Rancho Park History 1921-2008
Last Updated: 01/13/17

By John Jones, R.P.G.C. Club Historian

The 184.6 Acres of rolling hills on Pico Boulevard that eventually became the City of Los Angeles' Rancho Park Golf Course, and Cheviot Hills Recreational Park, began life in 1920, when the land was purchased by S.W. Straus of S.W. Straus & Co., the owner of the new Ambassador Hotel, and the Hotel Alexandria, of Los Angeles, for use as a championship golf course, for hotel guests, and a select number of private members.

L.A. Park commissioner and L.A.C.C. member Henry W. O'Melveny, the legendary Los Angeles law firm founder, handled the transaction, and became the Ambassador golf club's first President.


The land was part of the former Rancho Rincon de Los Bueyes, in what was then, the town of Sawtelle, 12 miles west of Los Angeles.

W. Herbert Fowler, of the English firm Fowler & Simpson, was hired to 'lay out' an all grass championship golf links, and he began working in the spring of 1920, making clay models of his hole designs, for his contractors to build. Fowler had been in Los Angeles designing the new South and North Courses at the home of Southern California golf; the Los Angeles Country Club.

New L.A.C.C. member, and multi-millionaire, George C. Thomas, carried out Fowler's construction plans for the Beverly Links, as Herbert was a very busy man making models for all three Los Angeles courses, while also working in Northern California on the Presidio, Pebble Beach and Del Monte courses, all of which he completed between 1920 and 1922.

“God builds golf links and the less man meddles the better for all concerned.”  - W. Herbert Fowler

Bernard Darwin in Golf Illustrated referred to Herbert Fowler as "perhaps the most daring and original of all golfing architects, and gifted with an inspired eye for the possibility of a golfing country."

Fowler had designed the classic Walton Heath in England in 1904, just as the Haskel Ball was changing the game and making the old courses obsolete.

“Now that the ball-makers have successfully ruined most of our leading courses, it remains for the golf architects to so design the greens that they shall be both difficult of access and that the putting shall demand care and skill in judging slopes and undulations”. - W. Herbert Fowler

The all grass Ambassador links was ready for play in July of 1921. The original par 72 golf course was 6,250 yards long and made full use of the many hills and valley's with bunkers, ditches and arroyos scattered throughout the land. The all grass greens, tees and fairways at the Ambassador links were an innovation in 1921, eight months after the opening of the Wilshire Country Club and nearly a year before Willie Watson's Hillcrest Country Club opened across the street on Motor.

1921 - Ambassador Golf Club (W. Herbert Fowler)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 449 5   10.................... 374 4
2.................... 355 4   11.................... 415 5
3.................... 399 4   12.................... 205 3
4.................... 167 3   13.................... 273 4
5.................... 358 4   14.................... 155 3
6.................... 344 4   15.................... 375 4
7.................... 409 5   16.................... 390 4
8.................... 402 4   17.................... 375 4
9.................... 385 4   18.................... 420 4
             
Out 3,268 37   In 2,982 35
        Total 6,250 72

NOTE: The 205 yard par three 12th hole was the signature hole of the course and it took a powerful wallop against the wind across the creek and up the hill to the green.

 In July of 1921 a great exhibition golf tournament was held to celebrate the opening of the new Ambassador link's. Guests on the opening day included many of Southern California's best golfers including Dr Paul Hunter, Jack Neville, Jimmy Simpson and MacDonald Smith as well as Max Behr, Scotty Armstrong, Everett Seaver, C.H. Palmer and Ambassador pro Arthur Clarkson.

According to the July 17, 1921 Los Angeles Times - "The scores registered by the athletes afford ample proof of the severity of the course. Fowler has trapped it and bunkered it, taken advantage of all natural resources, such as barranca, hill and the ocean wind, and manufactured a real championship test of golf."

 

The crowd follows the Barnes / Hutchison Exhibition Match on a treeless Rancho in January 1922



 By the spring of 1922 the club had changed it's name to the Rancho Golf Club and the course was modified after poor results with the fairway grass forced 'winter rules' to prevail.

 
One quick remedy had the front and back nine's reversed, possibly to give the 1st hole the morning Sun. The 7th hole, which became the 16th, was reduced to a par four and lowered the course par to 71 which lasted more than a year.
 

