Golf As It Should Be Files: Santa Anita GC

The San Gabriel Mountains and just some of the clever man-made undulations at Santa Anita Golf Course (click image to enlarge)As much as travel, luck and effort will allow, I'm going to try and highlight more of the places in golf that define (for me) what the game is all about. This week I had the pleasure of teeing it up at Santa Anita Golf Course in Arcadia. It was the first time I had played there in over 20 years and while I knew it was a marvelous public golf course by including it in this L.A. Times piece of SoCal architectural gems, but I really never imagined just how idyllic it is as a model for what a golf course should be.

Not just a public course. A golf course of any kind.

Photos won't do the 6,400 yard course full justice. And I can only rave so much about the $23 green fee, excellent maintenance or the construction genius of the undulations before you start scrolling to the next post. So here goes.Wild undulations on the par-5 13th (click on image to enlarge)

A product of Works Progress Administration finances and crews, Santa Anita reopened in October of 1938 as a full length golf course next to the famed race track of the same name. According to an LA Times story, finances were apparently too lean to hire an architect, so a young county engineer named James Harrison Smith was given the task of designing the holes. He devoted a year to studying great holes and accumulating information. Assuming this was his only project, what transpired is one of the great one-hit wonders in golf architecture history.

The 14th fairway and elevated green. Wonderful contours make the short second shot to the elevated green that much trickier (click on image to enlarge)Crafted out of dead flat land, Santa Anita offers some of the wildest but most artfully constructed man-made undulations imaginable. Yet with Smith's engineering eye for drainage, they all work to also surface-drain the course. There isn't a catch basin to be found and when we played the golf course it had only a handful of wet spots just a few days after heavy rains. The bold, elevated green complexes had drained perfectly and rolled a stout 10 on the Stimpmeter.  Most modern architects accustomed to littering land with catch basins should study Santa Anita for the combination of clever contouring that affects strategy and function.

Smith's replica holes and homages are fresh but still respectful. He put his own stamp on each and named them (the names remain on the scorecard and tee signs). There's a Redan, a "Maiden, a "Thomas" (the boomerang first green in honor of George C.'s old 9th at Griffith Park-Harding) and assorted other themes.The wacky undulations under the 434-yard 18th fairway. The tee is to the right of this view and tee shots try to land over the mounding. Local legend suggests old trolley cars sit underneath, but no evidence confirms that (click to enlarge image)

While the course is short and over-landscaped for today's game, the undulating fairways and elevated, cleverly crafted greens expose poor shots to give the elite player plenty of trouble while still letting the average hack get it around. Old photos show that the course once had more hazards with great flair in their presentation, though the grandeur and funkiness of the contouring is actually highlighted by their depature.

Still, it would be fun to see the course with the kind of dramatic bunkering that it deserves both to heighten the experience and to attract more attention to this model of what a golf course should be about: fun, fun, fun.

Historica aerial viiew of the 9th, 18th and 10th fairways shows dramatic bunkering and fewer trees! (click on image to enlarge)In a grand southern California tradition, Santa Anita is largely unnoticed and unappreciated by the area's golfing elite. Perhaps it's the lack of wild hazards or a high-end fee burning a hole in their pocket or just the general SoCal ignorance of interesting architecture and history (btw, Lloyd Mangrum won the first two Santa Anita Opens).

Either way, don't despair. The combination of a smooth operation, low prices, excellent maintenance (no rough!) and the course's subtle charm has developed a loyal following and profits for all involved. I just wish there were many more Santa Anita's in the world of golf.