6,265 yards, 130 slope from the Blues
Many moons ago when I was just starting to get a little more ardent about the game and course design in general, I found myself at a Boston hotel having lunch with someone who has played almost every where. As we took refuge from the ice, cold and snow outside, the discussion was mostly my listening to enthralling stories that took place at this course and that, which courses were underrated, which were overrated and so on. I still remember from that discussion, this gentleman saying if he was in L.A., he’d play Wilshire over Riviera any day. I have never played Riviera but have always held it in the utmost regard, even back then, so the statement was jarring. Of course, I had never played Wilshire either and for that matter, did not know much about it all those years and years ago. But when a man who has been around like he had makes that kind of declaration, you pay attention and put it away for later. Side note, there was one other declaration like that during the discussion but for the life of me I can’t remember it. At any rate, I did just that; put it in my pocket and filed it away, in hopes that it would come in handy some day.
Well, serendipitously that day did come and an opportunity arose to get to Wilshire and see how much weight I should actually give to that lunch in Boston all that time ago.
Wilshire was designed in 1919 by Norman Macbeth, a very competent Golden Age designer who is not as publicized as others mainly due to his work getting lost over the passage of time and not having a lot of his own designs. Of course, from last season those who read it know that he also designed San Gabriel CC, which I became instantly enamored with. And, that’s it in terms of his designs you can still play (he at least consulted with LACC as well). He didn’t go on a frenzy and travel the country designing courses but was a prominent design figure that consulted in those early years, including at Oakmont. He was also a very accomplished golfer who essentially kept Wilshire his main love, attending to it through the years, which was in turn his pride and joy. I’ve discussed before in “Those Wonderful One Hit Wonders” https://golfadelphia.com/2019/07/12/those-wonderful-one-hit-wonders/ how those courses where its designer remains with it and devotes most if not all of his or her attention to it seems to set itself apart or at least increases its probability for greatness. Perhaps Macbeth saw how his friend Fownes was with Oakmont and followed the same model, but as an adept and adroit architect, likely knew how spectacular the terrain was here and strived for using it perfectly.
Macbeth eventually passed away and as time wore on, Wilshire began to change. In 2010, however, Kyle Phillips performed restoration work to return the course to more of that Macbeth essence. Phillips is well known for his restoration work to the Cal Club in 2008, which was a dramatic revamp that has served the course well, vaulting both it and Phillips into most sought after status. Restoration seems to work out best when there’s a certain share of homage to the past while a look to improve upon the design from the benefit of retrospect. That certainly took place at the Cal Club, the restoration of which could be an entirely separate Bourbon Chat and has been featured as podcast subjects on various golf-related sites. As far as Wilshire, I believe his work can be in that same discussion. It is certainly my favorite course played thus far this year. Perhaps my man in Boston was on to something.
A smaller parcel at just over 100 acres, this now serves the course well as Eucalyptus trees are able to provide shelter and isolation amidst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills that are just outside its gates. Undulating hills and rippled ground encompass the property while barrancas run through and menace a lot of it. This sets up a barrage of strategic perils rigged throughout that is made even more gloriously confounding with the great firm and fast. Run Yourself Ragged. Look it up if it doesn’t ring a bell, but it came to mind here, for the wonderful movement and the golfer’s skill necessary to maneuver the ball throughout various obstacles presented by the terrain and craft. Tilted slopes throwing balls down one way, the barranca lurking just waiting to burrow your ball into the abyss, bunkers jutting from that same abyss at all the right times (or wrong, depending on your perspective) and angles that throw off any geographical orientation you may have established. And the options at your disposal have you wishing you chose differently if all doesn’t go well, instead of looking to the course, that had your number regardless. Yet this is all rolled out in delicate progression instead of an all out assault. Like an captivating movie made at one of the studios a stone’s throw away, the plot submerges you completely, but only does so by leading you down the path willfully, joyfully, shot after shot, until the climactic approach at the Eighteenth where you finally come to your senses and have to ask, “I’m supposed to hit that green from here?” Brilliant! Oscars for everyone.
And make no mistake, you are smack dab in the middle of quintessential L.A. The Hollywood sign can be seen in the hills just beyond the Ninth, and if you were to walk out the gates, could easily reach more than a dozen famous landmarks in no time. Some of the ones I enjoy; Musso and Frank’s, Paramount Studios, La Brea, The Grove, Rodeo, it’s all right here. Golf course architecture has the Golden Age while Hollywood has the Golden Era (Bourbon Chat incoming). Wilshire CC now showcases the strong points of the Golden Age while I’m sure it also helped usher in the Golden Era in its own way.
