9/5/19

The Lost Course: Ojai Valley Inn

The costs of history at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa

by

As they drive their Shark Experience carts to the 1st tee at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, golfers often pull over to take pictures of a rock. On the rock is a placard that reads,

I believe that I am absolutely impartial as to the courses which I have helped to build, but I consider the Ojai course as far and away above the best of them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this course contains more feature holes than the Los Angeles North course, the Municipal and Red Hill combined, while there is not a weak hole at Ojai.
– George Thomas (Pacific Golf and Motor Magazine, 1925)

By 1925, George C. Thomas Jr. had not yet finished his masterpieces at the Riviera and Bel-Air country clubs, but he had designed several great courses, including LACC North and La Cumbre CC. For him to rate Ojai above all of them, even in a moment of exaggeration, is striking.

Today, however, the golf course at the Ojai Valley Inn is a shadow of the one that George Thomas so admired. In fact, as this story will reveal, it existed in its initial form for only about a decade. After that came the Depression, World War II, and multiple ham-handed renovations. Recently, OVI has begun to constrict and even abandon original holes in order to expand its hotel facilities. Nonetheless, the resort continues to market its course as a genuine Thomas design and to charge a premium green fee: $149 for hotel guests and $169 for daily visitors.

There is a reason the resort wants to associate itself with George Thomas: he was a genius. At his peak in the 1920s, he produced a world-class golf course nearly every time he tried, whether on the dramatic hills of Ojai or in the subtly contoured canyon of Riviera. Sadly, though, much of his work has been lost. While it’s fun, even sometimes valid, to dream about the restoration of Golden Age courses, it is important to acknowledge facts. The Thomas design at the Ojai Valley Inn is essentially gone, and it cannot be recovered in full.

A rendering of the original routing of Thomas and Bell's Ojai Country Club, using various documents from the 1920s. Credit: Tommy Naccarato

A history of changes

In the same Pacific Golf and Motor article quoted on the rock by the 1st tee, George Thomas praised the land on which he and William P. (“Billy”) Bell built Ojai Country Club in 1923:

[T]he large tract available gave opportunity to select natural holes rather than to build artificial ones, and to include great diversity in the shots provided. Three distinct types of topography were utilized, comprising high gently rolling open mesa, oak timbered country broken up by canyons and also a level valley hedged with palisades, and through which a stony brook provides an attractive wooded walk besides additional natural hazards…. The superb setting is uniquely lovely for a golf course of great possibilities and wonderful scenic beauty.

By all accounts, the golf course that Thomas and Bell created was remarkably beautiful and imaginative. On the mesa Thomas mentions above, they built five holes and more than 30 bunkers. On the other sections of the property, with their forking watercourses and abrupt elevation changes, Thomas and Bell were more restrained in their bunkering. They allowed the terrain to be the star on holes like the barranca-crossing 11th and 12th, the cliff-vaulting 14th, and the photogenic 3rd.

As first constructed, however, Ojai Country Club didn’t survive long after the 1920s. Most of it was abandoned during the Depression and then converted into a military training camp during World War II. Aerials from 1939, 1945, and 1946 show that the original course all but disappeared. While some greens and bunkers survived, the rest of the course languished, its old forms imperceptible.

After the war, the property changed hands and was rechristened the Ojai Valley Inn. Billy Bell and his son William F. Bell rebuilt the course, but they did not carry out a pure restoration. They abandoned the 3rd and 4th holes and, to make up the difference, converted a par 5 and a long par 4 into two par 3s and two short par 4s. They changed the shapes and locations of greens and bunkers, shifted mowing lines, and generally tempered the eccentricities of the 1923 course. They did, however, preserve most of the back nine’s routing.

The Ojai Valley Inn soon became a favored destination of Hollywood types. As it expanded, the buildings crept closer and closer to the golf holes.

In 1988, OVI hired Jay Morrish to toughen and modernize the course. His efforts have received considerable criticism over the years. The greens he built bear little resemblance to anything Thomas and Bell created at Ojai or elsewhere. In Morrish’s defense, he likely felt his task was to renovate, not to restore; otherwise he certainly would have done more research. According to Geoff Shackelford’s The Captain: George C. Thomas Jr. and His Golf Architecture, when Morrish started his work, he “was not even aware” of Thomas’s classic book Golf Architecture in America or the 1920s photos of the course it contains.

From its abandonment in the 1930s and 40s to its later, more avoidable transformations, OVI lost much of its initial character. The greens and bunkers took on different shapes and, in some cases, new locations. Parts of the routing vanished, and many of the holes lost their quirky playing characteristics. In other words, by 1988, OVI was a George Thomas design in name only.

Still, even as late as the 1990s, something like a faithful restoration remained possible. What has happened since then, however, has made that possibility more remote.

