By John F. Harbottle, III, ASGCA
The Los Angeles Country Club North Course was designed by George C. Thomas (working with Herbert Fowler’s plans), with assistance from William P. Bell in 1921. It has a special ambiance: set in the center of the city, it possesses some of the most beautiful grounds you will find anywhere.
The scope of our work involved reconstruction of greens, tees, bunkers, cart paths and fairway drainage. The tight native soils were making it hard to maintain consistently good turf. Sand buildup from the wind and play changed the bunker forms and made maintenance more difficult. Trees had been planted and grown to the point they blocked critical air and light corridors necessary for healthy turf development.
Our initial step was to develop a master plan which mapped out all our proposed golf course changes. The club formed a master plan committee made up of the manager, superintendent and a cross section of members to work with us. We researched old photographs, letters, articles and plans to gather as much information as possible about the original design. We then formulated plan to develop the spirit of that original design, while still allowing for modifications needed for the current state of the game.
The heart of our work was rebuilding the greens. To ensure we had an accurate record of the original contours, we surveyed the greens with laser equipment. This allowed us to produce scaled maps with 3-inch contours. These maps gave us a great deal of accuracy in rebuilding the greens to their original contours. Our green construction work was done in conjunction with the bunkers and approaches to ensure smooth transitions.
Thomas attempted to emulate erosion with his bunkers and they were given a very irregular, jagged edge. The years of sand buildup had made the bunkers even more bold and dramatic. Our techniques for reconstruction did not lose that bold look. We removed the buildup of sand and brought in soil to recreate the character. Bunkers built or rebuilt over the years since Thomas were given the same look, creating a better continuity to the design. Some bunkers were shifted or added to bring back the original strategy.The original tees were far too small to accommodate the amount of play today. Tees were enlarged and rebuilt with modern construction techniques, using drainage and a sand cap. They were also rebuilt with the original rectangular form. This work created a more classical design.
Fairway drainage was improved greatly with the use of modern methods. In a relatively short time, we stripped the existing sod from problem areas with the use of a cutting machine which created giant rolls of sod. The area was then graded and drainage installed. The sod was then replaced by machine and rolled into place. In a matter of days, the fairway was back in play again. We wanted all paths to be out of play and out of sight. This involved removal of a lot of path and shifting the paths to one side or the other, taking them through the tree lines and away from the fairways. We used natural surfaces with a curb system wherever possible and hard surfaces on the steeper slopes where erosion was more of a problem. Vegetation was also planted to help buffer the paths from view.
The result greatly improved the playing experience and golf course design. The course rose about ten places in the annual Top 100 Greatest Courses ratings and sits in some very elite company. The membership is extremely pleased with the course conditioning and perhaps their greatest compliment is that they cannot tell the new work from the old course features.
Even the greatest of courses may have room for improvement. This is an example of what can be accomplished with thorough research, planning and cooperation at the committee level. Because of our natural quest for improvement, it is inevitable that changes will occur on a course. The key is to ensure that changes are of a lasting nature and in the best overall interest of the course.