Best Course: Riviera
Other notable work: Los Angeles, Ojai Valley, Bel Air
Overview: George Thomas was bound to be an architect long before he actually began to design courses. He was on the course committee for two new Ross courses and also the Philadelphia Cricket Club designed by Tillinghast. He spent time observing the progress of his friend Hugh Wilson at Merion and also went to meet with George Crump and watch the emergence of Pine Valley. It was no surprise when he did such a great job on Whitemarsh Valley (was Mount Airy) at his families estate since he had already had a long education on golf course architecture from watching the work going on around Philadelphia.
Thomas moved to California in 1919 to grow roses, but ended up building nearly 25 courses with partner Billy Bell. Unfortunately much of his legacy has disappeared due to urbanization in California or ill advised alteration by clubs – no architect has lost as much of their history as Thomas.
The 3rd at Riviera, a draw tee shot followed by a fade approach
Praise for the work: George Thomas combines strategy and flair as good as any architect that ever practiced. His landmark course at Riviera is a testament to his skill, not only in creating a spectacular course out of a congested box canyon, but how to create incredibly strategic holes with the use of slope and bunker placement. There is no course that I can name that asks a player to work the ball for position. His greens are largely underestimated since they are not as bold as other architects, but there are so many great examples of complicated pin positions made by swale or by slope that you begin to realize that his greens are not as subtle as you first think.
The bunkering may be the most memorable feature with the wonderful shapes and edges that really have tremendous character. But you can’t talk about those bunkers without talking about the placement; he had a knack for pushing the bunkers into the landings to create angles, opportunities and generate the risk that made his courses so fun to play. You always felt compelled to gamble since he gave you enough room and opportunity, when in reality he was really drawing you in to trouble. Where he really showed all architects a thing or two was at the 10th hole at Riviera. He used deception and an unusual green pitch to make the most interesting, enticing and dangerous hole I know. As Norm said, “I’ve played here all my life and yet I still have a go at that green even though I know the smart play is well left.”
The 10th at Riviera, the best "designed" hole in golf
Criticisms: There is little to criticize in his work other than most of it is gone. For many people the lack of work is enough to suggest that his legacy is largely one built out of nostalgia, but all you have to do is read his book on Golf Course Architecture In America and you know he was one of the greatest of all time.
Great Quotes: “Hazards should be arranged to tempt and challenge, but laid out so all classes of players have optional routes to the hole. Hazards should not unduly penalize from which there is no chance of recovery.”
Favourite Course: RivieraThe first hole is an easily reachable par five, followed by a nasty uphill and difficult par four – Thomas has intentionally designed two four and a halves to open.
The third hole asks for a draw from the tee for position and then a fade into the green for best results. The fourth asks you to hit a draw up into the hill and use the big slope to run the ball down onto the green. The 5th insists upon a fade from the tee to hold the fairway and then a fade from a draw lie to play into the green. Each hole serves a purpose and is part of a larger examination of your abilities as a player.
Riviera rewards a player who can think and work the ball – that in my assessment is the basis for a truly great course
LACC 11th hole Redan, one of the best threes I have played
What I take from him: While there is so many other things to take, from Thomas it is the strategies that he tried so very hard to pass on in his book. I love the way he uses deception on one hole, uses enticement on the next and has the talent to leave you to choose you path on the one that follows. His use of trees, bunkers and slopes to make you work the ball for position is worthy of high praise.
There are few architects who provide so much strategy in their courses with so much freedom to try alternate routes.