The “Lost Holes”

In the mid-1990s, the owners of the Ojai Valley Inn, the Crown family of Chicago, started to plan a long-term renovation of the resort. The hotel was doing well, and the Crowns wanted to expand it. The problem was, the most convenient land to develop was already occupied—by the 5th and 6th holes of the golf course.

Meanwhile, Mark Greenslit, the Director of Golf at the resort, was keen to restore two original holes that the Bells abandoned in 1947: the par-3 3rd and the par-4 4th.* On a severe but spectacular corner of the property, these holes had been among the finest on the course. The original No. 3 played downhill to a green fronted by jagged-edged bunkers and backed by a mountain landscape. The green itself, Thomas wrote, was “of the punch bowl variety.” In his 1925 book The Links, Robert Hunter asserted that this hole was “quite as good” as the 3rd at Pine Valley: “The natural site is superb, and while the hazards are shallow, their modeling is notably good.”

(*The original Nos. 3 and 4 are now Nos. 16 and 17. For the sake of clarity, I will use the old numbering here.)

From a tee perched on a cliff, No. 4 played back out of the corner, alongside a large barranca. The green sat on a 10 o’clock diagonal, opposing the left-to-right slope of the fairway but opening to approaches from the right side, near the barranca.

The land was just sitting there, so Greenslit decided to strike a deal with the Crown family. “I went back to the owners and said, ‘I’d like to go out there and rebuild these holes, and I’ll give you the old 5th and 6th holes’—which were right adjacent to the hotel—‘and you can build on that if you need more space for hotel rooms,’” Greenslit says. The Crowns approved the swap, and in 1998, Greenslit brought in Carter Morrish, Jay’s son, to restore what came to be marketed as “The Lost Holes.”

Before anything could happen, the site needed a major clean-up. “It was their dump, basically,” Carter Morrish says. “Trees, branches, grass clippings, that sort of stuff. It was just a big pile of trash.” Both Morrish and Greenslit maintain that none of Thomas and Bell’s contouring remained.

Golf course historian Tommy Naccarato remembers things differently. Before construction started in 1999, Naccarato walked the corridor of the old 3rd hole. “All of a sudden, I started walking in these pits. I go, ‘I’m in a bunker.’ And then I found the green. And then I found the bunkers that were on the left side. And then I found the bunkers that were on the right side. So that hole was all there.” By the time Morrish’s work began, however, both holes had been re-graded. “I was in complete shock at what they had done. They had completely flattened the whole thing out. All the stuff that was there was gone. They cleaned everything out, both sides.”

Geoff Shackelford, too, saw the site beforehand, and he had a similar response. “I looked around, and there was enough sense of the ground to easily re-create. It’s a shame that the execution was not better.”

A rendering comparing the old "Lost Holes" at the Ojai Valley Inn to the newly built ones. Credit: Tommy Naccarato

In reconstructing No. 3, Carter Morrish used the much-reprinted photo from Thomas’s book as his sole guide. “Standing where the tee box was and looking towards the mountains, it was pretty obvious where the green needed to sit, lining it up with the mountains.”

The hole Morrish built has the basic semblance of its model, but many of the details miss the mark. The contouring of his green, for instance, appears to be more intricate than Thomas and Bell’s punchbowl-type original. Most obvious, though, is that the bunkers have far cleaner edges and simpler shapes.

Morrish concedes this point but notes that the restored holes had to look like they belonged. “I would have loved to copy that jagged look as much as possible, but everything else on the golf course was more manicured. In my opinion, it would have looked out of place to do something different. And the owners wanted everything to blend in and look like it had been there all the time.”

For No. 4, Greenslit says that he and Morrish worked without historical evidence. “We didn’t really have anything to go by. And I said, just trust your architect, go build me a golf hole.” He and Morrish located the old teeing ground on a small promontory above the barranca, and from there, Morrish relied on his intuition. “It just looked like a no-brainer to stick a couple little bunkers down there on the right side—really not in play, just to help frame it,” he says. “And then bunkers just past the turn-point on the left to give the hole a little bit of a twist. I was just trying to get in Thomas’s head and try to think what he would have done.”

As it turns out, evidence does exist of Thomas and Bell’s design for No. 4. In the Ventura County archives, there is a 1929 aerial photograph of the full course, which reveals that the original 4th hole likely had no fairway bunkers. Neither Greenslit nor Morrish knew about this image.

There is also an excellent 1920s ground shot of the 4th green, but Greenslit found out about it only after the new hole had been built. “We were in the grow-in stage, and there was a guy in town—he was the town historian. He called me up, and he goes, ‘I think I got a picture of your new hole. And I said, ‘Oh, really?’” The photo that the historian showed him is in fact on page 137 of George Thomas’s book, which Greenslit and Morrish supposedly consulted. Although the hole is mislabeled as No. 5, anyone familiar with the land should have been able to identify it as the lost No. 4. “We didn’t know it was 17, was the problem,” Greenslit says.*

(* Here Greenslit uses the present-day hole numbering.)

