William P. Bell and Southern California’s Lost Courses

Southland’s Extinct Links (As published in SCGA’s FORE MAGAZINE May/June 2013)

                Daniel Wexler
                The Southland’s Lost Courses
The names are familiar not just to regional golfers but to avid followers of the Royal & Ancient game around the world: Riviera, The Los Angeles Country Club, the Valley Club of Montecito, Bel-Air… These and perhaps a dozen more layouts of similar character, quality and venerability are the timeless jewels of Southern California golf, having been designed by some of the biggest names of golf architecture’s Golden Age, and proven their merit, in both tournament and recreational play, for the better part of a century. Southern California golfers are fortunate to have had so many fine Golden Age tests survive into the modern era.
Less famous, however, are the many that didn’t.
The 1931 edition of The American Annual Golf Guide listed an imposing 34 Southern California facilities which no longer exist today, with the great majority having expired during, or in the aftermath of, the Depression and World War II. Further, when we count several documented facilities omitted by this, the period’s preeminent national guidebook, then add the considerable number of earlier courses which had already expired prior to 1931, it can be reasonably estimated that more like 5060 preWorld War II facilities have long since vanished from the regional landscape.  These layouts ranged in quality, of course, with a fair number being relatively rudimentary nine hole affairs, some played on old fashioned sand greens well out in the desert. But others were far more substantial, occupied prominent, centrally located sites and hosted nationally significant tournaments of the day.
Chief among these was Tarzana’s El Caballero Country Club, a highly engaging facility located in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of the present Braemar Country Club. Though occasionally miscredited to the Dean of Golden Age Southern California designers, George Thomas, El Caballero was actually built by Thomas’ sidekick William P. “Billy” Bell and was also noteworthy for occupying a portion of the former ranch of famed author (and creator of Tarzan) Edgar Rice Burroughs. Widely profiled in the period golfing press, it rose well above the murkiness that often results from judging long lost courses via a grainy aerial photo and an ancient scorecard; indeed, pictures of its stylish bunkering and foothill vistas are plentiful, and no less than legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice rated it among the elite courses on the entire West Coast. El Caballero was routed through two large canyons and measured a then-muscular 6,588 yards. Yet despite this size, its two most famous holes were a pair of short par 3s, the 144-yard 5th (which played to a unique L-shaped green perched dangerously along the wall of a canyon) and the 115-yard tightly bunkered 17th. Aside from impressing the national press, El Caballero was considered strong enough to host the 1927 Los Angeles Open in the club’s second year of operation, an event claimed by 18-time PGA Tour winner Bobby Cruickshank. The economic doldrums of World War II eventually sunk the club’s fortunes, however, with the present (unrelated) El Caballero Country Club being built just across what is now Reseda Boulevard in 1957.
El Caballero was not alone among lost courses to have hosted the Los Angeles Open as Culver City’s Fox Hills Golf Club, a prominent presence on the city’s golfing landscape since the mid-1920s, joined it in 1954. A 36-hole facility designed by George Thomas (though limited evidence suggests that Billy Bell may have had a larger-than-usual hand), Fox Hills initially operated as adjacent but separate entities known as Fox Hills and Baldwin Hills before eventually joining together and becoming known as the East and West courses. The property featured rolling, canyon-dotted terrain immediately adjacent to today’s Westfield Culver City Mall and if the East course’s lack of alternate fairways and ultra-creative green complexes rated it slightly below Thomas’s best, its size (nearly 7,000 by 1954) and imposing bunkering made for a highly challenging test. Indeed, little-known Fred Wampler won that Los Angeles Open with a total of three-under-par 281 – a higher aggregate than had been recorded in five of the previous seven playings, all of which had been at Riviera. The 449-yard 5th (a bruising par-4 requiring an approach across a drywash) and the 135-yard valley-crossing 6th were among the East’s most challenging tests.
The shorter West course measured 6,440 yards but featured at least as many memorable holes, led by a strong back nine stretch which included the 520-yard 13th (which bore a tactical resemblance to Thomas’s famed par-5 opener at Riviera) and the 225-yard 14th, a daunting test played to a green squeezed between out-of-bounds and a large, classically shaped Thomas bunker. Though the vast Fox Hills property was sold off for development during the 1960s, drivers on the 405 freeway can still get a feeling for the landscape by glancing eastward, towards the rolling landscape beyond Hillside Memorial Cemetery.
A third lost facility to entertain the Los Angeles Open was the public Inglewood Country Club, a course of unknown design pedigree that hosted Hall-of-Famer Gene Littler’s 1955 victory. Situated on a narrow east-to-west-oriented tract between the Inglewood Park Cemetery and Hollywood Park racetrack, the golf course spent much of its life operating somewhat beneath the radar, being omitted from 1929 golf publicity materials published by the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce and, curiously, never appearing in The American Annual Golf Guide. Originally a tricky, heavily bunkered layout, it gradually slipped into disrepair during the 1960s before being sold off for real estate development, part of which included the Forum, which sits directly upon what was once the front nine.