1922 - Rancho Golf Club (W. Herbert Fowler)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 374 4   10.................... 449 5
2.................... 415 5   11.................... 355 4
3.................... 205 3   12.................... 399 4
4.................... 273 4   13.................... 167 3
5.................... 155 3   14.................... 358 4
6.................... 375 4   15.................... 344 4
7.................... 390 4   16.................... 409 4
8.................... 375 4   17.................... 402 4
9.................... 420 4   18.................... 385 4
             
Out 2,982 35   In 3,268 36
        Total 6,250 71


At the end of 1922 Sawtelle residents voted to be annexed into the City of Los Angeles and Rancho Golf Club made plans to have a reliable city water supply which allowed the club to hire contractor / architect Billy Bell to refurbish the original Fowler course that included installing a new irrigation system that could better grow grass on the bare hills while also enlarging some tees and widening some of the fairways. The clubhouse locker room and restaurant were also improved for the expanding membership of the club and it's visitors.

The Billy Bell lengthened 6,441 yard par 70 course opened in the summer of 1923. Billy himself was to be the contracted superintendent and head greenskeeper for the course over the coming years. He had only recently finished building LACC's North Course with George Thomas for Herbert Fowler and here he was again working on another of Herbert's designs which he was now also maintaining. Billy would rework LACC North for a second time with Thomas after the twosome built Riviera.

Rancho Golf Club joined the SCGA in 1922 and the USGA in 1923.

 

 

During the Refurbishing the nines were returned to their original routing


1923 - Rancho Golf Club (Fowler/Bell)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 448 4   10.................... 374 4
2.................... 355 4   11.................... 350 4
3.................... 428 4   12.................... 205 3
4.................... 167 3   13.................... 330 4
5.................... 358 4   14.................... 155 3
6.................... 385 4   15.................... 375 4
7.................... 520 5   16.................... 440 4
8.................... 365 4   17.................... 375 4
9.................... 385 4   18.................... 425 4
             
Out 3,412 36   In 3,029 34
        Total 6,441 70

With a smartly up-rated clubhouse the course was soon a mainstay of tournament golf in Southern California hosting numerous exhibitions with Tommy Armour, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet, Archie Compston and it was also the home to the championship Rancho Golf Club whose teams and players would win Southern Californian, Regional and National golf championships for the next 10 years with Rancho members Willie Hunter, George Von Elm, Scotty Chisholm, Cheif Soldano, Howard Hughes, Duke Kahanamoku, Leon Keller, and many others.



In August of 1933 without warning the land and course were seized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Department due to taxes owed from 1920 to 1926 by the land owner S.W. Straus who had died in 1930 and whose estate had put the 184.6 acre property up as collateral to the Federal government. The Rancho Golf Club was left without a course and so it closed down, selling it's clubhouse furnishings and the golf course maintenance equipment at an auction in downtown Los Angeles.

With the old course temporarily abandoned late in the dry summer the S.C.G.A. and the City of Los Angeles and others tried to save it but couldn't find a legal way to do it. In the autumn with the help of the local golf community the course was finally leased from the Federal Government by U.S.G.A. Public Links Committee member A. LaVerne Nichols just at the last moment before the course was completely ruined by a lack of maintenance. Billy Bell was again contracted to maintain the course and by February of 1934 the Rancho Golf Public Golf Course re-opened with a day of free golf.

 



The back 9 was modified in 1933 with holes 17 & 18 switched with holes 10 & 11


1934 - Rancho Public Golf Course (Fowler/Bell)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 448 4   10.................... 375 4
2.................... 355 4   11.................... 425 4
3.................... 428 4   12.................... 374 4
4.................... 167 3   13.................... 350 4
5.................... 358 4   14.................... 205 3
6.................... 385 4   15.................... 330 4
7.................... 520 5   16.................... 155 3
8.................... 365 4   17.................... 374 4
9.................... 385 4   18.................... 440 4
             
Out 3,411 36   In 3,028 34
        Total 6,439 70

The course continued operating throughout the 1930's attracting the infamous yearly M.G.M Tournament and many other special amateur and professional events. After Pearl Harbor the course also hosted tournaments for war bonds that were held until the summer of 1943 when the lease and the second 10 year management of the course came to an end. 

MGM players Harry Rapf, Mervyn LeRoy, Johnny Weissmuller and Jimmy McLarnin at Rancho in the 30's


In 1944 a large fire burned from west to east along Pico Boulevard destroying most of the front nine and almost getting the old abandoned clubhouse as well.

