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A Hollywood Classic

Celebrating the revival of the barranca

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Rustic Canyon. Photo: Andy Johnson
The barranca is the star of Rustic Canyon’s first hole. Photo: Courtesy of Andy Johnson

Southern California is famous for many things: the weather, the style, the stars. For golf-course-architecture nuts, SoCal is also the home of the barranca. Fittingly, the story of this strategic and naturally beautiful hazard has the feel of an Old Hollywood plot line: The protagonist rises to prominence, suffers a tragic fall, then an unlikely team brings it back to its rightful place.

The barranca crisscrossed the early days of Los Angeles golf. The winding canyons where George Thomas, the godfather of L.A. golf, routed the city’s preeminent courses were laden with riverbeds. Thanks to the wonderful weather, these small gorges—referred to by the locals as “barranca”—are mostly dry and ideal for a strategic and easy-to-maintain hazard.

At Thomas’ trio of masterpieces—Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera Country Club and Bel-Air Country Club—the barranca gets a starring role, acting as a prominent feature of each course. It’s easy to see why Thomas was drawn to them: Beyond their natural look, strategic nature and easy maintenance, barrancas are also efficient at providing drainage relief on rainy days. When a downpour comes, the barrancas fill up and move the water off the property or, in some cases, into an aquifer for later irrigation use.

But then came the fall. When Thomas’ architectural influence faded in the 1950s, so did the use of barrancas. Man-made ponds and bunkers became the en vogue hazards as most courses opted for a less-natural look. Barrancas became an afterthought.

Then, in the early 2000s, a young architect named Gil Hanse and a young golf writer named Geoff Shackelford won the bid to design a canyon course just outside of Los Angeles. Rustic Canyon opened in 2002 to wide acclaim, with the barranca dusting itself off as one of the course’s stars.

Hanse and Shackelford introduce it right off the bat with one of the finest opening holes in golf. The 540-yard par-5 first gives golfers a glimpse of what’s in store for them. It opens with a welcoming tee shot offering players a 60-yard-wide fairway.

The challenge starts on the second shot thanks to a serpentine barranca cutting across the front of the green and up the fairway more than 130 yards. While only about 3 yards wide and 1 yard deep, the dry riverbed forces every player to think. With sand at the bottom and native grasses on each bank, the barranca also introduces one of golf’s most thrilling aspects: chance. Due to how narrow the hole is, shots can just as easily bound into the barranca as they can bounce over. Those who find the barranca and draw a good lie will have an opportunity at an up-and-down, but unplayable lies also lurk within.

The genius in Hanse and Shackelford’s barranca on the first hole is their use of contours and angles. The barranca cuts up diagonally from left to right, creating a small landing area of fairway short left of the green. The natural slope of the land runs downhill and to the left, leaving a wise player space to play a low running shot up the left and onto the green.

The barranca’s positioning forces every player to confront it at some point. Aggressive players will navigate it with their second shot, long iron in hand. Conservative players and shorter hitters must decide how they want to approach the green: Lay back up the left and face a longer approach that provides the options of a running shot or high approach, or gain a shorter approach by playing up the right. This option brings the barranca into play on the layup on the left side, as well as the approach in front. The farther up the right side a player lays up, the more likely he will be forced to play a high, lofted wedge shot over the barranca.

It’s a grand dame getting her due in modern times, proving that some things never go out of style. 

Andy Johnson’s website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf-course architecture and professional and amateur golf.