Sub-Urban Gem: A Recent Renovation Brought Robert Trent Jones’ Valencia CC Back to His Original Intent
A recent renovation brought Robert Trent Jones’ Valencia CC back to his original intent.
Retro-stylish it remains to this day, but RTJ’s suburban Los Angeles gem has recently undergone a thorough once-over courtesy of its stewards/owners at fast-growing Arcis Golf, who were determined to restore the course’s classic design features and historic significance. Working with Fry/Straka Global Golf Design, the team replaced every square yard of turf (but for the greens) to enhance Jones’ original strategic vision for the layout and reduce water usage at the same time. The newly renovated track reopened in October of 2022.
Originally conceived in 1965 as the centerpiece of a master-planned community, Valencia CC was among Southern California’s most distinguished public courses before being taken private in the mid-1980s. An early photograph of the club could be a frame from a Mad Men episode: a horn-rimmed, cardigan-sweatered Bill Hawley stands astride his gleaming trophy as winner of the first annual Duffers Tournament.
He shot “a torrid 72 on the tough championship course” (according to local paper The Signal) and earned a new set of clubs for his efforts. Awards ceremony dance music was provided by Hart High School music teacher Bob Downs, and no, there were no fuzz-toned electric guitars or suggestive songs performed a la Back to the Future.
A TOURNAMENT-LEVEL COURSE
But bigger fish were to be fried at Valencia CC as professional golfers visited the track over the years. PGA Tour fanatics will likely remember the 1998 Nissan Open — née the Los Angeles Open — taking place at the club, when 22-year-old Tiger Woods birdied three out of the final four holes to force a playoff with Billy Mayfair. Believe it or not, Mayfair went on to defeat Woods on the first playoff hole, the last time TW would go down to extra-holes defeat in his PGA career. Lesson learned: Do not get that kid Eldrick motivated!
The tournament’s move from Riviera CC (prepping for the U.S. Senior Open that year) might have been a hard sell: after all, Valencia was 45 minutes from the glamorous big city, with far fewer watering holes and nocturnal diversions. Luckily, Santa Clarita native Duffy Waldorf did some arm-twisting, telling his fellow pros that “the greens are probably going to be the best we play all year.”
The PGA Tour moved on after one year, but Valencia played host to the “Senior Tour” from 2001 to 2009, when marquee names like Chi Chi Rodriguez and Gary Player turned the otherwise sleepy bedroom community into a four-day, cocktail-drenched Woodstock-for-squares.
What began as a lure for prospective homebuyers back in the baby-booming 1960s had blossomed into a legit tournament-level course — no surprise for students of Trent Jones Sr., the progenitor of so-called “heroic architecture” and its emphasis on nerve-wracking risk-reward shots.
As even armchair golf scholars remember, RTJ’s philosophy was to make “every hole a hard par but an easy bogey.” Some critics claimed his championship designs were too hard: when he remodeled Oakland Hills CC (South) for the 1952 U.S. Open, winner Ben Hogan boasted that he “brought that monster to its knees.” To this day the course is nicknamed “The Monster.”
Not that it isn’t still among the region’s tougher tests, but the recent renovation at Valencia CC was definitely meant to make the course more playable for a wider range of players. Scratch golfers playing from the back tees face a hefty, 7,300-yard challenge, with a rating of 76.0 and slope of 140. But there are now nine different routing options from multiple tees, giving juniors and women an opportunity to score while the alpha-males secure future orthopedic woes doing battle from the tips.
RAISING THE GOLF IQ
Architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka worked closely with superintendent Eric Ullrich during the renovation, even visiting Riviera CC and San Francisco GC for inspiration when it came to bunker design and placement. Some were eliminated, others added or repositioned to create new and different angles for tee shots and approaches. Thirty-five acres of turf were replaced by mulch, reducing water usage (and maintenance costs) considerably. Runway tee-boxes were broken up into five distinct units and squared off.
As for the tricky, poa/bent-mixture putting surfaces, Ullrich confesses that “the greens here are not easy — they’re still the original greens and were built when fast greens were rolling about eight or nine. Now, we can get them up to 13 if we want to, but keep them around 11.5 or 12 on a regular basis. “In the winter, they get a little too fast,” he added. “And the greens are so small, the hole locations go down to nil.”
In further efforts to maintain Jones’ original intent, numerous trees were taken out to “open everything up” — a theme that the renovation team maintained throughout the project. As for the turf itself, it used to be planted on common Bermuda fairways and overseeded roughs, but now consists of a hybrid Bermuda with higher density and better texture. Bunkers that members were easily clearing with the aid of modern-day balls and clubs were relocated. “You used to be able to just grip it and rip it out here,” Ullrich said. “You didn’t have to think — the golf I.Q. didn’t have to be there. That’s all changed.”
The craze for all things 1950s may have died down a bit, but the classic, mid-century bones remain the same at Valencia CC, which many local players compare favorably to Riviera CC, which is pretty rarefied company. Take it from two-time major champion Fuzzy Zoeller: “Honest to God, from tee to green this course is great.”