The change of scenery from the desert to the middle of L.A. on an early January morn was refreshing. Very little was stirring as I made my way to the course at dawn, moving from the urban coastal setting of Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica to the base of those Hollywood Hills. The clubhouse sits above the course so as you walk down from above, you get a nice panorama of what’s to come, or at least what’s to come at the back nine. Regardless, it was a shot of anticipation that finally jolted me completely awake, ready to take in Macbeth’s pièce de résistance.
The First is a 378 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Heading straight out, the barranca is off to the short left, simply making introductions at this point. Bunkers are then on the left, then some on the right, then again on the left, then right, then left, then both sides of the green. Staggered, and with the firm and fast conditions, all of them in play, even on well executed shots that simply failed to account for them, which tend to land and run much longer than you’d think. The strategy changes, not just to hitting to an intended position, but hitting to a position allowing for sufficient bounces and rolls. zoo as we step to the opening tee shot, it’s not enough to simply drive over the bunkers whatever side you decide on, but curving it back to the center of the fairway ensures your ball will roll towards the green without incident. Or, knowing how far you can carry, then having confidence your ball will stop before the next hazard. While there’s a lot of room to work with leading up to the green, the bunkers carved below the green are a stark reminder of what happens with overaggressive lines, and the green speed underscores this point.
The Second is a 516 yard par 5. A bunker gateway awaits near the tee landing area and with trees lining each side, far and sure is all that will work. After the tee shot, however, there is much more latitude in how you want to attack. Belting one to get as close to the green as possible, hitting a reliable second shot that leaves you a longer approach, it’s all in play. The green is hidden by mounds on the left side, so the right side gives you a better line into the green. Yet from the left side where I was, you have no choice but not go high and carry the mounds and bunkers, so your ball comes down lightly. A comfortable birdie putt awaited but the green got the best of me. No matter. Smiles all around as I was enjoying what I was seeing.
The Third is a 326 yard par 4. A gracious foursome allowed me through, so photos were rather limited here, even more so when my approach shot decided to take a very close look at the barranca on the right. More of a straight hole that juts right at the green than a dog leg, the fairway runs from left to right, bunkers on that high left side. Getting it as far and left as possible is ideal to get the best look at the green, yet the bunkers and hillside make it more complicated. The barranca runs the entire length on the right, then circles the green around the rear, wrapping around the left before turning slithering off to the left. Instead of worrying about carrying the barranca at the front, you need to worry about overambitious shots that find it off the back. A great short par 4.
The Fourth is a 157 yard par 3. A slightly elevated tee shot and yes, we now have the barranca crossing the front of the green. It must be carried to the deep and terraced, albeit narrow, green. Wilshire used to have holes with alternating greens and this was one of them, but Phillips joined them into one. Now, the hole has significant variation depending on pin placement and the movement from back to front, with the terraces adding or taking away as the case may be, makes this shot one best approached with delicacy. And no, laying up short of the barranca is not a great option, as the fairway will take most balls straight into it. The bunkers off either side of the green are not to be trifled with. Deep and abrupt, recoveries out of them will need to be thought out properly. An excellent hole.
The Fifth is a 364 yard par 4. The fairway is wider than it looks from the tee, most of the room off to the left. The barranca, to the right of the tree line and mostly out of play off the tee, comes out of hiding and crosses the fairway near the green, then runs up the left side a bit. Bunkers are off to the right and short, so you have a small area between barranca and the bunkers before the green. Best to carry all of this to the green. But mind the greenside bunkers off to the right and far side. Lots and lots of quandaries near the green, but a well placed tee shot makes the approach more straightforward. Thus far, the incorporation of the barranca has been remarkable.
The Sixth is a 424 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left where the fairway widens as you get further out. Finding the right line off the tee is yet another moment to ponder. The bunkers on the right side take on a lot of the straight tee shots, so drawing around the left tree line is ideal, although getting close to those right bunkers makes sure you have a good angle into the green. The green is as wide as you can want yet there are enough bunkers around it to bring in some caution. Mind the pin position and playing to the center of the green regardless will be smart every time.
The Seventh is a 134 yard par 3. Here, the alternate greens are more noticeable but really make the course distinctly versatile. Lots of different pin positions can be had and having to get from one side of the green to the other could spell a flurry of strokes. The terrain, the high right side cascading down left and towards the tee, with bunkers wrapping around the high perimeter then separating the greens for the most part, adds levels of complexity to wherever your ball may end up in relation to the pin. A tremendously fun par 3. Give me a bucket of balls and a six pack and I could stay here all day.
