The Bel-Air Country Club
Once upon a time, in October, 1921 there was an orange grove in Santa Fe Springs that sprung an oil leak that turned into a gusher that produced a golf course 29 miles away that grew to become Bel-Air Country Club.
In the beginning, all the money came from Alphonzo Bell, Sr., for it was he who discovered oil in his 200-acre citrus ranch. Bell then bought all of the chaparral-covered hills between what is now Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, Beverly Glen Boulevard and the Pacific Ocean.
From that vast acreage, he carved out 1,600 choice acres – part of the former Mexican plot known as the Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres (St. Joseph of Fair Winds) – to stake his dream – an upscale residential community with a golf course. Mr. Bell’s wife, Minnewa, formed the name of the new community as the “Bel-Air Estates” by a slightly-altered combination of the family surname and the last word in the title of the former Mexican rancho. Fond of Italy as a result of a family vacation, Mrs. Bell then proceeded to assign Italian-based names to many of the streets in the new residential development.
For his golf course, Mr. Bell initially selected an area near the current intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Sepulveda Blvd., on the western edge of the residential community. His mules and plows were already defining fairways when suddenly Bell changed his mind, ordered stakes be pulled up and moved to the present site in the middle of his new residential community rather than on its western fringe.
In early 1925, he engaged famed golf architect, George C. Thomas, to design the new course for the Bel-Air Estates with the front nine north of Beverly (now Sunset) Blvd. and the back nine to be placed south of the boulevard on 75 acres of property Bell intended to purchase from the Janss Development Co. Mr. Bell had entered into an agreement with Harold and Edwin Janss who had become the owners of the 4,000 acres of the ranch land from Beverly Blvd. to Pico Blvd. which they intended to develop for residential and commercial purposes.
Alas, Mr. Bell’s acquisition of the 75 acres from the Janss Development Co. for his golf course was not to be. The Janss brothers had separately submitted a proposal to the Board of Regents of the University of California to sell 300 acres – adjacent to the 75 acres to be sold to Mr. Bell — for the siting of the new campus of the University to be built in Los Angeles County as the Board of Regents wanted to expand beyond the University’s single campus in Berkeley on the edge of San Francisco Bay. However, concurrent with the proposal from the Janss brothers, Pasadena officials had submitted a proposal of 700 acres, more than double the Janss proposal in Westwood, for the campus to be built in the City of Pasadena.
The initial vote of the University of California Board of Regents in early March 1925 was an 8-8 tie between locating the new campus in Pasadena (on 700 acres) or in Westwood (on 300 acres). In order to break the tie, the Janss Development Co. increased its proposal to the University of California Board of Regents by 25% – to 375 acres – by cancelling the sale of the 75 acres to Mr. Bell for his new golf course.
The University of California Board of Regents then voted 14-2 two weeks later in late March 1925 to accept the enlarged proposal from the Janss Development Co. in order to site the new University of California campus in Westwood rather than Pasadena; the initial buildings of the new UCLA campus in Westwood then opened in 1929. Today, instead of the back nine holes for the Bel-Air Country Club, those 75 acres are the location of the UCLA School of Law; the UCLA Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden; the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs; the UCLA John Anderson Graduate School of Management; the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center; the UCLA Ralph Bunche Social Sciences Building; and the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library.
But, for Mr. Bell and Mr. Thomas in early April 1925, they were stymied. With the 75 acres south of Beverly (now Sunset) Blvd. no longer available for the back nine holes of the new golf course, the challenge of developing an 18-hole golf course seemed impossible to solve.
Fortunately, Mr. Thomas, on a last-gasp springtime hike in April 1925, had the “Eureka!” moment on a hill overlooking a then barren 150-foot wide ravine on other property that Mr. Bell owned north of the boulevard and – most importantly – he had not yet been subdivided for residences. After clearing some brush, Mr. Thomas and a companion hit (with a putter) a golf ball over the ravine. Mr. Thomas immediately decided the chaparral-covered hill could be flattened so that it would serve as the location of the clubhouse and the 10th tee, with the 10th green on the other side of the ravine (later dubbed as the Canyon of the Devil) and the rest of the back nine plotted further west in a canyon that Mr. Thomas persuaded Mr. Bell could be used for the back nine instead of sold as subdivided lots for new homes.
Mr. Bell agreed with Mr. Thomas and soon thereafter decided to incorporate the Bel-Air Country Club, Inc. which was officially recorded by the California Secretary of State on May 8, 1925. The construction of the clubhouse and golf course was completed in late 1926, with a special dedication ceremony on December 15, 1926. The now famous “Swinging Bridge” walkway over the ravine at hole no. 10 quickly became the Club’s architectural landmark. Mr. Bell continued to own (and subsidize) the Bel-Air Country Club until 1940 when he transferred to the members of the club legal title to the property and improvements, an act commemorated today by the bronze plaque in the Grill Room at the lower level of the clubhouse. Mr. Bell died in 1947, at age 72.
(Separately and concurrently in 1926, Mr. Bell also established the Bel-Air Bay Club on his property in Pacific Palisades, but the two entities have never had a sibling relationship. Mr. Bell also sold 290 acres of his property in the Pacific Palisades area to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which then retained Mr. Thomas to design the Riviera Country Club, which opened in 1927, six months after the opening of the Bel-Air Country Club.)
Today, the Bel-Air Country Club, with approximately 540 regular Members and approximately 800 total members, is one of America’s most exclusive and admired clubs. It is an oasis in the urban
spread that is Los Angeles, snuggled within the residential community of Bel-Air. The Bel-Air Country Club has not hosted any PGA Tournaments but has hosted two major USGA Tournaments in its history: the 1976 U.S. Amateur and the 2004 U.S. Senior Amateur.
It is of noteworthy significance that, since 1927, the Bel-Air Country Club has been fortunate to have had in its employ only three golf professionals. For the first nearly eight decades, Bel-Air was served by two outstanding professionals,
Joe Novak and Eddie Merrins. Since 2003, David Podas has served as Director of Golf and Head Professional.