Not many major golf championships have also served as an opportunity for fans to broaden their vocabulary, but this year’s U.S. Open at the Los Angeles Country Club may do just that. Across the four days of the tournament, beginning Thursday, expect broadcasters — and perhaps the golfers — to routinely use a word that may be unfamiliar to many in the international viewing audience.
The word is barranca — pronounced “burr-ahng-kuh” — and it describes a narrow, winding, steep-walled gully or river gorge typically found in Southern California landscapes.
The barranca on the L.A. Country Club’s North Course comes into play repeatedly during the 18 holes, especially as protection in and around the greens. Errant golf balls that land inside the barranca may be unplayable and result in a one-stroke penalty. In other instances, expect to see competitors descending into the barranca with hopes of rescuing their golf balls. It may be a successful recovery ploy, or it might just provide a good photo op — a golfer submerged several feet below the fairway thrashing away to try to make par.
The L.A. Country Club barranca, however, is far from a random curio of the course layout. It serves an important, effective drainage role during rainy seasons and adds a natural, craggy aesthetic to the course design, which originated in the 1920s. By the 2010s, however, the barranca, which meanders throughout the property with tributaries extending in multiple directions, had largely been grassed over. A renovation of the grounds, completed in 2017, by the golf architect Gil Hanse, with his design partner, Jim Wagner, and a design consultant, Geoff Shackelford, restored the barranca to its original appearance — and tactical purpose.
It first comes into play on the second hole, a 497-yard par 4 where players will face a long approach shot over the barranca. The golfers will encounter the barranca five other times on the front nine.
At the 520-yard, par-4 17th, Hanse removed several trees so the serpentine barranca would be visible from the tee, reminding players of the danger that lurked. It could test the nerves of the tournament leaders entering the championship’s penultimate hole in Sunday’s final round.
“The barranca just flows throughout,” John Bodenhamer, the chief championships officer of the United States Golf Association, which conducts the U.S. Open, said on Wednesday. “There’s a brilliance to how it is used.”
Bodenhamer added that the barranca had three feet of water running through it when he visited the site in March. The water was still as high as two feet last month. But with a limited amount of rainfall in June, Shackelford said on Wednesday, the barranca was now mostly sandy or dry, a condition that was expected and desired.
“You’ll see players playing out of them — that’s how they were intended,” Bodenhamer said. “You’ll see a lot of heroic shots, a lot of excitement. The barranca is just magnificent.”
And maybe educational, especially to those hoping to add to their vocabulary.