Since 1933 when the course was seized the City of Los Angeles had been trying to get Rancho from the Federal Government. After 13 years of wrangling and dealing which included court cases with the Fed's and the County, they took legal possession of the land and golf course in 1946.

They then hired now legend and Rancho old hand Billy Bell to tear up the old course and design a new Championship course to be paid for completely out of green fee's from the other jewels in city hands the Griffith Park golf courses. The design brief asked for holes suited to the left to right fade shot of the average golfer while retaining some of the hilly feel of the old Rancho Fowler course.



1946 plan for the Rancho

From March 1946 to September 1948 the largest hills on the property were cut down and re-graded by mammoth earth movers that moved one and a quarter million cubic yards of earth around the 184.6 acre property. In all, 20,000 trees and shrubs were planted including a single redwood which still stands behind the driving range today.

Billy Bell had assistance from legendary Rancho golfer George Von Elm in the design of the new course which retained remnants of the old Fowler course on the present hole #13 which it was said was the only recognizable hole from the old course.

Bell and Von Elm also worked with the Department of Parks and Recreations superintendent William Johnson in the design of the course and of the par 3 pitch and putt course which was built over the old 1st green and along the old 2nd hole. Lakeside Amateur Champion Johnny Dawson has also been credited with assisting Billy Bell in the new layout.

The new 6,643 yard par 71 course was first played on by Maurie Luxford, George Von Elm, Willie Hunter, Billy Bell, Johnny Dawson, Bill Johnson, C Cunningham and Harold Dawson to rate the course for the upcoming U.S.G.A. Public links Championship proudly held on Los Angeles' new golf course gem. The opening tournament and subsequent tournaments were a great success.

For the opening festivities put together by Parks and Recreation Department President Maurie Luxford an exhibition match was played between Bob Hope and Johnny Dawson who were defeated by George Von Elm and Bruce McCormick. Bob was 'beaten but not silenced' according to the Times and shot a not too pretty 85.


Photo by Chuck Brenkus


1949 - Rancho Golf Course
(Billy Bell)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 386 4   10.................... 488 5
2.................... 446 4   11.................... 439 4
3.................... 188 3   12.................... 198 3
4.................... 528 5   13.................... 375 4
5.................... 370 4   14.................... 365 4
6.................... 385 4   15.................... 443 4
7.................... 365 4   16.................... 179 3
8.................... 204 3   17.................... 520 5
9.................... 380 4   18.................... 383 4
             
Out 3,253 35   In 3,390 36
        Total 6,643 71

In 1952 after swapping the greens and tees on the 10th hole, now the present 18th, and the 9th hole, now the 10th, the Driving range was nearing completion in this 1952 aerial.

1952 - Rancho Park Golf Course (Billy Bell)

 

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 386 4   10.................... 380 4
2.................... 446 4   11.................... 439 4
3.................... 188 3   12.................... 198 3
4.................... 528 5   13.................... 375 4
5.................... 370 4   14.................... 365 4
6.................... 385 4   15.................... 443 4
7.................... 365 4   16.................... 179 3
8.................... 204 3   17.................... 520 5
9.................... 383 4   18.................... 488 5
             
Out 3,255 35   In 3,387 36
        Total 6,642 71

 

In 1956 after a few more years of 'growing in' and with some new and larger tee boxes the now 7,065 yard par 71 Rancho Park Golf Course started a 16 year run hosting the prestigious Los Angeles Open, one of the oldest on the pro calendar.
 
Here again the front and back nine's were reversed for the PGA Tour players. This allowed a few obvious benefits, one being the 9th hole making a much better finishing hole for the spectators than the somewhat cramped 18th which as the new number 9 would now send the pro's past the clubhouse on their way to the new 10th tee which as #1 was not big enough for the crowds.

1956 - Rancho Park Golf Course (Billy Bell)
 (Reversed Nine's for the Los Angeles Open)
 
Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 412 4   10.................... 398 4
2.................... 452 4   11.................... 454 4
3.................... 223 3   12.................... 209 3
4.................... 394 4   13.................... 551 5
5.................... 440 4   14.................... 398 4
6.................... 446 4   15.................... 412 4
7.................... 194 3   16.................... 388 4
8.................... 550 5   17.................... 234 3
9.................... 508 5   18.................... 402 4
             
Out 3,619 36   In 3,446 35
        Total 7,065 71

Jack Nicklaus earned his first check as a pro at Rancho in 1962 and Arnold Palmer took his infamous twelve on the 9th hole (present day 18th) in 1961 amongst the many many stories of their era.