The Eighth is a 365 yard par 4. Starting to round the property on this side of Beverly Boulevard, this par 4 is straight out, trees lining the entire left. The fairway is wide enough, so much so that bunkers start to line the left side as well closer to the green. The barranca returns, separating the fairway from the green complex and forcing an aerial approach. The green is marvelous yet treacherous. Similar to the Seventh how the rear right corner is the high point while the rest of the green falls from it. Trouble lurks every where, the barranca at the front and a bit left while bunkers are right and at the rear. The wider tee shot makes sense, all to set up the approach to the green, which demands serious attention.
The Ninth is a 418 yard par 4. The famed Hollywood sign is beyond the sloping hillside, setting up a blind tee shot. The ball will roll right to left so come to terms with it. Getting the tee shot out far enough can reach the hill on the other side, throwing it down and towards the green. The fairway moves straight to the green, bunkers intermittently placed on either side and generously around the green. The hillside used splendidly, a green well guarded, enough width to use as you wish, we have all the makings of a blockbuster.
The front nine loops the south side of Beverly Boulevard and has no weak holes. The par 3’s are other worldly, the par 5 creates a lot of strategic approach options and the par 4’s diversify their strategic strong suits. My ranking of them is 4, 7, 9, 3, 2, 5, 1, 8, 6.
The back nine starts with the 140 yard par 3 Tenth. The tee is right next to the clubhouse, so everyone can watch your triumphs or travails, so give them a show either way. The green is laid at an angle from the tee, with bunkers lining the front which creates quite the visual. While wide, the green is shallow, so getting it over the bunkers and have it stay on the green is an exercise in precision. The green is somewhat of a funnel, which helps, but the angle from the tee, green configuration and bunkers make for a wide range of options, and trouble, with this hole likely never playing the same twice.
The Eleventh is a 356 yard par 4. The elevated tee, now to the side of the clubhouse and over the road upon which you exit, sports a wide fairway, then native sandy areas before trees on either side, all the way to the barranca. The barranca splits the fairway from the green just in front of it. The green, moving relentlessly from back to front and assaulted on all sides by bunkers. A straightforward hole if you hit two good shots, a lot more thought and planning comes when you’re out of position. And the green is indeed relentless with its movement, so try to ensure an uphill putt.
The Twelfth is a 394 yard par 4. More barranca as it moves along the entire left side, a group of bunkers on the right that come into play off the tee. The green is more inviting from the left, away from the greenside bunkers on the right, and allowing running shots as well. This means wagering with the barranca from the tee, but it’s worth it. A bunker lines the entire rear of the green as well and it’s easy to have the speed of the green take shots into it, alas another factor to consider. It’s a great example of how the course is multi dimensional. Running shots can be quite advantageous here but aerial placement can as well. Either way, or a combination thereof, require a good deal of acumen and thought, especially at the green.
The Thirteenth is a 155 yard par 3. Another alternate green resides here, the left much smaller than the right. This and the Seventh are great examples of utilizing a smaller piece of property well by having the par 3’s in the corners. Here, a strong running shot can bound up the steep green face from the front while there’s a lot more room after the bunker on the right than appears from the tee.
The Fourteenth is a 503 yard par 5. Turning around to the meat of the property, the tee shot is to yet another glorious ridge that falls off tremendously to one side. Reaching as close to the high point as possible, or ideally over it, will help take advantage of the ridge and move ever so closer to the green. Left, well, it leaves you blind, much further downhill and possibly in the native area with some less than ideal lies or worse yet, in the barranca. Dog legging left after the ridge, the green is off to the left. The fairway sweeps broadly, so those coming from the right side can take advantage of all the room while those more left at least have a shorter more direct route. The green is long and angled, flanked by bunkers on either side. Far left of the green is a severe drop off, so keep that in mind if you’re some how going for the green in two. It’s an all world par 5 with great terrain used wonderfully.
The Fifteenth is a 317 yard par 4. The next three holes loop around the driving range, yet you hardly notice because of the tree line on the left here, a small ridge, trees and the hole turning away from it on the next, while a tree line and hills conceal it on the penultimate. This short par 4 has the feel of a Hog’s Back but I don’t think it followed that template. A wider fairway where it feels like tee shots bounce away from center, so it plays similar to one. Bunkers are on either side of the fairway, while a small centerline bunkers lurks a bit ahead, which kind of makes you glad center shots careen off to the side. The green is kidney shaped, the fat parts front and rear, bunkers on both sides at the thinnest. The entry point is off to the left, so that side is much better for those that want to run the ball up, like yours truly. A vast horizon of options off the tee and pretty much every where else, this is a very strong short par 4. Note the variety of routing the last few holes, working splendidly with the terrain. Short to mid par 3, long par 5, short par 4.
