Rancho Park

Rancho Park GC, Los Angeles. William P. Bell and William H. Johnson, 1949.

Maybe the best candidate for a restoration I’ve seen. The best news is that relatively little actually needs to be done here. Some trees should go and others could use a trim to open the course up and help turf growth, a few greens look to have shrunk over the years, and there are a few bunkers that could use some work. But otherwise, this course wins on its bones and they’ve thankfully not really done much to muck that up. The routing uses the hills and hollows brilliantly and the course feels like the best kind of muni – you never forget you’re in the city, but (with the exception of the first and the approach shot on 18) you don’t really feel like the city is in play.

The first couple holes climb a hill until the par-3 third turns back playing downhill along a ridge. There’s one bunker left but otherwise a miss left can slip well down the hill. The fourth is a par 5 with a downhill drive to a reverse camber fairway turning to the right. The fifth also bends to the right but the drive is uphill. You have to hit it well enough to get up the hill and past the trees to get a view of the green, but out of bounds through the fairway on the left means you can’t just blast away.

The seventh is a short par 4 that asks whether you would rather lay back off the tee to leave a short or mid-iron in from a flat lie or hit driver down the hill but potentially be left with an awkward shot from a downhill lie. Such tricky decisions and awkward shots from sidehill, downhill, and uphill lies abound at Rancho Park. The course is only 6,800 yards but plays longer as a result (it’s also a par 71 that carries a hefty 72.5 course rating). The 13th is probably the epitome of this. It’s not a long hole, at about 380 from the back tee, and a well-hit drive will often get significant run downhill. From the tee the drive is semi-blind over a slight ridge – you can see a hill sloping left to right in front of you and a bit of the green peeking out to the right, but not much of the fairway. Drives up the left side can roll out a long way but you might better hug the right side where you’ll get less roll but the fairway is a bit flatter (of course if you’re too far right you’ll be blocked by trees), because the reward for a long drive is often a wedge from a downhill sidehill lie to a tiny green set below you. It’s a difficult shot to judge anyway and a miserable one to gauge from a funky lie. Then again the green is small enough that it’s not too fun to hit a mid iron into, either. A great hole without bunkers.

The 14th brings another blind drive, this time with OB left and right, plus a long second shot to an elevated green awaiting you. The 15th is longer on the card but plays back down the hill and so often plays a bit shorter, to a green tucked at an angle.

The 16th is the first of back-to-back holes with alternate greens. The more difficult, it seems to me, is the right green, which sits up above bulkheads that must be carried. The left green is smaller, but misses are easier to recover from.

Finally you reach the 17th and 18th, back-to-back finishing par 5s, the only three-shot holes on the course save the fourth hole. Like at that hole, the 17th fairway goes left to right with a bit of reverse camber. Again the hole offers alternate greens and again I think the right green is the more difficult of the two, as it is slightly more elevated and better defended, with three bunkers guarding the neck of the fairway in front of that green. It’s easier to run a shot in to the left side green.

The 18th tee features a plaque with the story of how Arnold Palmer in the 1961 LA Open took a 12 on the reachable par 5 – Arnie drove his ball in the fairway, then sliced his next two shots OB onto the driving range, then hooked two OB onto Patricia Ave. Finally with his sixth shot he hit the green and two putted. Eight shots plus four penalty strokes adds up to 12.

They have very large nets protecting the driving range and the street now, though I imagine plenty of shots still stray in both directions. It’d be a really nice hole if there were more room for it.

A lot of LA folks speak with stars in their eyes about the idea of some kind of restoration of Griffith Park and I can understand why with the Thomas pedigree there. The trouble is when they built the interstate much of where that course existed was lost forever so any “restoration” there will inevitably involve a lot of new work. Rancho Park is pretty great now and can be fantastic without much more than some chainsaws and a new mowing plan. Heck, it’s pretty great right now.

California 4th Quintile [2018]

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