In the end, Greenslit feels that Morrish managed a fair approximation of the old No. 4, in spite of flying blind. “With what limited information we had, we were able to get it pretty accurate to the way the hole really worked.” In particular, he points to a bunker that Morrish placed about 15 yards short of the green. Thomas and Bell had a bunker in a similar position.

But the orientation of today’s green is different, undermining the overall strategy of the hole. No longer are you asked from the tee whether you want to challenge the barranca for a better approach angle or to shy away from it and accept an awkward second shot. Now, the green receives shots best from the left. Well-placed (if historically inaccurate) bunkers guard that section of the fairway, but the magnificent natural hazard on which Thomas hinged his design is strategically moot.

To this day, the Ojai Valley Inn advertises the “Lost Holes” as George Thomas originals. In doing so, the resort often plays fast and loose with the historical record. A promotional video released two years ago does not mention, for instance, that the site of Nos. 3 and 4 had become a dump by the 1990s. Most disturbing, however, is this moment: “[In] 1999,… Director of Golf Mark Greenslit discovered the pre-World War II blueprints for the lost holes from George Thomas’s original design.”

There are no such blueprints. If there were, the restoration of Nos. 3 and 4 surely would have been closer to an actual restoration.

Other lost holes

To varying degrees, nearly every hole at the Ojai Valley Inn has been lost. At least one is completely gone. After the premiere of the “Lost Holes,” the resort eliminated No. 6 and built hotel rooms on the land. The same flurry of construction also made impossible the restoration of Thomas and Bell’s 1st (now the 10th), which ended at what became the 14th green.

The expanding resort has impinged on other parts of the course as well. Last year, the Crown family decided to build a large events center, “The Farmhouse,” between what are now the 9th and 18th holes. The new building encroached on the fairways so much that people standing on the patio behind the Farmhouse would have been directly in the line of fire from the 18th tee. To help with this safety issue, the resort brought in Carter Morrish. “We planted 40-something redwoods and shifted both fairways a little bit,” he says. “We tried to keep the golf balls out of the building. That was the main purpose.” The corridors for Nos. 9 and 18 were tight to begin with—there had been a parking lot between the holes for decades—but now they are permanently compromised.

While other holes at OVI have not been marred this severely, most of them have lost their strategic and aesthetic character. Take the current No. 4 (the former No. 13), which originally had options and angles similar to those of No. 10 at Riviera. The hole featured an enormous fairway with bunkers and trees interrupting the line of play down the right. Laying up short of these hazards led to a long, likely blind approach over a green-side bunker. A better spot could be found short of the bunker on the left, which offered a way around the trees and an opening into the green. While the old 13th at Ojai did not have the downhill drama of the 10th at Riviera, it posed similar strategic questions. It also had something Riviera lacked: a natural drop-off on the left that may have motivated players to bail out to poor positions on the right.

Today’s hole occupies a portion of the same corridor, but the similarities end there. The green is about 20 yards northeast of the original, and none of Thomas and Bell’s bunkers remain. Aside from the exciting tee shot over a barranca, it’s a pedestrian par 4.

A rendering comparing the old 10th (top) and 13th (middle) to the present-day 1st (top) and 4th (middle) at the Ojai Valley Inn. Credit: Tommy Naccarato

History is money

Most golfers probably don’t care about the provenance of the golf course at the Ojai Valley Inn. What they would rather know, understandably, is whether it’s a good course right now. So briefly: it’s decent. It has a lovely setting, ideal weather, and a well-routed front (formerly back) nine. Some holes are cramped and others are rather dull, but a few, especially the current Nos. 2, 5, and 7, are excellent.

But here’s the problem: OVI claims to have a George Thomas design, and it charges a George Thomas green fee, but it does not offer a George Thomas golf course.

Mark Greenslit believes it still could—though perhaps not in the near future. Earlier this year, he switched jobs, moving to a club in Kentucky, and he wishes he had been able to do more at OVI. “What I wanted to do is go back and recapture that Thomas 1920s look, very similar to what they did at L.A. Country Club. If you could just bring back more of the rough-edged bunkering, it would change the look and feel of the golf course dramatically. It would have a nice, historic look, and also they would save a lot on water.”

The Crowns are among the richest families in the United States, so they have the resources to fund this kind of work. For over 30 years, however, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa has prioritized, well, its inn and spa. “In the hotel business,” Greenslit explains, “you make money on rooms.” The trouble is, OVI seems to want it both ways: to develop the hotel at the expense of the golf course but also to advertise the golf course as the restored work of a legendary architect.

This is a contradiction, and it should be called out as one. The George Thomas and Billy Bell design known as Ojai Country Club no longer exists. If it had retained its original form, it would be one of the best golf courses in California. At the moment, it’s not even the best course in Ojai.

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