The Golf Life: Rebirth of Rolling Hills offers epic L.A. story

The green at No. 5 at Rolling Hills Country Club near Los Angeles (Rolling Hills) Rolling Hills Country Club

The Golf Life: Rebirth of Rolling Hills offers epic L.A. story

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The Golf Life: Rebirth of Rolling Hills offers epic L.A. story

ROLLING HILLS ESTATES, Calif. – When Rolling Hills Country Club reopened to members last month, David McLay Kidd drove around the course, visiting with each group. Clad in a tartan kilt, as is his custom at his course openings, the Scottish-born architect urged players to leave their wedges in their bags and use their hybrids to bump shots along the ground when they were within 100 yards of the green. He showed them how the friendly contours of his enormous greens and surrounds would funnel the ball onto the putting surfaces.

Kidd, in short, had brought the ground game to Los Angeles’ South Bay.

It’s understandable if this was all new to Rolling Hills’ members. The changes to their club, formed in 1965, didn’t entail a restoration or a renovation. Rather, it was a total reinvention. Everything has changed – the course, the practice facility, the clubhouse, even the land on which the club sits.

The redevelopment of Rolling Hills CC has been a decades-long saga. Greg Sullivan, the club’s general manager, said there was talk of it when he arrived at the club 27 years ago. In 2004, he said, plans were in place for an Arnold Palmer redesign of the club, but that project was shelved when the housing market collapsed.

This being California, the entire process was painstaking. Sullivan said the titling process took 13 years. Three cities and seven homeowners associations were involved. The cornerstone of the plan was the acquisition of 200 adjacent acres, including a massive sand and gravel quarry.

Transforming the old quarry into playable golf grounds required moving 6 million cubic yards of dirt – “the equivalent of six Rose Bowls full of dirt,” Sullivan said. It took 18 months just to grade the site, he said. Before any of this work could be done, he added, members had to swallow a $40,000 upfront assessment and accept that the club would be closed two years.

End justifies the work

The end result made it all worthwhile. Rolling Hills CC sits on a lovely bluff with views of downtown Los Angeles and, on clear days, the Hollywood sign 30 miles to the north.

The club used to be crammed onto 95 acres bordering Palos Verdes Drive; now, it sits on 160 acres. (The Chadmar Group is building homes on some of the acquired land.) Kidd’s creation is such a departure from Ted Robinson’s original design that Sullivan said longtime members sometimes would lose their bearings when touring the site during construction.

“If you just come here, you’ll assume it’s always been here,” Sullivan said. “But our older members come here and think, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

With the acquisition of the old quarry, the course now sits entirely on sand, which promotes ground-game options. Kidd accentuated that option by building expansive green complexes – some so receptive they look like velodromes surrounding the putting surfaces –grassed in a new bentgrass called Pure Distinction that promotes ground-game options.

Rolling Hills Country Club near Los Angeles (Rolling Hills)

This aerial view of Rolling Hills offers a terrific perspective as to where among the topography near Long Beach. (Rolling Hills Country Club)

“We were trying to get all of those shapes to help you a little bit,” Kidd said. “For a good player, they don’t care because they’re trying to get close. But for the average player, the friendly contours can be a real lifesaver.”

We’ll soon find out how Rolling Hills holds up against top amateurs. USC will play host to the Pac-12 Men’s Golf Championships at Rolling Hills on April 23-25.

“There’s some trepidation that those kids are going to tear that place apart,” Kidd acknowledged.

But he believes firm greens and tucked pins are the best defense.

“You can’t do it with length. These kids can hit it so far. . .” he said. “It has to be their approach play and the putting game that allows the cream to rise to the top. If it was all about length, I’m not sure there’s any way to stop it.”

Bigger is better at Rolling Hills

Kidd’s main concern was the membership. As a leading proponent of playability, he built sweeping fairways – the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to find in an urban market. You also wouldn’t expect to find a 14-acre practice facility with a range spanning 400 yards – a far cry from Rolling Hills’ old range, on which any shots hit more than 150 yards ended up in the tennis courts. Kidd built nine greens on the range so that it can be converted into a short course.

“We told Kidd, ‘We have the land, we have the money. We want you to build the best practice facility you can do,’ ” Sullivan said.

That includes a rollicking 18-hole putting course called “The Hills,” which can be lighted for nighttime play. Rolling Hills also recruited top young instructor Devan Bonebrake to operate the club’s teaching facility, which is outfitted with TrackMan, V1 Swing Analysis and a SAM PuttLab.

If all of this sounds like something you might find while on a golf vacation, that’s entirely intentional.

“We designed this to be like a private resort instead of your granddad’s country club,” Sullivan said.

That’s reflected in the new 70,000-square-foot clubhouse perched behind the 18th green and practice facility. The clubhouse is light, airy and welcoming, with plenty of indoor/outdoor space, as befits the setting. The 6,000-square-foot fitness facility looks out over the course and the Los Angeles basin. Next to that, an aquatic complex, with family and adult pools and private cabanas, is scheduled to be completed by March.

The club is selling full memberships for $175,000 and social memberships, which don’t include golf, for $25,000, Sullivan said.

The entire project was a long time coming, but the payoff was worth the wait. Gwk

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