In 1966 Palmer shot a course record 62 which was later beaten by Rancho Club member Bobby Howe who shot 61 in the final round to win the Rancho Club Championship in 1968.


In 1968 the tour went to Brookside for one year which gave the city time to update the Rancho clubhouse adding air conditioning and sprucing up the locker area and also carrying out additional work enlarging some of the tees and paths around the course. 200 new trees were also planted with 1,700 trimmed and 56 Tons of fresh sand trucked in for the bunkers. The driving range was also leveled and planted with sod and surrounded by a new fence.

New rules at the course were introduced making the clubhouse off limits to the public during the week of the LA Open which was a bone of contention the PGA Tour had with the city for the prior 12 years. When the Tour returned in 1969 the course measured 6,821 yards for it's par 71. By now courses were being measured from the center of the tee to the center of the green.

1969 - Rancho Park Golf Course (Billy Bell)
 (Reversed Nine's for the Los Angeles Open)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 379 4   10.................... 380 4
2.................... 464 4   11.................... 450 4
3.................... 223 3   12.................... 208 3
4.................... 375 4   13.................... 526 5
5.................... 430 4   14.................... 392 4
6.................... 440 4   15.................... 380 4
7.................... 180 3   16.................... 377 4
8.................... 521 5   17.................... 215 3
9.................... 504 5   18.................... 400 4
             
Out 3,501 36   In 3,320 35
        Total 6,821 71

After 16 years, the second to last Los Angeles Open was played at Rancho in 1972.



The PGA course record was bettered on a shorter 6,655 yard course by George Archer who shot 61 when the tour returned to Rancho in 1983 for one final year while Riviera CC was being prepared for the 1983 PGA Championship.

 

1983 - Rancho Park Golf Course (Billy Bell) 
 (Reversed Nine's for the Los Angeles Open)

Hole Yards Par   Hole Yards Par
             
1.................... 380 4   10.................... 370 4
2.................... 453 4   11.................... 435 4
3.................... 206 3   12.................... 195 3
4.................... 372 4   13.................... 508 5
5.................... 425 4   14.................... 393 4
6.................... 431 4   15.................... 373 4
7.................... 173 3   16.................... 353 4
8.................... 500 5   17.................... 212 3
9.................... 483 5   18.................... 393 4
             
Out 3,423 36   In 3,232 35
        Total 6,655 71

Archer loved Rancho where he had played his first PGA Tour event and also where he had won the last LA Open played on Rancho in 1972 as did Arnold Palmer who won all 3 of his LA Opens at Rancho.



In
1984 Rancho was the busiest golf course in the United States with more than 125,000 rounds played. 

By 2005 the rounds averaged 115,000. In 1990 the Senior P.G.A. Tour started a five year run at Rancho with many familiar faces returning for a second run that lasted until 1994.

In February 1993 heavy rains caused flooding on 5 holes with the fourth, fifth and 18th shortened for many months. Oil had seeped from the nearby oil wells mixing with the water in the course's ground water storage container. The holes had to be drained and the contaminated grass and soil replaced.
 
Between November 1999 and July 2000 the Recreation & Parks Department spent $2 million rebuilding all 18 greens and 12 alternate greens to the latest sand based U.S.G.A. standards.  According to the LA Times - "The nine-month project took a toll on regular golfers, many of whom did not want to play a course with greens that were basically closely mown fairways with bucket-sized holes."

In 2000 Rancho was the only golf course in the United States to have hosted the PGA, LPGA and the Senior PGA.Plans for refurbishing the Driving Range and the Clubhouse are in the works and the future has never looked brighter for one of Southern California, Los Angeles and America's priceless historic Championship golf courses.

 


2007 Rancho golf course

With two legendary championship courses having occupied the land in succession over it's 87 year history the Rancho Rincon de Los Buelles has remained at the very heart of American golf and has grown in parallel with the development of the game of golf and of golf course design throughout golf's history.


Special Thanks to the Amateur Athletic Foundation, the Los Angeles Public Library, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Los Angeles Deparment of Recreation and Parks, Google Earth, Charles Vides, and Scotty Chisholm, for help with this article.

Copyright ©2007-2017 JIB Jones




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