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A George C. Thomas Jr. classic you can play in SoCal: Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

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The Riviera Country Club stands as architect George C. Thomas Jr.’s lasting tribute to tournament golf.

Riviera, a historic club dating to 1926 in Pacific Palisades, Calif., has hosted the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, U.S. Senior Open and its annual date with the PGA Tour, the Northern Trust Open. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, Ernie Els, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson have all won at Riviera.

Up the road sits another Thomas Jr. gem at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, only this one better suited for duffers than sweet-swinging pros. It’s not as long as Riviera. Not as celebrated. Not as tough. But to many golfers, it’s still as charming and beautiful as the game gets.

Thomas and William P. Bell designed the Ojai Country Club in 1923 in a lush valley of the Topa Topa Mountains. Its proximity to Hollywood – about 80 miles north of Los Angeles - has drawn celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Will Smith, Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas to play its fairways. Ojai’s tournament history can’t be overlooked, either. Legends Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Ben Crenshaw and others have teed it up at seven Senior PGA Tour events and two EMC2 Golf Skills Challenges at Ojai. Jimmy Demaret and Doug Sanders have been resident pros.

At 6,292 yards from the tips, Ojai’s tournament days expired in the 1990s, but its greatness is best defined by who enjoys it today.

"By far the most challenging, the best maintained and the most fun of any course I have played and I have played lots," wrote Paul4545, a golfer from Van Nuys, Calif., who shared his experience in a review on GolfAdvisor. "The fairways were pure, the greens rolled true and were in incredible shape and the tee boxes were outstanding."

Modern evolution, restoration at Ojai Valley

Ojai’s history tells a unique tale. Architect Jay Morrish renovated and strengthened the course’s challenge in 1988.

A decade later, current Ojai Director of Golf Mark Greenslit used some detective work to uncover the true evolution of the par-70 layout. Tired of errant shots bombarding the clubhouse, which sits next to the former No. 6 green, Greenslit and then-superintendent Sam Williamson began digging through old records. They discovered several holes had disappeared after World War II when the U.S. Army transformed Ojai into a training camp, stationing about 1,000 troops there from 1942-44. After the Navy used the facility from 1944-45, private ownership moved in, but several original holes on the edge of the property were forgotten.

These "lost holes" returned in 1999 after an eight-month renovation, taking the pesky sixth green out of play. The nines have been reversed since then, letting these highlight holes end the round in style. Eleven traps now frame the great view from “new” no. 16, a downhill par 3 that plays 203 yards. The tee shot from the 403-yard 17th hole flies over a cavernous ravine before the fairway bends to the right at a green guarded by sand and some overhanging trees.

During an interview just after those holes opened, Greenslit said that even though the former 5th and 6th holes were good golf holes, the new ones are even better. "Once we figured out it was just like a puzzle, the pieces fell together. It's not like we forced it. This is the way it once was."

Several other holes feature the panoramic scenery of the mountains. This sublime setting, and the comforts of the resort, provides an escape from the hectic LA life.

Guests of the Inn stay in rooms renovated in March 2013 with all the modern comforts. Most of them offer terraces. In others, fireplaces can spark up the romance. The resort’s spa and restaurants are well-regarded.

"Ojai is a unique place," Greenslit said. "Even though it is only 60 minutes from West L.A., it is unique with the mountains. It seems like a different world from anywhere else in Southern California."

Tee times this week at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa range between $59-89 on GolfNow

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