The Sixteenth is a 543 yard par 5. A slight dog leg right, might as well call it a cat leg. The tee shot is placed off to the right, which makes for most of the turn, a row of bunkers await along the left side. Getting a clear line to the green is necessary from the tee, which means negotiating the bunkers on either side and the tree line on the right. The fairway eventually feels like starting downhill to the green but the barranca awaits, just before the green. This makes that tee shot even more important, as more distance means hitting the downslope of the fairway, making the carry to the green technically easier. Those not in the best position will need to think long and hard about paying homage to the barranca and hitting short of it. The green is hospitable in width, so take advantage. If you look off to the back left, you’ll see a tiny sliver of a green, the barranca apparently just about to wrap itself around it completely and start constricting. This is the Eighteenth green. More on that later.
The Seventeenth is a 358 yard par 4. Heading back out from the clubhouse, the fairway is modestly wide, trees and native area bordering on the sides. The fairway heads up and to the left, where a crew of bunkers are hanging out on the hillside, on the lookout for anyone trying to make a move on the green. Left side from the tee means shorter approach but weaker view and line while right side is longer, still a weak view but better line in my opinion. It’s a bear of an approach and in many ways, reminded me of my home course Seventeenth approach for its blind components and the do or die mentality it instills. Getting it over the bunkers and on to the green is intimidating and those that are overly aggressive likely end up in a worse position than those that find their fate short or in the bunkers. A great hole that turns the screws a bit as things wind down.
The Eighteenth is a 417 yard par 4. Speaking of screws turning, the final hole certainly ends things on a climactic challenging note, which has to make for exciting match play. The barranca, tired of it bit roles here and there, finally decides to be the star of the show here. The tee shot is slightly off to the right at the clubhouse in the background while the barranca runs on the right. The fairway slopes towards it while it keeps moving closer and closer to the line of play, narrowing things as you get closer to the green. Eventually, you run out of room and must carry the barranca because the green is on the other side, but then keeps circling around it, the only refuge from it at the front.
The approach shot is an education on angles. A well hit tee shot is rewarded with the heart of the green facing you from the fairway while all other have to decide on what line to take and where to land their approach on this smallish green. I hit the shot of the day on my approach, which hit a couple feet from the pin before rolling to the rear. But the with the angle and distance I was, it needed to be hit very well and for once, it was.
The Seventeenth fairway seems like it would be an advantageous position if one could pull it off from the tee. I’m not sure if there are white tees making this impossible but there would certainly be safety concerns. Regardless, a tough strategic hole that caps off the round perfectly.
As I walked off the Eighteenth feeling good about my par at the final hole, the club had come alive as the morning grew to early lunch. Foursomes making their way to the First, brunchers doing brunch, meetings and appearances being made, all smiles and laughs. Tinseltown in full swing. Just another day in paradise, once upon a time in Hollywood.
The back nine is a bit more challenging than the front yet just as strong if not stronger. Just great hole after great hole, using the land to fashion strategy, angles and flow. My ranking of them is 14, 18, 15, 10, 12, 17, 11, 16, 13.
Generally, Wilshire was imminently enjoyable. What great courses do very well is present the holes in both sequence and manner, utilizing the land as artfully as possible, revealing itself in different stages, which all creates a rhythm and symphony. Wilshire did this fantastically, moving from flat sections to hiller ones in a captivating tone, while the brilliant use of the barranca throughout the round decidedly likens to the burns you’d see on the other side of the pond, which Macbeth surely used as inspiration. The strategic decisions you face, most influenced with the firm and fast conditions, is some of my favorite styles of golf that is done here extremely well. This even includes off the tee, which seems to be rarer than around the green, which is present here as well. While I jest about its location, it’s actually an important component to the course, showing that courses on smaller land in urban settings can have just as much interest, challenge, intrigue and wherewithal for memorable golf. It was my favorite course played of the year thus far.
And now, I wait some more. There were two courses mentioned during that lunch in Boston and thus far, I have only played this one. It was every bit as moving as he claimed it was. You never know, however, when I’ll be able to get to Riviera. Only then will I be able to have another lunch; older, wiser, more gray hair, and finally tell my friend he has a point, or is full of shit.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A sprawling Spanish mission style hacienda sitting on a ridge overlooking the course, it was just my style. The pro shop is on the lower floor, stacked with a ton of really cool stuff and a notable insignia. I spent more time than usual in it.
Practice area: Full range, short game area and putting green. Apparently there was some app you could download, which in turn I believe would let you know distances of each of your shots at the range. I could be mistaken there though.