It’s the year of Los Angeles and George Thomas in golf. On top of the annual Genesis Invitational at Riviera, the city will host the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course and the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Bel-Air Country Club. With these three classic designs on display in 2023, I decided to put together a “Dream 18” from them. This is a bit like trying to figure out the starting five of an all-time Lakers squad, so feel free to yell at me on social media if you disagree.
One of the most impressive things about Thomas was the variety of his architecture. A short par 3 at one of his courses is very different from a short par 3 at another. Every hole at Riviera, LACC North, and Bel-Air feels unique, with almost repetition across the 54 holes.
So here’s my best effort at…
The George Thomas Dream 18
No. 1 – Bel-Air – par 5
All three first holes deserve some consideration, but Bel-Air’s dramatic downhill tee shot, with the UCLA campus in the background, takes the cake. The hole plays down into one of the property’s trademark canyons and showcases a barranca, which turns out to be a consistent theme throughout the day.
No. 2 – LACC – par 4
Like the first at Bel-Air, the second at LACC introduces a canyon and a barranca to players. The tee shot plays to a fairway that banks from right to left, and the Gil Hanse-restored green sits on the other side of the barranca.
No. 3 – LACC – par 4
Teeing off from the bottom of the canyon, the third plays back up to a high ridge. The green is sensational, with its front-right tongue and variety of pins. Playing over the barranca and up the left side yields a more level lie for the approach.
No. 4 – LACC – par 3
The four spot offers perhaps the weakest options for this Dream 18. No. 4 at LACC is a good and dramatic downhill par 3 that plays over the barranca to a green that runs off all sides. It’s a really fun tee shot to hit.
No. 5 – Bel-Air – par 3
A tough choice. The win goes to Bel-Air’s short par 3, which was restored by Tom Doak and the Renaissance Golf team. They shortened the hole and moved the green closer to the canyon edge, where it was originally located by Thomas.
No. 6 – Riviera – par 3
Three straight par 3s! The amazing sixth at Riviera narrowly edges out LACC’s fantastic short par 4. The bunker in the middle of this green is a menace during tournament play, as evidenced by Tiger’s putt into it this year.
No. 7 – Bel-Air – par 4
Options! The seventh at Bel-Air is a wonderful shortish par 4. You can play left, down the sixth fairway, or take the more conventional route down the right side and deal with a shallow green and a gargantuan bunker.
No. 8 – LACC – par 5
A remarkable par 5 that snakes its way through the canyon. Drive it short of the barranca cutting across the fairway and favor the right side to approach the green, which is surrounded by bunkers.
No. 9 – Riviera – par 4
This strong uphill par 4 has one of Riv’s more eccentric and fun greens.
No. 10 – Bel-Air – par 3
It’s probably controversial to not pick Riviera here, but the 10th at Bel-Air is freaking amazing. You take an elevator up to the tee from the ninth green and then hit a 200-yard shot over a canyon to a funky punchbowl green. It’s a thrilling experience. Oh yeah, then you walk over a rad suspension bridge. Hate away, but 10 at Bel-Air is iconic.
No. 11 – LACC – par 3
A long, downhill reverse-redan par 3 with an epic view of the Los Angeles skyline. Do I need to give you more?
No. 12 – Bel-Air – par 4
The “Mae West” hole is terrific. The approach is difficult from the left—the target is blind, elevated, and narrow. Play up the right and you get a look at the hole location and green depth.
No. 13 – LACC – par 4
This long par 4 traverses surreal land. The right half of the fairway falls off so severely that a ball just a foot too far right in the fairway will tumble 20 yards farther right and eventually into rough. I love maintained fairways like this. The green is also super fun, especially because it lulls you into bailing left and having a really tricky up-and-down that looks benign from the fairway.
No. 14 – LACC – par 5
All the trouble lies up the right side of this long par 5, but your only chance at getting home in two requires a tee shot to that side. The green is also outstanding, one of the best on a course filled with great greens.
No. 15 – LACC – par 3
An ingenious green design, thanks to its angular shape and a small bump that wreaks havoc on almost every pin.
No. 16 – Riviera – par 3
Another shorty! The 16th–with its setting among sycamore trees, its dramatic bunkering, and its small green—makes for a marvelous, high-pressure shot near the end of the round.
No. 17 – Bel-Air – par 4
This stout par 4 returns players to the canyon where the round starts . You can hit it forever left, but the farther you go in that direction, the worse the angle gets into the green, which is perched up and falls off on all sides.
No. 18 – Riviera – par 4
The blind, uphill tee shot followed by the approach to an amphitheater green is tough to beat, even if the other option at Bel-Air plays under a suspension bridge.
Three concluding thoughts…
1. George Thomas’s greatest skill might have been building par 3s, so it’s not surprising to see seven of them in my Dream 18. Maybe I have one or two too many, but I like them too much to leave them out.
2. If you break it down by course, I have eight holes from LACC, six from Bel-Air, and four from Riviera. If Riviera were to undertake a smart restoration effort—as LACC and Bel-Air have—I bet the Genesis venue would immediately jump to six-plus holes in my Dream 18, with Nos. 4 and 5 being easy selections. I can only hope to see a Riv restoration in my lifetime.
3. While we’re talking about restorations, George Thomas designed 36 holes at Griffith Park, a municipal course in Los Angeles. The two courses remain in operation but have very little of Thomas’s work left. Let’s hope one day these courses, along with Billy Bell’s Rancho Park, get the TLC they deserve.