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Get to Know the Barranca, a Key Feature of LACC’s North Course

By Ron Driscoll and George Waters, USGA

| Jun 11, 2023 | LOS ANGELES, CALIF.

A rugged barranca fronts the green of the demanding par-4 second hole LACC, providing an added strategic element. (John Mummert/USGA)

One word that is likely to come up a lot during the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club is barranca. A barranca is a steep-sided ravine, gully, or gorge of varying width and depth that is a common feature of the landscape in Southern California.

Before widespread development in the region, they were typically dry for much of the year and only carried water during the winter rainy season. Barrancas became key features of many Golden Age courses in and around Los Angeles including The Riviera Country Club, Wilshire Country Club and of course, LACC. Architects were drawn to their twisting and turning nature, their rugged aesthetic, and the chance for daring recovery shots during times when they were dry and (relatively) playable.

The barranca is one of the defining characteristics of the North Course at LACC, and besides serving an important role in drainage, it’s a striking strategic feature of the layout, which was designed by W. Herbert Fowler of England in 1921 and significantly reworked by George C. Thomas Jr. in 1928.

“The barranca predominantly runs through the front nine and provides a significant amount of strategy,” said architect Gil Hanse, who completed a restoration of the North Course along with design partner Jim Wagner and consultant Geoff Shackelford in 2017. “Thomas utilized it and incorporated it in many dramatic ways, fronting some of the greens, paralleling some of the holes, while on other holes you have diagonal carries over it.”

The barranca differs from, for example, the drainage ditches of Oakmont Country Club, a distinctive feature of that nine-time U.S. Open host outside Pittsburgh, Pa.

“First of all, they don’t look like the ditches,” said Darin Bevard, the senior director of championship agronomy for the USGA. “They’re these big, wide-open expanses, relatively speaking. And they are much more of an integral feature of the course, because they’re typically needed to conduct water from Point A to Point B very few times a year.”

From a practical standpoint, barrancas provide very effective drainage. Surface water can be shaped to flow into them, or pipes can be dug and drained into them. This is a significant asset for golf course architects, especially on relatively flat sites like nearby Riviera and Wilshire, and the lower sections of the North Course.

However, it is as a design feature where a barranca really shines. The typical twists and turns allow a clever architect to use the same barranca in many different ways throughout a course. One of the most dramatic examples in the L.A. area is on the 18th hole at Wilshire Country Club, designed by Norman Macbeth in 1920, with its green set into a horseshoe bend of the barranca with steep drops on all sides.


In the 1928 L.A. Open at Wilshire Country Club, Tommy Armour tees off on No. 10 with a fairway barranca on the left side. (USGA Archives)

In addition to the winding pathway of most barrancas, there is also the varying depth that provides architectural interest. The same barranca can be a deep chasm in some areas and a broad sandy expanse around the next turn, allowing an architect to capitalize on dramatically different hazard values from essentially the same feature. Great examples of this natural variety abound on the front 9 at LACC.

In the early days of golf in Los Angeles, barrancas on courses were mostly left to care for themselves. These days, keeping them rugged but playable takes more work than many might think.

“Especially in a year like this with heavy rainfall, it’s important to, No. 1, maintain their integrity, and No. 2, keep them playable,” said Bevard. “You don’t want them to expand in size due to erosion. As far as playing out of them, there are certain areas where, if you hit it in there, you get what you deserve. But in other areas, where you might not have hit that bad a shot, the idea is to let you have an opportunity to recover.”

Therein lies the strategy from a playing perspective. The barranca first comes into play on the North Course on No. 2, a daunting 497-yard par 4 with a green fronted by a sandy, rumpled and relatively shallow section of the barranca. Players who miss the fairway will need to assess whether to lay up or try to carry the ravine. Those who wind up in it might get lucky and have a good chance at recovery – or they might be in deep trouble. Other holes in which the barranca will be an important element include Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 17.

“The most significant impact would be on No. 8,” said Hanse of the 547-yard par 5. “It’s in play down the right-hand side off the tee, it cuts across between the first and second landing areas, and then a tributary of it winds its way up along the left-hand side of the green.”

Hanse and Co. removed several trees along the right side of the 520-yard, par-4 17th hole to open up views of the barranca from the tee: “We hope it’s reclaimed some of its visual prominence throughout the course.”

Some of the barranca at LACC had been maintained as grassy areas before Hanse began his efforts to restore the appearance and playing aspects of Thomas’ design.

“We’ve worked hard through the years to reintroduce native vegetation as well as indigenous trees and plants, such as sycamores and oaks, that would have naturally grown throughout the golf course. It’s a diverse landscape, and a beautiful one,” said Hanse.

Among the native plants reintroduced to the barranca are ceanothus, manzanita, purple sage and coastal sage. Upkeep is still an important part of the equation to keep the areas from becoming overgrown due to water from irrigation overspray and drainage from surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you look at old photos, they’re designed as a natural, sandy area with sparse vegetation,” said Bevard. “You can’t let them get completely overgrown; Chris Wilson [head of golf courses and grounds at LACC] and his team often add sand in areas to cover the vegetation and to maintain the appearance.”

When we see LACC’s barranca in action during the 2023 U.S. Open, there will be no doubt that all the work restoring and maintaining it has been more than worth the effort.

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at George Waters is the senior manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at