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.