Southern California is blessed with miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, yet even in the decades before the Coastal Commission, surprisingly few seaside golf courses were ever constructed here. One that was, however, was Royal Palms, a private club laid out by Billy Bell on 350 acres at White’s Point, on the southwest corner of Los Angeles County’s dramatic Palos Verdes Peninsula. Sitting high atop coastal cliffs and climbing precipitously – while also crossing several deep chasms – as the routing worked its way inland, this was one of the region’s least documented courses, but also one of its most spectacular. Highlights included several death-defying holed like the 365-yard 14th, a downhill drive-and pitch whose approach was played over a chasm, which was then crossed by a narrow footbridge. Most memorable, however, was one of the most impressive finishers in Western American golf, the par-4 18th, which hugged the windblown clifftops for all of its 442-yards. Though offering dazzling panoramic views of the Pacific, and despite having a residential and resort community planned around it, Royal Palms was an early casualty of the Depression, being permanently shuttered in 1933.
A more established early playground for the wealthy was Pasadena where, in the foothills above Altadena, the 6,291-yard Pasadena Golf Club opened in 1920. Originally intended to be the cornerstone of a luxurious 54-hole development (two-time PGA Champion Leo Diegel was the club’s professional), the course was designed by Chicago professionals George O’Neil and Jack Croke and drew somewhat attenuated comparisons to New Jersey’s famed Pine Valley, largely due to its irrigated fairways being surrounded by native desert. Known for its ravine-crossing 110-yard 5th hole, the layout withstood the Depression better than most but fared less well against the epic rains that deluged the region in 1938, causing damage beyond repair. The Altadena Golf Course, a less-ambitious nineholer, occupies part of the site today.
Another particularly affluent inland club of the period was the Billy Bell-designed Midwick Country Club, a 6,309-yard par-71 facility located just south of today’s 10 Freeway in Monterey Park. Founded in 1912, the club was an early hotbed of both golf and polo activities (several equestrian events during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were held there), and Bell’s work was actually a complete rebuild of an earlier Norman MacBeth-designed layout. Though the golf course saw little in the way of high-level tournament action, Bell was so proud of its rough-edged bunkering that he used a photo of the seventh green in his period advertisements. The property was sold off for eventual subdivision in 1941, and a residential neighborhood sporting street names like Snead, Sarazen and Hagen Drives now occupies its acreage.
But if these were the best of the region’s golfing ghosts, several additional lost facilities are surely worthy of mention.
With Los Angeles offering among the fewest public golf holes per capita among major U.S. cities, a significant loss from the landscape was the Sunset Fields Golf Club, a 36- hole facility located partially on the site of the present Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall. Also built by the prolific Billy Bell, the club offered a pair of mid-size public-access layouts of reasonable quality and drew some of the game’s significant personalities, including five-time PGA Tour winner Ray Mangrum (brother of Hall-of-Famer Lloyd) as its professional, and the pioneering African-American golfer Bill Spiller as one of his students.
A short drive to the northwest, near both the Hillcrest Country Club and Rancho Park, lay another popular facility, the private California Country Club, which opened in 1917. A solid, challenging layout, its architectural origins have remained murky over the years (both Billy Bell and the iconoclastic Max Behr seem strong possibilities) but its creator was certainly a skilled hand, for its 6,538 yards were squeezed into limited, extremely hilly acreage. The club was well-known as a Hollywood hangout (as much because the city’s most famous golf clubs still shunned entertainers in those early years as for its proximity to 20th Century Fox studios) and counted among its members the legendary Olympian-turned-golfer Babe Didrickson Zaharias.
A bit further north lay one of the region‘s more overlooked courses of quality, Flintridge Country Club, which served as the centerpiece of a 1,700-acre real estate development spearheaded by U.S. Senator Frank Flint (R-CA). Designed by Scottish émigré William Watson in 1920, the course occupied an attractive site in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just southwest of today’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and featured a creek-bottomed barranca affecting play on six holes. Though the strong 6,410-yard layout disappeared shortly after World War II (eventually to be buried beneath the 210 Freeway), remnants still remain in the form of the Sacred Heart Academy (which occupies a building which originally served as the development’s hotel) and the Flint Canyon Channel, the concrete-walled remains of the barranca.
And on the subject of resort hotels, one of the region’s grandest – and least remembered – lay in the inland town of Norco at the Lake Norconian Club, a massive Spanish-style structure which still exists today as the medium-security California Rehabilitation Center. Anchoring a resort which entertained a Hollywood-oriented clientele, the club featured a then-sprawling 6,683-yard golf course laid out by famed Los Angeles Country Club professional John Duncan Dunn. Unfortunately the onset of the Depression shortly after the club’s 1928 opening cut short its enormous potential and the property was sold to the federal government on December 8th, 1941 – on the very day the Golden Age of golf design ended, and the nation went to war.

Welcome to the William Bell Society

The William Bell Society is dedicated to preserving and protecting the legacy left by legendary golf course architects William P. Bell and his son William F. Bell.

Bell Construction Advertisement ImageEach year events are held at Society member clubs where these prolific golf course architects are celebrated.  Members  are invited to come play one of these venerable courses followed by dinner featuring a keynote speaker who share special details of Bell golf course architecture and history.

If you are interested in joining the William Bell Society as an individual, professional, or club, please contact us.