George Thomas’ ‘cool’ course designs take center stage for big golf week

In pursuit of his 10th Los Angeles city golf championship, decorated amateur Tim Hogarth will tee off at 7 a.m. on Thursday at the Harding course in Griffith Park.

Conceived in collaboration with George C. Thomas Jr., a renowned architect from the golden era of golf course design, Harding opens with a downhill Par 4.

Even quality drives hit to the wide but sloping and uneven fairway can lead to awkward approaches into a deceptively fast green.

Ample room to the left of the tee should keep most hook shots in play, which is helpful because from the highest spot on the course players are tempted to swing big.

A plaque near the ramp leading up to the first tee notes that no less than Babe Ruth considered the par-72 course his favorite in the city.

Teasing risk and reward is one way George Thomas entices players on the first municipal course he built in L.A. — and anywhere else he left a mark.

A century after it opened, Harding exists alongside Wilson, an equally public and challenging Thomas design. Taken together, they are more than sufficient to crown L.A.’s best golfer.

Hogarth, the city championship record holder for wins, is among 360 entrants competing in the 105th edition.

Collecting an L.A.-best ninth trophy in 2021, Hogarth beat a typically strong field by six shots, carding 17-under, 271 on the two Griffith Park courses. This counts as a repeat performance after a one-shot win in 2019 since the 2020 championship was canceled due to the pandemic.

Divided into two categories, the upcoming 2023 competition offers a net flight for weekend warriors with no worse than a 30 handicap, while players boasting a USGA index of 3.5 or below can compete for the coveted low gross prize.

“I just turned 57 and I’m intent on playing as long as I can,” Hogarth said. “I love that tournament. It is very important to me.”

When he concludes the first round on Thursday, the Northridge resident expects to join spectators at another Thomas course, one not many of them will have seen much of until now.

Picking up golf on a par-3 course in the valley and growing up on Encino and Balboa at the Sepulveda Golf Complex, Thomas’s very private ”L.A. Country Club might as well be on the other side of the world,” Hogarth said.

Hosting the 123rd U.S. Open from June 15-18 — the same dates as the city championship — LACC was built on an impressive plot of land between Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

The rugged low coastal mountain topography spills over with Thomas’s inspiration, making a golf playground of sloping canyons, dry barrancas, high ridges and sandy native areas.

“I think another architect could have taken that property and probably done not something nearly as memorable as what George Thomas did,” Hogarth said. “I feel like not only the terrain but the people who created those masterpieces make it a very special little corner for golf.

“If you really pay attention when you go to the Wilson course you can see George Thomas and what he did there. That’s the type of architecture that makes things great and that’s why LACC, Riviera and Bel-Air are all so cool.”

And serious tests for elite players.

By the end of the summer, when Bel-Air hosts the USGA women’s amateur, Thomas’s private trio of courses on L.A.’s seismic canvas will have hosted 10 of the USGA’s 15 championships in the area.

Wilson and Harding are less extravagant than Thomas’s more famous locales, but they are much busier.

In 2022, 1.1 million rounds were booked on L.A. city courses, more than double the average for 18-hole public venues around the country, according to city golf supervisor Rick Reinschmidt, generating $35 million per year in gross revenue.

That interest has carried over to the successful city championships.

“As far as local golfers go in L.A., I think they really have a serious golf bug with all the excitement of the U.S. Open being held in Los Angeles this year,” Reinschmidt said. “It’s difficult enough to obtain a tee time due to the resurgence that the pandemic created but this excitement just adds to it.”

Greater L.A. will get its chance to peer on the reclusive LACC north this week for the first national championship in the city since Ben Hogan won at Riviera in 1948.

LACC welcomed the USGA to Southern California for the first time with the Women’s Amateur in 1930 and 24 years later hosted the junior amateur. In 2017, following a stunning restoration of the property by Gil Hanse, LACC was showcased during a Walker Cup that pitted American amateurs, including future major winners Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler, against British and Irish players.

“Since the early decades of the 20th century, Los Angeles’ championship courses and historically significant public golf courses have cultivated local talent and attracted the best in the game,” said Victoria Nenno, senior historian of the USGA golf museum and library.

From Whittier to Hacienda Heights to Pasadena to Tarzana to the westside to the Pacific Palisades and Rancho Palos Verdes, L.A. courses have hosted USGA amateur and professional championships, three PGA Championships, and an assortment of men’s and women’s tour events.

Rancho Park, designed by Thomas’s Griffith Park collaborators William Bell and William Johnson, is the lone city-run municipal venue on the list of L.A.’s USGA locations.

One of 12 courses run by L.A., Rancho launched in 1949 to much fanfare with the USGA Amateur Public Links, a championship meant for public course players only.

Hogarth claimed the first of 13 L.A. city victories (including two senior and match play titles) at Rancho. He validated his competitive bonafides winning the 1996 USGA Amatuer Public Links, landing a spot in the Masters.

“I don’t believe I would have won the Public Links if I hadn’t won the City,” Hogarth said. “When you get to be a USGA champion for the rest of your life and they introduce you as that, it’s a very small group and extremely meaningful.”