A winding five-mile stretch along iconic Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles leads from one historic golf club to another for the 312 competitors who will tee it up in the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship this August.
And the fact that Bel-Air Country Club and The Riviera Country Club will serve as stroke-play co-hosts for the United States Golf Association’s oldest and most prestigious amateur championship is enough to get the adrenaline flowing every time the UCLA men’s golf team practices during the season.
That’s because every UCLA golfer who qualifies for the 2017 U.S. Amateur will have a wealth of course knowledge and strategic advantages over his fellow competitors.
“We play Bel-Air two to three times a week, and we probably play Riviera a couple times a month,” said Derek Freeman, in his 10th season as the Bruins golf coach. “So we know the courses extremely well. . . .I think any of our guys on our team will have a great opportunity (to advance) if they qualify. That knowledge would definitely be an advantage.”
That will be especially true at Bel-Air, which has been the primary home course for UCLA golf teams for more than 50 years, not surprising considering that longtime Bel-Air head professional Eddie (“Little Pro”) Merrins also was UCLA’s golf coach from 1975-88.
Designed by the renowned George C. Thomas and William P. Bell and opened in 1927, Bel-Air Country Club is a 6,729-yard, par-70 layout with world-class routing that expertly weaves through four different canyons. There are tunnels to navigate and a distinctive white swinging bridge leading from the tee box on the par-3 10th hole that traverses a huge ravine on the way to the green. Fittingly, the elevated tee on the par-5 first hole features distant views of UCLA campus buildings across Sunset Boulevard.
The course previously was the site of two other USGA championships – the 1976 U.S. Amateur and the 2004 U.S. Senior Amateur — and has been the scene of colorful history through the years. Katherine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, Conrad Hilton and Ronald Reagan all had homes on the course and, according to published reports, Howard Hughes once landed his private plane on a fairway to impress Hepburn, who was taking a lesson from one of the pros. The next day, Hughes was no longer a member.
“It’s a very interesting place, because you really have to know the golf course well to score well,” Freeman said. “It’s not to say you can’t go there and play well if you’ve only played it one or two times, but it’s got so many nuances because it’s tucked up in the canyons. The poa annua greens are very difficult, too – and that’s the defense of a course that’s not overly long with today’s technology and the way these young guys play.
“The key to the course is you have to drive it in the fairway. And if you do that, you have to control your second shot and hit it on the proper part of the green. . . .If you find yourself in difficult situations on the golf course – the wrong part of the green, the wrong part of the fairway and you miss it in the wrong spot – it just becomes a very difficult golf course really quick.”
UCLA junior Tyler Collier, the most experienced player on his team and a two-time U.S. Amateur qualifier, is looking forward to trying to qualify again, especially because of the familiar venues. He says his Bruins teammates are excited about the opportunity, too.
“It’s a topic of discussion that comes up quite a bit just because everybody wants to make it this year; everybody wants to play Bel-Air and Riviera,” Collier said. “I believe everybody on the team will try to qualify; no reason not to.”
Everyone who qualifies will play one round of stroke play at Bel-Air and one round of stroke play at Riviera, and then the top 64 advance to match play at Riviera. Local qualifiers in Southern California will be conducted in July at courses such as Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Mission Viejo Country Club in Orange County and Western Hills Country Club in Chino Hills. Players in the top 50 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking are automatically exempt.
“For anyone on our team who makes it, it’d be a huge advantage, because we get to play Bel-Air a few times a week when we’re home (during the season),” Collier said. “We know the course better than anyone else who’s going to be playing in the championship. We know all the hole locations and all the breaks in the greens, so that would be an advantage for us. Course knowledge off the tee and around the greens is very important at Bel-Air.”
Another advantage for UCLA qualifiers, depending on tee times assigned, is knowing how to play the course under different conditions.
“In my opinion, the draw for the U.S. Amateur is going to be really critical for success,” Freeman said. “When you play Bel-Air in the morning, as opposed to the afternoon, there’s a big difference. In the morning, when it’s cooler, it plays longer and more difficult. In the afternoon it gets much warmer and the ball goes a lot farther, so the course plays much shorter. And so I think there’s an inherent advantage if you get a late tee time at Bel-Air in the afternoon.”
Collier echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“We usually play (practice rounds) at Bel-Air at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the course plays longer and softer than it does at 1 p.m.” he said. “So if you play a practice round early (in the U.S. Amateur) and then get a late tee time, you’re going to be playing two completely different golf courses.”
The course record at Bel-Air is 61 by USC’s Tom Glissmeyer during a 2008 team qualifying event. Former Lakers star Jerry West still holds the back-nine record of 28 while shooting a round of 63 in 1970. Collier, whose career-low at Bel-Air is 64, says the toughest holes on the course are the 200-yard par-3 10th, which can play as much as 30 more yards uphill; the 442-yard No. 2 and 438-yard No. 4, both par-4s; the 228-yard, par-3 13th and the long and narrow 584-yard, par-5 14th.
“And there’s a creek that runs through the middle of the back nine,” Freeman said. “It comes into play on five holes and can cause you problems.”
Of course, Collier and his Bruins teammates – including sophomores Cole Madey and freshman Hidetoshi Yoshihara — know all of the quirks and nuances at Bel-Air. That’s why they are all hoping for another “home game” in August.
“I think all of our guys will have an extra incentive to qualify,” Freeman said. “Tyler (Collier) works very, very hard on his game, and I think he’s got a great chance to make it and take advantage of knowing the course so well. Cole has been getting better and better each week; he’s going to have a great opportunity to make it. And then there’s Hidetoshi; even though he’s a freshman, he’ really starting to play some nice golf and I can see him having an opportunity.”
Yoshihara previously qualified for the 2015 U.S. Amateur while at Woodbridge High in Orange County, where he won the CIF state championship as a senior. Collier qualified twice for the U.S. Amateur – in 2014 at Atlantic Athletic Club, where he shot 76-81 and missed the cut for match play, and in 2015 at Olympic Fields in suburban Chicago, where he shot 73-77 and missed the cut again.
But Collier, a transfer from Oregon State, says those were beneficial learning experiences for him.
“I’d say I learned about myself and my game,” he said. “In those (championships), I wasn’t far off, but I was putting too much pressure on myself and trying to do too much. The first two days (of stroke play), you’re not trying to win the golf tournament; you’re just trying to get in the top 64 (for match play). I understand that now.”
All of the UCLA players also understand they will have a home-course advantage if they qualify for the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship. They would love to make that familiar five-mile drive down Sunset Boulevard in August (Aug. 14-20 to play for the prestigious Havemeyer Trophy which has been won by some of golf’s greatest players such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Bob Jones.
U.S. Amateur tickets are available online at usga.org/usam. Tickets are $20 (single-day grounds) and $75 for a weekly pass. Military personnel and students receive free admission with valid ID.f
Courtesy of GolfWire