the design genius of its architect, Norman Macbeth (1879-1940). A native of England, where he learned his golf at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s Golf Club, he won amateur titles in his home country and India before coming to the U.S. at the age of 24. He lived in Indianapolis, then Pittsburgh, where he became a regular golf partner of W.C. Fownes, the founder and designer of fearsome Oakmont Country Club. He came to L.A. in 1908, where he established himself in the cement business. Along the way Macbeth distinguished himself by taking up the cause of golf on the West Coast when most of his British compatriots were championing golf on the East Coast or in the

By 1910, he had co-designed The Los Angeles Country Club, and there he went on to win two SCGA Amateur Championship titles (1911, 1913). A handful of other regional designs followed, with Wilshire CC in 1919 the one that has best retained its original flair in terms of strategy, bunkering, and greens contour.

Wilshire sits on a 107-acre parcel – sizeable in its time, but by modern standards small. There is discernible elevation change across the site, 70 feet in all, with the high point on the 14th fairway and the low point out by the barranca (or arroyo) fronting the par-3 seventh green. With the soil base a relatively heavy mixture of clay and loam, drainage would have to come from surface run-off rather than natural porosity. The two strongest native features to the site were its water courses: a creek that ambled across the entire ground and a dramatic barranca on the eastern flank of the property.

Macbeth’s routing maximized these natural elements, first by allowing the holes to utilize the creek bed as a recurring hazard, and then nestling the 16th and 18th greens into or along the barranca, with the clubhouse just behind. The course was arrayed in two loops of returning nines, with the front nine occupying the south side of the property and the back nine on the north side. Despite the intimacy of the property, Macbeth’s Wilshire provides a sense of constantly shifting ground
because it requires the golfer always to tack in direction from one hole to the next.

Like many golf pioneers from the Old World, Macbeth was familiar with the traditional links holes of Great Britain. And he was also enough of a presence in the Los Angeles golf scene as a competitor and as an administrator – president of Wilshire CC, 1921-23, and president of the Southern California Golf Association, 1929 – to have been part of the close-knit community of leading course architects and critics, including Max Behr, Robert Hunter, Alister MacKenzie, and George C. Thomas Jr.

Wilshire’s holes are subtle, with the emphasis upon angles of play and paying attention to the ground game. The 530-yard, par-5 second hole offers staggered nests of bunkers that players have to heed regardless of length off the tee. The diagonally arrayed hazards jut out partially and come into play as much during ground roll as from play in the air, so it’s crucial to pick the right angle lest the ball go too far on the intended line and amble into a bunker. Macbeth is also not above a little artifice to vex the golfer when nature didn’t suffice; the back left part of the green is tucked behind a man-made mound. Its function is not only to create intrigue
with a well-guarded hole location but also to prevent wayward approaches from spilling over onto the adjacent third tee.

One of Wilshire’s most striking holes comes at the par-3 fourth hole, which features an elongated, twin-tiered green segmented by a three-foot interior slope that cuts into the right side. Students of classical course design might think of it as a Biarritz green, a standard template in the repertoire of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor during their own East Coast and Midwest work in the 1910s and 1920s but unusual if not unique to the West Coast. In fact Macbeth’s original design for this par-3 included an alternate green up front – his other par-3s at Wilshire also offering alternate greens, perhaps for reasons of turfgrass experimentation or simply to provide winter/summer alternatives.

In any case, various historic images of the fourth hole show the two greens separated, then joined and mowed as one. During Phillips’ restoration, he and his design associate, Mark Thawley, committed to combining the surfaces on the fourth hole for strategic variety. At 10,400 square feet in size, it’s now Wilshire’s largest green, and its extreme depth (65 yards) allows the hole to play anywhere from 152 yards to 193 – across four clubs of variance. The challenge here is in hitting a green that’s very narrow across, as little as 13 yards, and is protected on the left by deep bunkering and on the right by a steep falloff to a chipping area. It’s best here not to get more precise than simply trying to hit the center of either the front or back half of this trademark green. Here’s where simply hitting a “green in regulation” could be a very misleading achievement, since finding yourself on the wrong half of the putting surface leaves an impossibly long, twisty roll and likely entails a three-putt.

