Los Angeles Country Club’s mystery extends to U.S. Open players too

Los Angeles Country Club’s mystery extends to U.S. Open players too

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — If you’re not flying in a Boeing or manning a drone, the only glimpses Los Angeles can get of its namesake golf club are through a tree-lined fence on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Across the street from the city’s most posh shopping mall in nearby Century City, a closer look yields a glance at a fairway or a peek at a green. Squint hard enough and you might see a bunker. The irony, of course, is that what lies just on the other side of the boulevard’s daily vehicle bottleneck is Los Angeles Country Club’s South Course, not the North where this year’s U.S. Open is held.

If it feels like this year’s tournament carries with it a certain level of secrecy, it’s because it does. LACC’s exclusivity and privacy is a feature, not a bug. In fact, people can go their entire lives in Los Angeles without knowing or even realizing that the course sits in a canyon surrounded by a forest of mansions and skyscrapers.

This week, the ultra-exclusive private club that is known to test prospective members’ patience as well as shy away from celebrity additions is opening its doors to the golf world. In the process, LACC is showcasing that its real luxury, its real showstopper, isn’t some fancy clubhouse (though they have that) or a celebrity house (see: Lionel Richie’s on the 13th hole) or some magnificent view that spans from Hollywood to Downtown LA (you’ll see it plenty on TV). No, the real jewel is a golf course that is as natural as its surroundings are man-made.

Built mostly into a low-lying canyon, the course — designed by George Thomas in 1927 and restored by Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford in 2010 — is not your prototypical U.S. Open golf course. And it’s not just because the lines off the tee can vary from “aim at the left palm tree in the distance” to “aim at the Beverly Hilton.”

Here, the deceptively wide fairways may be foreign to a U.S. Open setup but mask how much angles can play a factor into being able to score. With the barrancas, blind shots, bermuda, tricky rough and movable tees, the variety in architectural style should spark a variety in playing style too. Still, though LACC may welcome a plethora of playing approaches, figuring out which shots and approaches work — and which don’t — presents a unique challenge to the best players in the world, most of whom don’t have the very thing that this course asks for: familiarity.

“Oh, No. 15 can play 90 yards?” an incredulous Cam Smith asked Monday when told during his press conference that the 15th hole, a short par-3, has the ability to move tees and hole locations to have it play shorter than 100 yards.

“I think that’s amazing,” reigning U.S. Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick said Monday when asked about the same hole. Fitzpatrick paid a visit to LACC during the week of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, but looking back on it, he said the course has already evolved plenty since. It made Fitzpatrick wonder aloud if one day he could learn a course virtually without having to step foot on it.

“I guess in this day and age you’d like to think there might be some artificial intelligence you could use to kind of plot your way around,” Fitzpatrick said with a grin. “But that’s probably something I’ll have to look into.”

Through a sea of thick clouds, the Monday afternoon sun was giving away its last rays of the day as the mowers on the 18th green were already rolling in preparation for Tuesday at the U.S. Open. Few fans and fewer players remained out at LACC’s North Course.

One of those was Rory McIlroy. His potent driver nowhere in sight, McIlroy had all he needed as he walked up and down and around the course’s back nine. His shirt untucked, yardage book in hand and caddie Harry Diamond carrying only a couple wedges and his putter, McIlroy was playing the role of observing student on his first day on site.

On the 15th green, he listened as a LACC member pointed out certain slopes and tendencies the surface had. As he walked down the 16th, 17th and 18th fairways, he intently received the history lesson that Shackelford, who walked alongside him and Brad Faxon, delivered on the course’s most prominent features.

Like many of the people who admire the course or don’t even know it exists, McIlroy has never teed it up at LACC. Before that changes Thursday, the third-ranked player in the world seems to understand he has to be a pupil this week before being a golfer. He’s watched videos on the course, he said recently — flyovers and deep dives on its history from places like The Fried Egg — as well as read about it. But he would be the first to tell you nothing beats what he did late Monday afternoon.

“You don’t get a real grasp of it until you’re actually out there and your feet are on the ground,” McIlroy said this past week at the RBC Heritage. During Riviera week, McIlroy actually opted out of playing the nearby course, citing that its conditions at the time would not resemble those of U.S. Open week.

In a sport that prides itself on being frustratingly unconquerable for amateurs and pros alike, the best players in the world succeed, in part, by controlling every variable they can. This course, however, throws some of that thinking out the window. It asks players to be more artists than mechanics, and it begs for a combination of shot-making and creativity, which can only be born out of trust — not just in players’ talents, but their knowledge too.

Earlier Monday, when the sun still basked the course in plenty of light, fellow Spaniards Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia started a practice round on the first tee. Their partner was Isaac Simmons — a college player from Liberty University — who had made a unique but telling choice for his practice round. The man carrying his bag was an LACC caddie.

As they walked down the first fairway, the caddie was giving knowledge not only to Simmons but his playing partners too, calling out approach lines and green slopes.

