By Geoff Shackelford
Though golf has been played in bucolic Hope Ranch since 1908, it’s taken 111 years for the SCGA Amateur Championship to grace Santa Barbara County. The course players will face this year, on July 9-11, dates to 1925 when George Thomas and William P. “Billy” Bell crafted an 18-hole gem out of an existing nine-holer. More importantly, La Cumbre features everything a championship of the SCGA’s caliber deserves: strategic design, supreme conditioning and a world-class clubhouse designed by the noted architect George Washington Smith.
When the former Hope Ranch Park Golf Club became known as La Cumbre in 1916 and joined the SCGA, outside play was accepted at $0.50 cents a round, $1 on weekends. That sand green version of the course was eventually overhauled by architect Tom Bendelow into a fully grassed layout that lasted until 1925 when Thomas, the amateur architect, rosarian and member of The Los Angeles Country Club, converted the club into an 18-hole masterpiece with the assistance of his talented and trusted sidekick Bell. Their bold re-imagining of the stunning Hope Ranch property incorporated holes around the Laguna Blanca that remain a prominent feature on four back-nine holes.
Yet as with so many other facilities in the region when membership numbers dwindled during World War II, the club was forced to close in 1947. Over a period of eight years, cattle grazed the abandoned fairways, a corral was built near the 15th green and lemon trees were planted. The club was eventually reactivated in 1957 by the land’s owner, H.S. Chase, who leased the property back to the membership for $1,500 a month. William F. Bell, the son of “Billy” who went on to design nearby Sandpiper Golf Club and many other fine Southern California layouts, was hired to reconfigure La Cumbre on a new footprint while retaining several key holes from the Thomas original.
By 1970 the membership had exercised an option to purchase the property for the outrageously low price of $525,000, and since, La Cumbre has thrived as family-centric facility for Santa Barbara elite who enjoy the mild climate, extensive facilities and a golf-focused atmosphere cultivated in the 1970s under pro emeritus Sam Randolph’s watch. Renovations sensitive to George Washington Smith’s quaint Spanish clubhouse have maintained the stylish individuality of the building, while course maintenance upgrades by superintendent Wayne Mills have elevated the oak tree-dotted layout’s reputation among local golfers who insist La Cumbre’s mix of bent and poa annua grass greens are the area’s best. A 1993 renovation by Cary Bickler installed the expanded USGA greens along with new bunkering, which has since been renovated to reflect an evolved Thomas Bell style.
For this year’s amateur, contestants face greens “Stimping” in what sounds like a yip-inducing 12-12.5 feet, faster than even the projected speeds for this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. However, La Cumbre only features a few greens with severe undulations or canting, so the number will not turn out to be as extreme as it sounds.
Mike Sweeney, the SCGA’s Director of Rules and Competitions charged with setting up the course, took a few cues from the USGA’s recent efforts to vary round-to-round setups and brought that progressive approach to La Cumbre’s dense kikuyu fairways, which, when combined with the heavy air and inevitably stubborn July marine layer, will make the 6,496-yard course play much longer than the scorecard says.
“We like to throw variety at the players with the par 3s and par 5s and perhaps consider a drivable par 4 if the situation presents itself,” says Sweeney, who “loves” La Cumbre and says the combination of kikuyu, towering eucalyptus trees and walkability of the layout reminds him of Riviera.
Though tees will be “freshened” between rounds on Friday’s 36-hole day, Sweeney expects to throw the most interesting twists at the 42 and ties who are make it to the weekend.
The par-5 12th features a recently installed “super blue” tee that stretches the hole to 553 yards, and depending on the sea breezes off the Pacific, can play as much as 260 yards over the lake. Players can bail out right, but they turn the already difficult three-shotter into a potential bogey hole because of problems posed by a tight-second shot landing area.
The one candidate for a driveable par-4 appears quietly in the otherwise dramatic back nine. And while the par-4 15th looks simple, it will play a major role in determining the SGCA Champion. Though Sweeney concedes it’ll be a “game time” decision whether to use the hole’s upper tee to entice players to drive the well-bunkered green, La Cumbre regulars know that the massive fronting bunker and steep pitch feeding into the green greatly reward a drive down the hole’s left side. Look for savvy contestants to figure this out and for the 15th to produce a key final nine birdie or bogey to determines who joins the SGCA Amateur’s impressive roster of champions.
Sweeney is most excited about varying La Cumbre’s par-3 yardages, which with one exception, tend to play from fairly similar distances. No hole will make for more interesting spectator viewing than the epic par-3 13th, a leftover from George Thomas’s era.
In a May 1930 article, Thomas told writer and photographer D. Scott Chisholm that the hole was perhaps the “finest he ever made in California,” a bold statement considering the beauty of his one-shotters at Riviera, L.A. North, Ojai and Bel-Air.
Playing just below 6,500 yards from the back tee, the hole blends the best of a Redan par-3 and a Cape hole where players can select how much they want to cut off. Thomas even envisioned an optional short par-4 tee, but that won’t be on Sweeney’s radar for SCGA Amateur week. However, he is likely to shift play one round to an island green constructed by Bickler to the left of Thomas’s hole, throwing yet another unusual twist into the setup mix which figures to ensure players are using just about every club in their bag. And what better compliment to a course that will have everyone hoping it does not take another 110 years to return to Santa Barbara County.
For championship pairings, click here. Live scoring, stories and photos will be available beginning July 9.