The golf verdict on O.J.
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Late Friday afternoon of the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, after Arnold Palmer had played his last hole to miss the cut in his last national open championship, I remember returning from the golf course to the press hotel in Pittsburgh and stopping by the lobby bar to find a gaggle of sportswriters riveted to the television. It should have been Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the New York Knicks versus the Houston Rockets. Instead we were watching live helicopter footage of the LAPD in low-speed pursuit of a 1993 white Ford Bronco being driven by Al Cowlings; in the back seat was his friend O.J. Simpson—the chief suspect in a double murder of his ex-wife and a waiter. Simpson failed to turn himself in to Los Angeles police earlier that afternoon, and the car chase that ensued was seen by 95 million viewers. I sat down next to Dan Jenkins at the bar. “I don’t know if he killed them people,” Dan said, “but I believe he killed somebody.”
The next year was building to the Trial of the Century as the editors of Golf Digest decided there was a golf angle to be pursued, and the obvious man to investigate was a writer who specialized in exotic journalism. Alex Schoumatoff wrote for Vanity Fair for 30 years from “the remotest corners of the world” and described himself as “the farthest-flung of The New Yorker’s far-flung correspondents.” He variously reported on the murder of Dian Fossey (which became the basis for the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”); the Amazon Rainforest; the Ituri pygmies; the source of the AIDS virus in Africa; the American desert; the wasting of Borneo, and his family’s Russian nobility. Shoumatoff’s interest in golf could be traced back to his Harvard days, when he roomed with Doug Kenney, who later would co-write the scripts for “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.” But the golf connection developed when Shoumatoff was covering a grisly trial of treason and cannibalism in Central Africa and playing rounds in his spare time. “To legitimize and capitalize on my addiction,” he said, “I devised a new form of journalism—postgonzo, dada, participant-observer—which I called ‘investigative golf.’ ”
Our features editor, Chris Hodenfield assigned Shoumatoff to use these skills to cover the Simpson trial for Golf Digest. One of O.J.’s alibis, after all, was that he was chipping in his backyard with a 3-wood the night of the homicides. Shoumatoff’s reporting proved to reveal many of the -isms of society—hedonism, egoism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism—but there’s a raw honesty to its depiction of Tinseltown and the attitude toward O.J. at the time. The Hertz commercials of Simpson running through airports and playing golf with Arnold Palmer were in recent memory as the public tried to re-assess an American icon.
This piece appeared in the August 1995 issue; the verdict was announced on Oct. 3 of that year, acquitting Simpson on two counts of murder. (Many readers wrote letters to the editor objecting that the story had nothing to do with golf.) Simpson was later tried in a civil suit, and the jury found him responsible for both deaths on Feb. 4, 1997. Shoumatoff, in 2008, was called “the greatest writer in America” by Donald Trump, and today Simpson is back playing golf, but no longer a member at Riviera. —Jerry Tarde
Golf books and magazines are said to be O.J. Simpson’s favorite reading material in the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. Simpson came late to the game—in 1987, when he was already 40—and was quickly addicted. By the summer of 1994, he had worked his handicap down to a 12.4 and was playing five or six times a week.
On the morning of June 12, 1994, O.J. played his usual foursome at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. Perhaps tellingly, he and one of his buddies got into a violent argument, almost coming to blows right there on the second hole. That night, between 9:45 and 10:30, Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman were savagely murdered outside her Brentwood condo. Less than an hour later, O.J. was on a plane to Chicago, where Hertz had lined up a round with some clients at the Mission Hills Country Club. And what was he doing when the killings occurred? Practicing chips on his lawn with his 3-wood, he told his attorneys.
The golf angle is important in this case. Even though the prosecution has neglected it, the defense made some references to Simpson’s play—suggesting that O.J. was so stooped with arthritis he was “perhaps one of the only few people in the world” with a medical excuse to ride a cart at Pebble Beach. It was an odd-sounding excuse because Pebble Beach is paved with cartpaths.
Golf as an alibi demands further research, and I’m the one to do it because three years ago I invented a form of journalism called “investigative golf.” I discovered it by accident in 1987 on a course in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. I was covering the gruesome trial of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of the country. Bokassa was accused of, among other things, eating his subjects, clubbing schoolchildren to death, and poisoning his 2-day-old grandson. One afternoon I found myself teeing off with the minister of justice, who over 19th-hole beers told me the verdict two weeks before it was reached: Bokassa would be sentenced to death, but the sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment—a major scoop.
New York Daily News
Since then I have found in most countries that golf courses are the sanctums of the elite, and I’d often pair up with influential people who subsequently opened doors I would never have gotten through otherwise.
One of the basic premises of investigative golf is that the game, in the words of Herbert Warren Wind, “discloses the man or woman who plays the game.” As any golfer knows, the game strips you naked. After 18 holes, you can learn a great deal about your partner: his temperament, ego, nerves, guts, mental stamina, ingenuity, honesty, etiquette, empathy—whether he’s the solipsistic type or is sensitive to what is going on with his comrades. As author Rabbi Marc Gellman says: “People who cheat in life may not necessarily cheat in golf, but people who cheat in golf always cheat in life.”
The problems one has in golf tend to be the ones one has in life, and you invariably catch a glimpse of your partner’s demons, because that is who he—and all of us—are really playing against out there: our personal demons. O.J. seemed the perfect subject for this study. His dark side, the side few people know, behavior that may possibly be compatible with first-degree murder, must have exhibited itself out there. It was to test this hypothesis that I flew to Los Angeles.
A carefully ingratiating guy
Unfortunately the Juice was in the joint, so a round of golf with him was not in the offing. It may be years before anybody gets to play with him. I would have to rely on second-hand sources, interviewing—and, better still, playing—with people who had played with him. By chance this select group included one of my golf buddies, Garrard (Gar) Glenn, so nicknamed because he is rarely without a cigar in his mouth.
Gar had once played a round with O.J. in 1988 at the Mountaingate Country Club, an exclusive course spread over a ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains in California, above Bel-Air. O.J. had been playing for only a year, having been introduced to the game by Frank Olson, the CEO of Hertz and an 8-handicapper.
“Early one morning I was standing with a Japanese banker on the 10th tee,” Gar recalled, “when out of the mist stepped O.J. and a doctor friend of his. O.J. was all charm: ‘Hi, fellas. Mind if we play up with you?’ He cut ahead of this goofy old couple behind us, as if it were his seigniorial right. They didn’t bitch because Simpson was right in your face. He was O.J.
C. J. Walker
“As for O.J.’s golf, his swing was an incredibly powerful chopping action. He was all strength, all upper body. You could see the tensile strength of the man. He hit the ball a mile but was all over the place. I remember a lot of pulls. He was very supportive and sweet with the rest of us. He kept saying, ‘Nice shot’ and was empathetic when we screwed up our putts. But my own impression was that he was very carefully ingratiating, and he was good at it. His face at rest, and when he was setting up, had a look of severity, which I can’t say was temperamental or his natural physiognomy, but it was one of the most striking faces I’ve ever seen. O.J.’s face was a sculptor’s dream, like a Toltec mask.”
Two years later, sportswriter Rob Buchanan played a round with the Juice at the Rockland Country Club, in New York, that was very interesting in the light of subsequent developments. His black-and-white leather bag, Buchanan reported in Golf Magazine, was “the size of an oil drum, emblazoned with a Hertz logo and stocked with a set of the latest copper-colored Pings. Stitched across the lower pocket was the cryptic legend, ‘Juice 32.’ ”
On the eighth hole, Simpson hit a solid 5-iron to the left fringe, pin high. Buchanan reported: “’Nice shot,’ I called out from the cart. ‘What did you hit?’ Simpson looked at me oddly. ‘Seven,’ he said. ‘What else?’ He came over and sat down.” As one of their opponents landed well short of the green, Simpson winked and furtively showed five fingers to Buchanan to indicate the club he’d actually used. “It was a fine piece of slyness,” Buchanan wrote.
Divining the divots
As my JFK-LAX flight began its descent, I wondered whether the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide detectives thought to verify O.J.’s alibi by checking the lawn at Rockingham for divots. Theoretically, it should be possible to match a divot to the golfer who took it, maybe not as reliably as DNA, and to even date the divot with a reasonable degree of certainty, as long as it wasn’t too old. Somewhere out there on the Internet there was probably a divotologist who would be only too happy to be an expert witness at the Trial of the Century.
But it was too late now for such hard-core investigative golf evidence-collecting. Almost a year had passed since the murders. The grass would have grown back and been cut repeatedly. Whatever divots there might have been would have disappeared long ago, assuming there were any, which may be a big assumption—at least divots made between 9:45 and 10:30 p.m. on June 12. Still, I mused, it might be interesting to track down the gardener and see what he had to say.
O.J.’s bizarre open letter of June 17, which his friend Robert Kardashian read to the press while O.J. was driving around aimlessly with A.C. Cowlings in the white Bronco, and which was widely interpreted as a suicide note, had a special acknowledgement section for “my golfing buddies, Haas, Alan Austin, Mike, Craig, Bender, Wiler, Sandy, Jay, Donnie, thanks for the fun.”
This was the group he played golf with at Riviera—the guys to whom, according to Rolling Stone magazine, he regularly dropped as much as $10,000 betting on the course and at the gin table—the guys I had to see. “Craig” was the movie producer Craig Baumgarten, with whom O.J. got into the violent argument on the morning of the murders. I wondered if it were going to be hard to get them, how protective they were going to be of their clubmate, how they were coming to terms with the possibility that they had been buddies with a vicious killer.
A clattering of cliques
“We’re a players’ club,” longtime member and teaching pro Walter Keller explained in the dining room of Riviera’s palatial, hacienda-style clubhouse. I’d called him at the golf shop on Westwood Boulevard, and he’d invited me to the club for lunch. “Sixty-five members have handicaps of 5 and under. Riviera,” he went on, “is made up of a group of cliques.” By “cliques,” Keller meant the regular playing groups the members sort themselves into—according to ability and compatibility, the time of day they like to play and the amount of money they are comfortable playing with.
Riviera is the most ethnically diverse and tolerant of the West Side clubs and is proud of it. The membership is peppered with celebrities. They come to play golf, to relax and be themselves on the course with their buddies.
Keller’s most famous pupil is Amy Alcott, but he also gave lessons to O.J. “O.J. can’t get over to his left side because of his bad knee, so I don’t see how he could have leaped over that wall at Bundy,” Keller said. “But he is really powerful. I had him hitting punch shots to cure his wildness. He’s a man’s man. Not only one of the finest specimens Mother Nature ever created, he has a brilliant mind. He had great card sense and could hold his own in any gin game where there wasn’t cheating. He was also a high roller. When you’re making $3 million a year, high stakes is entertainment. You couldn’t care less if you win or lose, you just want a good game. O.J. and his clique were real competitive. They went out there and tried to beat each others’ brains out.”
I asked Keller whether he thought you could get to know a person really well by playing a round of golf with him. He said, “Not always. You have to be part of his clique, where he isn’t on parade. Celebrities are different people in front of a mic than they are with their buddies on a golf course.”
Was there anything about the way he played that suggested he was capable of murder?
“No,” Keller said. “He had his faults, like all of us. We all bust out. We’re human beings. If you had a five-foot putt to win and you blew it, what would you do?”
I went into the locker room and changed a couple of lockers down from the one used by Dennis Hopper, who a member told me is fun to play with. Then I went into the bathroom and slicked down my hair with Wildroot and chose a black comb from a container of blue fluid that was full of them and, while I was making myself presentable, who should come clattering in but Peter Falk, Riviera’s most active actor golfer since Dean Martin, who once remarked that he only played golf on days that end with “y,” and according to Keller would sometimes come to the club with $50,000 in his pocket. Dino was a low-handicapper and had a really sweet swing, which can be seen in “The Caddy,” a 1953 movie he did with Jerry Lewis, whose golf scenes were filmed at Riviera. Martin is still alive, but another member told me he has not come to the club since his son was killed in a plane crash eight years ago. He just stays in his house drinking and watching old westerns.
“Hey, Columbo! How’s about a round of investigative golf?” I almost said. But I had already lined up a game with Bob Stiles, who had played many times with O.J., although he wasn’t part of the O.J. clique. Stiles was a cornerback at UCLA two years before Simpson came to USC. He owns a sushi restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard and spends about half his time at Cabo San Lucas, on the top of the Baja peninsula, where there are some fabulous Jack Nicklaus courses. O.J. and Nicole had a place down there, too. Nicole’s closest friend, Faye Resnick, would tell me at lunch the next week that a developer friend of Stiles’ gave O.J. a $1.3 million lot at Palmilla Resort “for almost nothing, but he wanted O.J. to bring down the heavy hitters.” In Faye’s book there are photos of her, O.J., Nicole and their children, and friends, taken three months before the murders. Everybody is hugging and beaming in bathing suits and looking like they’re having a great time.
Trouble in front of you
Stiles is the sort of person you find at most clubs who takes it upon himself to perform the ambassadorial duties when a stranger comes to town, not because there is anything in it for him, but out of the camaraderie that the game engenders. You might not be a member of the club, but you belong to the tribe. I had called him at the restaurant, and before I even finished introducing myself he said, “Meet me on the putting green at 2.” At the appointed hour a smallish, immediately simpatico man, who turned out to be Michael Tuck of “L.A. Law,” was practicing lags. I asked if he’d seen Stiles, and Tucker joked, “He’s probably lying drunk in a gutter somewhere.”
