You may have never heard of George Thomas, but you’re probably aware of his work. One of the top course architects of the early 20th century, Thomas was responsible for Riviera and Bel-Air country clubs in Los Angeles and two dozen or so other layouts, most in California.
Among those is the course at Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, in the resort/artist/retirement community of Ojai, about two hours north of L.A. I’d wanted to visit Ojai since I was a kid, because that was where Steve Austin—better known to ‘70s TV fans as The Six Million Dollar Man—hailed from. I didn’t know anything other than it was in Southern California and had a funny, yet somehow appealing, name. It took me nearly four decades to get there and it was worth the wait.
The inn is as serene and lovely a resort as you’ll find. It began life in the early 1920s as a private club built by Ohio industrialist Edward Drummond Libbey. The first building was a clubhouse of Spanish Colonial design, and that style has remained dominant. There are now 308 guest rooms and suites—most with fireplaces and terraces—six restaurants, a spa, tennis courts, four swimming pools, miles of trails, even art and apothecary classes. There are also vibrant gardens, the grounds fragrant with lavender and other rich scents. It is an absolutely gorgeous, and relaxing, environment.
The resort recently underwent a $90 million renovation, with some of that money going into building a new pro shop and improving the course, which originally opened in 1923. As part of the investment, the two nines were reversed so the course plays the way Thomas intended.
I’m amazed the routing had ever been changed since the course now opens perfectly, with a series of scenic short holes that cross shrub-filled arroyos and offer just enough resistance to be memorable. Thomas was a founding member—and devotee—of Pine Valley, and he used the little canyons, as well as other natural features and cleverly sited bunkers, to recreate in miniature the sort of hazards that the New Jersey track is famous for. At only 6,300 yards from the longest tees, Ojai Valley is nowhere near as difficult as Pine Valley, but the masterly use of the landscape as it rises, falls, and bends makes the course challenging and enjoyable.
Every hole holds the golfer’s interest and presents alternate methods of attack. I found myself smiling on nearly every tee, appreciating the task ahead and marveling at the simple ingenuity of the design.
In the late 1990s, director of golf Mark Greenslit, who has been at inn more than 25 years, uncovered two “lost holes,” numbers 16 and 17, that went wild after part of the course was taken over by the military during World War II. Golf historians knew there had been other holes at the far end of the resort property, but it took Greenslit to uncover them. They are brilliant examples of Thomas’ skill: 16 a long par 3 over a sea of sand (another Pine Valley homage, as shown at the top); 17 a tight par 4 with a tree protecting the front of the green. I can still see them vividly.
Not only do I retain strong memories of the course, I can nearly conjure up the feeling of calm I enjoyed every minute on property. Who would have thought that so close to the “city of angels” there exists a place so truly heavenly?
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