Appeared in January/February 1997 LINKS
In the spring of 1925, George C. Thomas Jr. and Billy Bell were in the middle of constructing Bel-Air Country Club their finest work to date—a course filled with strategy, variety and unique holes. Then the bad news came. The parcel of flattish land that would comprise nearly half the holes were lost to the new UCLA campus
Jack Neville, former California Amateur champion and co-architect of the original Pebble Beach Golf Links, happened to be visiting Bel-Air the day of the devastating news. As Neville stood with the architects on the prospective clubhouse site, Thomas glanced to the northwest and asked about the scrubland on the other side of an imposing canyon.
“I wonder how far it is across that big ditch?” Thomas asked. “If a man could hit over it maybe we could do some work on the other side.” Neville grabbed the nearest club, a Ray Mills aluminum headed putter, teed up a ball on a mound of dirt, and whacked it well over the chasm. “Great,” yelled Thomas. “Why, we’ll throw a 300-foot bridge across the ditch, and we’ll place the clubhouse right here.”
Bel-Air was saved, and the Swinging Bridge and the magnificent 10th hole were created. To this day, architects marvel at the creativity of Thomas’ routing. Despite the hilly nature of the terrain, Thomas’ design required very little climbing and also featured his design trademarks: a short opening par 5 followed by a stern two-shotter, an alternate-fairway par 4, a modified Redan, unique greensites to promote a variety of approach shots, and Bell’s jagged-edged bunkering.
In the early years, celebrities were banned from joining because of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the perceived “loose morals” of Hollywood. Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Fred Astaire were turned down for membership.
The Depression forced the club to change its policy, Bel-Air has since been the official “oasis to the stars,” with names like Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Howard Hughes and Humphrey Bogart playing regularly in the early years. Since then, Dean Martin, Robert Stack, James Garner, Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson have been mainstays.
The traditional Thomas opening par 5 provides a gentle start, while the stern par-4 2nd moves east towards the next canyon. Following the par-3 5th, golfers take their first trip through one of Bel-Air’s legendary tunnels, in which many a golfer have held their breath praying that an earthquake doesn’t hit.
The tempting par-5 8th provides a dramatic opportunity to reach the green in two shots, with a meandering stream cutting into the front left of the putting surface. The landing area on No. 8 is generous enough to have provided a fine runway for Howard Hughes. Late for an afternoon game with his obsession at the time, Katharine Hepburn, Hughes simply landed his small aircraft on the fairway and caught Kate in time for the back nine.
At the infamous 10th tee with its imposing 150-yard carry over the canyon, your pulse quickens. Adding to the pressure of the tee shot is the idyllic men’s grill, which is literally on top of the tee. The 10th measures only 200 yards but its uphill nature and the accompanying nerves make it play so much longer.
The final, and perhaps most fitting, twist in Thomas’ ingenious routing is the 393-yard 18th. After a relatively simple drive, the walk to the fairway slowly reveals the stunning second shot, with a tiny green nestled amongst a sea of bunkers. And hovering above the putting surface lies the main reason golf is enjoyed today more than ever at Bel-Air: the Swinging Bridge.
Year founded: 1926
Architect: George C. Thomas