On a modest piece of ground like Wilshire’s, small differences in elevation can have a big effect. On the 436-yard par-4 sixth hole, Macbeth strung a succession of bunkers down the higher, right side of the fairway and demanded that you hold the line here without losing the ball low left into trees. On the 383-yard, par-4 eighth hole, which runs parallel but opposite to the sixth, the fairway cants from left to right, and Macbeth bunkered down the entire left side, a line that he asks you to hold without losing the ball right. In this simple manner – a controlled draw, followed by a controlled fade, in both cases with the ideal shot skirting as close as possible to the severest hazard – Macbeth’s design makes diverse yet subtle demands that reward properly played shots.

In recent years, many of Wilshire’s bunkers had lost their distinctive scalloped shape, or they had simply been removed – as had most of the fairway bunkering on the sixth and eighth holes. And in other cases, bunkers that made sense when drives traveled 200 yards no longer were relevant under modern conditions of play when 250-plus-yard drives are commonplace. Part of the restoration plan involved reshaping the bunkers, restoring them to their positions (as on the sixth and eighth holes), and in some cases shifting them downfield where they could be relevant again and in play for longer drives.

Surface drainage was increased throughout the course, trees pruned, and a new irrigation system installed that will allow for more efficient use of the bunkers, much attention was placed on recapturing the original extent of the putting surfaces. “Wilshire had lost up to 20 percent of its green perimeters, “said Phillips. “And that meant a loss of some of the most interesting hole locations.”

Drawing upon old photography as well as soil probes and that most valuable architectural resource – common sense – Phillips worked closely with Wilshire superintendent Doug Martin in expanding what had become rounded-off greens and pushing them to the limit of their underlying fill pads.

At the short par-4 11th hole the green’s expansion is more subtle yet equally significant. Here on this 362-yard hole, the challenge lay entirely in the green, now fully restored to its status as a virtual sand island surrounded by five bunkers, and with the putting surface extended out to the very edge of the sand so that newly recaptured marginal hole locations force bold players into risky play if they try
to hit the ball close.

Back in 1919, golf course architects didn’t build water features; they simply used the ponds, streams and arroyos that nature presented. At Wilshire, Macbeth not only had that creek meandering across the site to work with. He also had a steep barranca to utilize, and he did so with panache on two of the last three holes to create
one of the strongest closing runs in the L.A. area.

The par-5 16th, now stretching to 555 yards, made brilliant use of a barranca that crossed in front of the green and snaked tightly around the left and back of the putting surface – at the same time serving to protect the right flank of the neighboring 18th green. When playing the par-5 16th, there was no way to avoid confronting it; not only in the approach shot that had to carry it but because it loomed large as a hazard to any shot that ran long and drifted left. Unfortunately, the barranca was all but washed out during a torrential 1938 storm and had to be rebuilt in a fashion that, while secure from an engineering standpoint, was less than ideal as a raw, gaping golf hazard. To this day the green remains somewhat reduced in shape with the barranca less ominous and appearing to be little more than a walled up creek bed. But a quick look at the old course photos makes it obvious how terrorizing that old barranca was.

The par-4 18th hole, 439 yards long, was even more famous for the way golfers had to confront the Scylla and Charybdis of creek crossings short of the green and the barranca sheer along the right side. In his classic 1926 text, The Links, Hunter devoted a full-page to a photograph of the hole and praised it simply: “It takes a long second shot to reach this well-guarded green,” he wrote. “Arroyos often make beautiful and effective hazards.” Even after the arroyo was rechanneled following the 1938 flood and the 18th green pulled back from its edge, the hole retained its ferocity and appeal – to the point where in 2000, Golf Magazine ranked it among the 500 greatest holes in the world.

The restoration is not over. Additional work is needed on Wilshire’s tees, and a few greens still need to be expanded. But already, the effects are clear. Ninety years after it opened, Wilshire continues to charm and beguile. Its subtle strength reveals itself gradually during a round, less with banging drums and fanfare than through a softer, more enchanting little tune. It’s a reminder of an older, more endearing world; not distant nostalgia but a sense of simpler core values that make golf an ongoing joy.

Bradley Klein
FORE Magazine
July/August 2009


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply