Golf in Los Angeles: Part Royal and Ancient, Part Disney
Justin Fantl Photography
This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
Step back in time to the days of Hope and Crosby, the Rat Pack and leopard-on-a-leash Hollywood, when every pro tournament had a celebrity name and country clubs discriminated by movie studio. The one man to show you around Los Angeles had to be the celebrated columnist Jim Murray, who dated Marilyn Monroe and drank with Frank Sinatra.
Murray used a machine-gun style unmatched with one-liners. From the Indianapolis 500, he wrote: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.” On baseball: “Willie Mays’ glove is where triples go to die.” Of Cassius Clay: “I’d like to borrow his body for about 48 hours. There are three guys I’d like to beat up and four women I’d like to make love to.” Murray won all the awards, including a Pulitzer, which he didn’t think he deserved for “quoting Tommy Lasorda correctly.”
He called golf the cruelest of sports: “It’s a harlot. A trollop. It leads you on. It never lives up to its promises. It’s not a sport, it’s bondage. An obsession. A boulevard of broken dreams. It plays with men. And runs off with the butcher.” He once quoted his wife as saying: “If Jim ever gets to heaven and Ben Hogan isn’t there, he ain’t staying.” (Hogan got there first in 1997, Murray a year later.)
Behind the scenes at Golf Digest, Nick Seitz had taken over as the magazine’s editor, and the January 1973 issue was his first at the helm. Seitz wanted to demonstrate a new direction for golf features and reached out to his friend Jim Murray, who was widely thought to be the nation’s best sports writer, syndicated columnist for the L.A. Times and rarely a contributor to magazines. Nick always required a “news peg” to feature assignments, and with the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open returning to “Hogan’s Alley,” Riviera Country Club, after a 20-year hiatus, the golf world looked nowhere else but to Jim Murray’s L.A. —Jerry Tarde
Golf in and around Los Angeles tends to be—like the rest of the landscape—unreal . . . part Royal & Ancient, part Disneyland. The Good Ship Lollipop with 4-irons. You expect a director to come walking out of the woods on 18 in puttees and with his cap on backward yelling, “Cut!”
The stuffy types at Blind Brook or Old Elm or The Country Club would never understand. There’s a gaudy impermanence to Golf Hollywood that would shake the walrus mustaches right off the portraits in those staid old clubs. Remember, we’re talking about an area where a chain-saw manufacturer bought the London Bridge and had it shipped over to provide a crossing over desert sand. They bought the Queen Mary and turned it into a chop house. They could buy St. Andrews and stick it up at La Quinta.
You get a running start toward understanding palm-tree waterpipe golf if you listen to that old joke about the sport in Los Angeles. Seems a man named Frank Rosenberg, a Texas oil man, wanted to get into Los Angeles Country Club, the West Coast version of the stodgiest and most exclusive club in the world. It is said eligibility for membership is a Hoover button, a home in Pasadena and proof-positive you never had an actor in the family. Once, when a member proposed Jimmy Roosevelt for membership, they not only blackballed Roosevelt, they kicked out the member.
Rosenberg was rejected out of hand, and the membership committeeman politely suggested he try Hillcrest. Hillcrest is a golf course which was founded by a movie man who was snubbed at a Pasadena course because of his religion. It has fewer gentiles than a kibbutz.
At Riviera, they don’t care what your religion or background is there. But they hope you have money and are willing to risk it.
Rosenberg was stunned to be rejected by L.A.C.C., and he so confided to a friend. “Oh,” suggested the friend, “they probably thought you were Jewish. The club is restricted.”
So Rosenberg applied at Hillcrest. “Fine, we’ll take your application and wait for the first opening,” he was told. “Fine,” said Rosenberg, “but there’s one other thing I want you to know—I’m not Jewish.”
The committeeman looked at him and said softly, “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. We don’t admit gentiles.” “Well, I’m an s.o.b.!” exploded Rosenberg. “If you can prove that,” the committeeman told him, “you can get in Riviera!”
Riviera may be the most beautiful of the L.A. area courses. But it’s a monster. It is the only Southern California golf course ever to host the Open. Hogan won it there in 1948. It’s a demanding 7,100-yard, par-71 track no weekend player should be abroad on. Its rolls list mostly ruthless golfers, not card-players, not social members, but guys who can shoot in the 70s anywhere in the world.
It used to be a hustler’s paradise. The stories are legendary (also libelous) of the dentists, Philippine generals, European counts, care-free movie stars and moguls who got fleeced on its not-so-broad fairways. It was Titanic Thompson country. You could get a bet on the color of the next dog coming up the fairway. It is Dean Martin’s happy hunting ground as this is written, and Dino is usually marauding on its tees and eucalyptus trees in division strength. It looks like Hitler’s armor coming down the back side. Martin usually has three or four foursomes (or fivesomes) of pals, usually including one name pro (Devlin, Floyd, Bayer or Bolt), and the bets flow two or three holes back. Barry Jaeckel, French Open winner and son of a movie star, used to caddie for Dino, who has a reputation for having lost a fortune at the game. If so, he did it some time ago. Dean now is recognized around Riviera as a guy you give strokes to at your peril. All the same, the trading is livelier among those golf cars than it is on the Paris Bourse. I know a lot of people who would like to cut 10 percent of it and retire to the French Riviera after one season.
So, if golf is your bag, get in Riviera. They don’t care what your religion or background is there. But they hope you have money and are willing to risk it. Mac Hunter, the pro there, was once considered a better prospect than Arnold Palmer and may hold the record for a club pro making cuts in the U.S. Open. His dad won the British Amateur, and his son just won the California Amateur at Pebble Beach. If a guy says he’s from Riviera, be sure to say, “We’ll adjust at the turn,” or you may go home in a barrel.
L.A. Country Club, apart from its exclusivity, is noteworthy because it sits athwart what must be the most expensive cluster of real estate in the world. It is almost in the center of Beverly Hills, and its two golf courses have nearly a mile of front footage along Wilshire Boulevard. It is a 2-iron from Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin, Tiffany’s and the most expensive furriers and jewelers and boutiques in the world. The Beverly Hilton Hotel hangs over it. Imagine a golf course on either side of Fifth Avenue from 38th Street to the 80s and extending for 250 acres in all directions, and you have a notion of the Big Rock Candy Mountain that is L.A.C.C. Some countries couldn’t afford to buy it.
You can get into L.A. Country Club for about $25,000, but, since you get a piece of the action, that’s not as steep as it sounds. With 800 members, this computes out at $20 million for the property.
Country clubs are social dinosaurs. Their mores, rules and lifestyles are right out of the 19th century, and they might have become as extinct as the sabre-tooth tiger were it not for the ecological uproar. Now they are popularly regarded, even by the fiercest of environmental militants, as “green belts.” Although refuges for those other dinosaurs, the entrenched millionaires, they are grudgingly tolerated, even by the anarchists.
But most of the clubs in L.A. suddenly canvassed their rolls and found they read like a headstone count in a cemetery. Something like 20 percent of the membership in one country club were owned by estates, part of the last will and testament of J. Rotten Rich, who is long since gone to that Great-Fairway-In-The-Sky. Ghosts don’t buy drinks or alpacas or patronize the Thursday night dance, and the rigor mortis eventually would hit the club, too. Accordingly, the clubs took to offering $5,000 non-equity memberships to qualified applicants UNDER 40, the fee payable in two installments. All three of the high-priced L.A. clubs, Bel-Air ($13,500 plus $85 a month dues), Lakeside ($11,500 plus $75 dues) and L.A. ($100 a month after the initiation) offer the “youth” memberships.
If Riviera is the club for golfers and L.A. the club for oil, orange and railroad barons, Bel-Air attracts the management end of the broadcast and movie media. There are more station managers, network West Coast brass and their satellite advertising agency account executives (with a sprinkling of used-car dealers) at Bel-Air than at any other club in America.
It once was a club for L.A. Country Club rejects. It, too, sits astride some of the world’s richest real estate, and it used to be a sandbox for the movie rich. Bing Crosby once belonged here. Fred MacMurray, Ray Bolger, Andy Williams play here, and the Show-Biz types, the talent, shower downstairs. The upstairs locker room is, fittingly, the executive suite. The talent handlers—directors, agents, press agents, producers, ad men and network veepees shower up here.
Dean Martin was a daily communicant at Bel-Air until a greens committeeman cut up the greens to “improve” the course, a venture that was to prove long and, therefore, costly, because Dino and dozens of others quit in protest at having to play temporary greens. The departure of a Dean Martin from a golf club is comparable to a nearsighted millionaire leaving a crap game in a smoky room.
Lakeside has a charisma all its own. Here, in the salad years, the movie greats gamboled … Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Crosby, Hope, Jack Carson, Dennis Morgan, Gordon MacRae and Johnny Weissmueller drank here. Across the street from Warner Bros., it was a happy hunting ground for Warner’s stars, who were not of the same magnitude as MGM’s in those years but were a whole lot more festive. A requirement at Lakeside was that you be able to hold your booze. This was the club of the hard-drinking Irish, and the gag was, a standard for admission was that you had to be able to kill a fifth in nine holes.
Disc jockeys, press agents, radio announcers (radio!) still dot Lakeside’s membership rolls. The Old Guard is almost all gone. (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen still play, for you trivia buffs.) Only Bob Hope remains and fits in a fast nine holes on the infrequent occasions he is at home. Crosby keeps a locker but hasn’t used it in years. The hard core of Lakeside is made up of guys who made it in the Big Band Era. It’s THE club to belong to if you live in the lace-curtain sections of the Valley. Like Bel-Air, it has a slightly more modern step to it, as reflected in its clubhouse and dining areas. It’s a golf course for the well-heeled suburban types. Unlike the mutton-chop sideburns courses like L.A., it has no trouble making the bar and restaurant pay off but, like them, its club flag is at half-mast too often these days.
Wilshire Country Club is almost in downtown L.A. This makes it accessible to judges, lawyers, business executives, railroad and bank presidents. Color it dull gray.
The city’s most celebrated golfers long were Hope and Crosby. Crosby in his prime was a solid 2, but he has drifted away from the grand old game in favor of bird-shooting and game-fishing. But not before he was hitting a few practice shots off the 10th tee at Bel-Air one afternoon (Bel-Air has no practice range), and a member of the greens committee came out and stuffily ordered Der Bingle to cease and desist. Crosby looked at him with that cold look a friend once described as “Arctic blue,” the look that could stave in the bow of the Titanic. And Crosby gravely packed his clubs, emptied his locker—and has not been seen at Bel-Air since. He occasionally shows up at the more raffish Lakeside (which has a practice range), where the members don’t much care where or for what purpose you hit the ball. W.C. Fields was fond of playing the course sideways with his pal. Oliver Hardy. He liked being in the trees where he could drink without scandalizing the natives.
Mickey Rooney holds the unique distinction of being thrown out of Lakeside. The Mick was a solid 3 in his best days, but he was not only a club-thrower, he threw whole sets. He once played the front nine with a new set and, at the turn, junked it and bought another new one for the back nine.
Playing with Mickey is like playing in the middle of a rehearsal for a Broadway musical. Mickey will sing the score, act the parts.
Playing with Mickey is like playing in the middle of a rehearsal for a Broadway musical. Mickey will sing the score, act the parts. He will do Judy Garland and Professor Labermacher (an old George Jessel routine). He showed up on the first tee one day proudly announcing that Jack Nicklaus, no less, had straightened out his swing. As Mickey moved flawlessly through the first three holes, he purred with praise for the new set of stiff shafts he had purchased. He dispensed tips with a lavish hand for the rest of the foursome. By Hole 5, the swing began to disintegrate. By Hole 9, the Mick was looking darkly at his new set of clubs and beginning to question Nicklaus’ credentials to be teaching golf. By the back side, Mickey was holding the clubs aloft to anyone who would listen and demanding, “I ask you! Just look at these things! Look at the hosel! How can a man play with implements like these!” If you’re a Mickey Rooney fan, you’re rolling behind the trees, helpless with mirth. Mickey’s funnier when he’s not trying to be. But the members got tired of ducking in the showers when Mickey came through looking for a game, and they told him to empty his locker.
At Hillcrest, the game is “Can-You-Top-This?” and I don’t mean a golf ball. There is a table at Hillcrest that is a shrine of Show Business. George Burns, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson used to lunch in a shower of one-liners. Every noon was a Friars Roast. Danny Thomas represents the Catholics at Hillcrest. In the days of the Dusenberg-Bugatti-leopard-on-a-leash Hollywood, more picture deals were set here than at neighboring Twentieth Century Fox, which is just across the street and is gradually giving way to a high-rise subdivision. The opulence of Hillcrest is Hapsburgian. The chandeliered dining room makes the Queen Mary foyer look like a lunch counter. The Marx brothers (save for Groucho, who disapproved of golf courses because there weren’t enough girls) were the best players in the comedians’ flight.
Brentwood, referred to as “Hillcrest East,” plays host to the newer crop of comedians—Joey Bishop, Don Rickles, Don Adams (who also belongs at Riviera) and the generation of stand-up comics who came along in the television-Las Vegas era. Brentwood is not as severe a test of golf as L.A.C.C’s North Course or Hillcrest, but successive renovations have given its clubhouse more and more of a Taj Mahal look.
Brentwood is important historically, because it was to have been the site of the 1962 PGA. The California attorney general threatened legal action because of the PGA’s “Caucasians only” clause, and the PGA in 1961 jerked the tournament to friendlier climes at Aronomink in Philadelphia. But later in ’61 the offending phrase was removed from the by-laws and the way was paved on tour for the Charlie Siffords, Lee Elders and George Johnsons.
Los Angeles probably has more “celebrity” tournaments per square foot than any golfing area in the world. Any golfing actor worth his marquee value would rather be caught without his makeup on camera than without a favorite charity. As Jerry Lewis one complained, “By the time I arrived, all the diseases were taken.” George Jessel once observed that all that was left for the newcomers was gonorrhea. Chuck Connors has a tournament. A Tim Conway, a Bob Stack and even character actors have tournaments of their own. Even the tour fixtures have reached out to embrace celebrities. The venerable L.A. Open was the last to capitulate and become the “Glen Campbell L.A. Open.” The slightly less venerable San Diego Open is now the Andy Williams SDO. The celebrities trade guest appearances at each other’s tournaments, and the star power attracts the Kansas City wheat merchant to pay out a grand to tee it up with some crooner or TV tough guy in the pro-am.
Humphrey Bogart, it may surprise you to know, was very nearly a scratch golfer. Once a journalist drinking buddy of his put this reputation down to side-of-the-mouth braggadocio. Bogy took his pal down to Tamarisk and proceeded to rip off an impeccable 73 after not playing for two months.
It’s a game for all seasons in California. You can play golf 365 days a year. Every private club is awash with entertainment giants and sports greats. You might bump into Jerry West (but not in the rough) at Riviera or a Jim Brown at Western Avenue (a flat muny-type club where the membership is largely black). The Dodgers’ Don Sutton will be at Oakmont in the off-season, as will half the franchise. The Rams are addicts.
It’s not a game uniquely suited to a community famed for its happy endings. John Wayne ducked the game throughout his career, even though his whole stock company, including Grant Withers and Ward Bond and Forrest Tucker, was scattered around Lakeside, where Wayne had a membership. The official reason was that “a golf ball just isn’t Duke’s size.” The screenwriter, James Edward Grant, has a better explanation: “How could a guy who won the West, recaptured Bataan and won the battle of Iwo Jima let himself be defeated by a little hole in the ground?”