Griffith Park – Wilson

Griffith Park Golf Courses, Los Angeles. Wilson Course design by Tom Bendelow (1914), George C. Thomas (1921), and William P. Bell and William Johnson (1927).

Originally known as Municipal #2 (what a name!) even that long list of designers above is incomplete. If memory serves, Bendelow designed an initial nine holes and Thomas then designed the first 18 here (and ultimately redesigned the original Bendelow 18 hole course which is now known as the Harding). The Bell/Johnson work was largely converting the course from sand to grass greens and other upgrades in anticipation of tournament play. The more serious alterations, that I might not credit even if I knew who completed them, seem to have largely been the result of the construction of Interstate 5.

The lovely clubhouse serves both the Wilson and Harding courses (Credit: Golf Advisor)

My initial reaction from playing this course was that I loved the holes on the west side of Crystal Springs Drive (that would be 1-4 and 14-18), but everything else was just on such boring land that I had a hard time imagining how even Thomas had made compelling holes from what was there .

But as it turns out, if you look at Thomas’ original routing, the original course wasn’t actually confined to just the same spot of land where today’s holes are located. Not only did the course probably have somewhat more land to the east that was then taken by the interstate, but Thomas’ routing doubled back after six and the rest of his front nine occupied the part of the park that is today a picnic area and baseball diamond. This, in addition to the lack of trees in Thomas’ day, would have made all of the course much more open and pleasant.

You also have to imagine it would have been considerably more natural in his time. Most of the holes on the east side of Crystal Springs Dr were, in the early days, in a sandy waste area not far removed from the LA River—the river at that time was still in a natural state and there was no freeway. Today the holes in this section of the course play back-and-forth among trees and grass. The river is a concrete channel and it is separated from the course by 11 lanes of Interstate 5. To say the course has lost its original character is an understatement.

And still there are features here worse than just all that, which is frankly standard fare for munis all over the country. I’ve seen few features quite as unnatural and unattractive as the concrete drainage ditch that runs directly through the ninth fairway, but imagining that as a natural wash makes the property seem significantly more attractive.

There are a hundred reasons it is hard to imagine any kind of restoration of the Griffith Park courses. Too much of the land where the course once was is gone, too much about the game has changed, the course is too busy, and the city would no doubt be much more willing to spend their money on other things. It’s hard to blame them. But from a golfer’s perspective, it’s a shame. Block out the freeway noise and you can imagine that this was once quite a golf treasure for this city.

The approach to #18 with the handsome clubhouse beyond

Still, you’ll find some good holes. The 18th is a cruel reverse camber hole, especially for anyone like me who can’t play a fade. The hole is a dogleg right but the fairway is dominated by a huge hill that slopes right-to-left. If your ball rolls down to the bottom of the fairway on the left side you’ll be looking at a long, uphill shot into the green from a bad angle.

The 18th actually completes a trio of good finishing two-shot holes. The 16th is the ball-busting hole, bunkerless but every bit of 440 yards, a dogleg right with its small green benched into the large hill that looms to the right. The 17th tee sits up on that hill and offers the chance to try to drive over a fairway bunker down the right side. If you succeed, you open up a clear view of the green, but the carry isn’t as easy as the downhill view makes it look.

#1 and #2 get you off to a fine start but much of the course can’t sustain the standard (Credit: City of Los Angeles)

Unfortunately, until that point, the best holes you’ve played are the opening two. The first is a graceful par 5 that doglegs twice, first left, then back to the right. The small green is elevated and sloped. Then at the second your drive is blind over a hill to a fairway that bends left. The green sits down at the base of the hill and is no fun to try to hit if you’ve missed the fairway.

But after that the course is uneven at best. The fifth is a solid drive and pitch hole but the fourth is sort of a mess. It seems like it was designed with some of the strategy of the 10th at Riviera in mind, but over the years, to protect a nearby tee and road at the corner, they built a pond right at the left edge of the dogleg—in other words, right where you should want to drive it.

And all of the non-Thomas holes just feel uninspired. The land isn’t flat but the feeling you get is.

For sure there are many worse munis throughout the world, but George Thomas deserves better.

California 4th Quintile [2019]

Seen from above, the site has obvious natural advantages (Credit: D.J. Piehowski / No Laying Up)