In speaking to a few people familiar with the caddie system at LACC, it appears that only a handful of players (mostly young) are opting to use a local caddie for a practice round, some even for their tournament play. At least one player played a round with a local caddie this past weekend, while others have taken some time to make a stop at the course in recent months. Shackelford, who is intimately familiar with the course and its history, has said in recent months that he suggested to some players to take a local caddie. It seems not many heeded his advice.

Still, as McIlroy could attest, this week is different, and almost everyone is learning on the fly. For him, that feels like an advantage.

“I like reacting to what I’m seeing out there and targets,” McIlroy said last week. “I’m not a great player at playing a course by memory. I’m not saying I’m better at playing a course blind, but sometimes it’s nice not to know where the trouble is. You just sort of react to your targets out there and you really get into your shots. So sometimes I don’t feel like it’s that much of a disadvantage.”

Even for players who have played the course before, the course presents a different challenge this time around. Rahm remembers a much younger version of himself playing LACC during the 2013 Pac-12 championship. Rahm, then at Arizona State, finished tied for 7th in the individual competition.

“It’s not like I can draw a lot of what I did that week into this week,” Rahm said Tuesday, mentioning the thicker rough and longer holes as some of the differences. “The only thing I can say is that I have really good memories about it, and again, I enjoyed the design and I enjoyed the challenge back then. I think I’m going to as well this week.”

During that same college tournament, it was Max Homa who finished in first place and shot a course record 61. Homa, who still holds the official course record after that week, has called LACC a masterpiece and said he looks at courses such as this one like a story, its 18 holes unfolding in a manner that produces the right amount of build-up, climax and resolution.

“This venue is awesome for a U.S. Open,” said Homa, who has played the course twice since that Pac-12 event and attended the 2017 Walker Cup. “It feels kind of like the same place. They added some tees, but nothing crazy. It’s just a really great golf course in my favorite city in the world.”

Post-restoration, two of the only players who have played a competitive round on the course are Homa’s two playing partners for the first two days of this year’s tournament: Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa. Both Scheffler and Morikawa were members of the 2017 Walker Cup team that played and won at LACC.

“I remembered most of the holes before we showed up this week, so that’s kind of unusual for me,” Scheffler said. “Usually I don’t remember too much. I remember it being pretty challenging. You’re hitting a lot of different clubs into greens and it gives you a lot of options. It’s a really good test.”

Though Morikawa acknowledged Tuesday how different the course is playing since that Walker Cup, he also feels that having any sense of familiarity with a course like LACC brings at the very least a mental advantage.

“I think it helps me just knowing that I can go out and just play it how I’ve been used to,” Morikawa said. “I think when you play it as an amateur golfer, when you play it for fun, you learn courses and you learn it based on how you like to see courses, fitting that shot shape, doing what you do best and playing to your strengths.”

For Patrick Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA, LACC was his de facto home golf course for a while, playing it dozens of times. Much like Thomas intended for the course to play differently on any given day with its movable tees and half par holes, Cantlay said Tuesday he feels like the course has been different every time he’s played it.

All across the property during the first two days of tournament week, players were chasing those feelings of certainty, trying to soak up any knowledge they could — from members, caddies, other players — while also taking extra time on the greens, chipping, putting and even throwing balls in different directions to gauge how they would slide, run or stop on the course’s peculiar greens. On some holes like the short par-4 sixth hole, which has sparked plenty of dissection, there’s not enough data to indicate whether laying up or going for it is the move, so even the first round Thursday will be a testing ground. In other words, no matter the preparation, come Thursday, there’s an unpredictability to LACC that players will have to adjust to.

“I hit a 3-wood into No. 6, a driveable par-4 and then hit driver on 7 which is a par-3,” Joel Dahmen said Monday after playing nine holes. “I think it’s fair, it’s just different. We don’t see anything like this [on tour].”

Dahmen is one of the few players who has played the course since its restoration. But that round was five years ago and he doesn’t think his memory of that day will yield much of an advantage. In fact, Dahmen remembers more of the course’s unique sense of place more than he does the actual holes. As he stood on the ninth tee Monday afternoon and fired several balls toward the perched green that’s framed by the sterling white clubhouse, he noticed a building in the background.

“That’s a new building, right?” he asked someone nearby. The person said it was a recent build, within the last five years. The ninth being a par-3, there was no need to use the building as a line, but it was nonetheless another reminder of the peculiar setting and nature of a course that’s about to be presented for the first time to the rest of the world.

“It’s not every day you are looking at office buildings and apartment buildings while on the golf course,” Dahmen said. “This place is unique.”

Familiarity may have more weight this week than it has at other U.S. Opens. And yet, LACC is less a formula that has one answer and more like an essay prompt that could produce different kinds of elaborate responses. The player who can understand, accept, adapt and execute to the course’s nuances in the span of a week may be the one raising the trophy Sunday.

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