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Ojai Valley Rhapsody

Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa © 2008 Ojai Valley

Photo: Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa 2008

All was well until the forties, when history intervened. The military took over the facility and used it as a training camp, and at some point Libbey sold out. But it re-emerged in fine style after the Second World War, rechristened as the Ojai Valley Inn, a semiprivate resort with accommodations added to the Wallace Neff–designed clubhouse. The nines had been reversed and several holes had been lost, but otherwise the course was still very much the handiwork of Thomas in his prime.

For half a century the Ojai Valley Inn served grandly, expanding to eventually have some two hundred rooms. Jay Morrish was hired to spruce up the course in 1986 and again in 1999, when he reinstated the two holes (sixteen and seventeen) that were lost during the war. Then, several years ago, nearly $100 million was poured by a new ownership into a massive renovation of the sprawling 220-acre property. One hundred rooms were demolished to make way for bigger ones, another hundred were redecorated, and even more were added. In the end, 308 accommodations were realized and a 33,000-square-foot spa was introduced. The property was once more redubbed, this time as the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

Thus, Meredith and I had high expectations as we teed it up on the immaculate course, still a short—it's a tick under 6,300 yards—but devilish track. The first hole is classic Thomas. It's a ninety-degree dogleg right that requires either a layup or a bold blind tee shot over a fairway bunker to set up a short iron to the green. About two hundred yards out, the fairway, following the contours of the roller-coastering property, dips steeply downhill, at which point you're vouchsafed a scenic view of the first green: a small target with a single bunker guarding the left side. You can't help but stare transfixed at this green for a moment, admiring its beauty, before you hit your approach shot. There's something simply old school about this majestic little hole that almost brings tears to your eyes. Working without the benefit of bulldozers, Thomas imaginatively relied on the natural flow of the terrain. Today's humongous greens, with their emphasis on multiple pin placements, seem prosaic compared to the greens that were built in the first half of the twentieth century. Whether they were designed in that postage-stamp fashion for maintenance reasons or not, they definitely bring a well-rounded short game into the forefront, whereas the greens on most modern courses seem to place an emphasis more on monster lag putting ability.

The second and third holes are two of my favorites. Number two is another short par four with a canted fairway and a small green that is protected in front by a deep, cavernous barranca. Number three, at 115 yards, is no more than a full gap wedge to another minuscule green. Other than the grand resort building, which sits on a knoll and divides the two nines, there's no real estate bounding—and marring—the course. It is pure nature: Gnarled, twisted old oaks cast wraithlike shadows over the grounds in the late afternoon. Meredith, who just recently took up the game, particularly appreciated the challenge but also the playability and the natural beauty of the course. But better players will find that what Ojai gives up in length it more than makes up for with its deceptive and often treacherous short holes.

The pristinely manicured greens at Ojai are all bent/poa annua with a lot of subtle breaks and, when double-cut, provide one of its main defenses, as do the many mature overhanging trees. The course is tough enough to have hosted seven Champions Tour events, a toughness well evident on the seventh, a superb dogleg-right par four with another small raised green that sits imperially above the fairway, as many of the greens do on this front side. The nine concludes with a reachable par five set against the backdrop of the Spanish colonial–style inn.

The back nine is a stark contrast to the front, and it is where Morrish's handiwork is probably the most evident. Unlike the front side, with its drivable par-four fourth and its two pitching-wedge par threes, the back features three par threes, all in excess of two hundred yards. The greens are larger and sport a little more modern tiering. There are more bunkers, and it's almost four hundred yards longer. Sixteen, the first of the two "new" holes, is a difficult par three flanked by trouble on all sides, as is the following par four, but they both feel to me just a little out of character with the course as a whole. More bunkering studs the fairways and greens, and you feel for a moment like you're on a different track. Still, there's no arguing that these two holes open up the golf course to splendid vistas of the surrounding mountains and that the course as a whole has been made more punishing. There's also no arguing about the beautiful finishing hole (once the sixteenth): a brutish 442-yard dogleg par four that can easily ruin your score and send you hightailing it to a cool, dark room at Jimmy's Pub for a cold ale in which to drown your sorrows.

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