Stiles turned up, and we met the other guys we were playing with on the first tee. Two of them were not useful, so I see no need to breach their privacy. The third was Tom Kelly, an announcer for Prime Ticket, a cable sports network.
A slight, lithe, sensitive-looking man in his 30s pulled up to the tee after we’d hit our drives. It was Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard had just gotten back from Europe. He complained to Kelly how expensive Paris was, and Kelly kidded him, “You should have booked a title fight there.” It was clear that everybody in my group was in considerable awe of Leonard, which gave an idea of the effect O.J. must have had. To these guys, legendary professional athletes were gods.
“This is a course you don’t get tired of,” Stiles said as we drove to the ball he had smacked 260 yards with a Burner Bubble. “The trouble here is always right in front of you.” The thick Kikuyu grass made sure that the rough, at least, would always be troublesome. Some fellows, it turns out, negotiate the ball out of greenside rough with a fairway wood. So perhaps Simpson’s claim to have been chipping with a 3-wood is at least plausible for a Riviera player.
These guys could play. They were hitting huge, high drives straight out to where they were supposed to be, carrying the bunkers with their approaches, sinking putts for pars and birdies, and acrobatically flipping up their wedges from the edge of the green as if there was nothing to it. This was high-serotonin, macho golf at its finest. The four of them were like a troop of alpha males exultantly prowling their territory. There was a lot of joking, often at the expense of women.
I even heard two new O.J. jokes: (1) What’s O.J.’s latest game? Pin the glove on the honkey. (2) The bad news is, they found O.J.’s blood all over the crime scene. The good news is, his cholesterol count is only 125.
No one volunteered that O.J. was innocent. The feeling at the club, Stiles said, was that he looked pretty damn guilty. “But we’re adults, and we’re less worked up about it than the general public,” he explained. “This is an old boys’ club. The guys here understand these emotions. We’ve all had problems with ex-wives and have contemplated killing them at one time or other, not that we’d ever do it. The chick pissed him off.”
I asked if the members felt scandalized, and Stiles said, “They’re too powerful. See that guy who’s playing with Tucker?” He pointed to the foursome on the next hole. “That’s Steve Bochco, the superstar TV producer, the No. 1 money-maker in the business. He makes $50 million a year. What O.J. did or didn’t do to his ex-wife is of no consequence to him. See that tall guy on the range? He does a nightly synopsis of the trial for one of the networks. But he’s also a Riviera member and a friend. He would never do a miniseries on O.J., or capitalize on his misfortune.”
If O.J. is found not guilty, Stiles continued, “he’ll come back and we’ll play with him like nothing happened.” Later Stiles conjectured that if O.J. did get off, he’d probably move to some other state, like Florida. “There are communities in Florida where old Mafia hit men retire and where he would find understanding.” Stiles said that members playing at other clubs had been submitting scores for O.J. that were being entered on the computer. Simpson’s handicap, still posted in the clubhouse, was now down to an 8. “When he gets out,” Stiles said, “it’ll be zero. Then it’ll be fun to play with him.”
A different sense of humor
Kelly and the other two guys stopped after nine. Stiles and I went on alone. Stiles parred the 10th, widely regarded as one of the great par 4s on the planet, and on the next hole my golf finally kicked in and I fired three straight shots and sank a 12-footer for a birdie like, what’s the problem? Two guys caught up with us at the next tee—Rick, who was in the clothing business, and Val, a record producer. They were physically slighter than Stiles and his buddies, but they could hit it as far. They belonged to a different Los Angeles subculture, showbiz rather than sports, were Jews rather than WASPs, had a different sense of humor and played a different type of game, discussing and dissecting each shot, bringing an analytical, almost Talmudic approach.
Rick was very friendly. Soon he was calling me Al, as if he had known me all his life. “Boy, do I stink,” he said after leaving a putt six feet short. Val was completely absorbed in his game, and he enjoyed telling us all how to play. He chipped from 60 feet to a few inches out of heavy grass, then showed Rick how he had kept the ball on the blade for as long as he could to impart backspin: “The secret is in the left elbow.” A few holes later he counseled me, “Next time you get an uphill pitch, aim for the pin, and you won’t fall short.”
I casually brought up the subject of O.J. Val said he had dated Nicole for a year before she met O.J., and within a week of meeting him, O.J. had set her up in an apartment and given her a Porsche. “Losing Nicole wasn’t a problem, though, because I married a centerfold a few months later. Whatever went down between O.J. and Nicole, he was also kind and gentle. His problem was a Jekyll and Hyde personality, maybe from having been abandoned by his father when he was young. When it came to women, he was as crazy as anybody I knew. And she knew how to pull his chain. Believe me, it wasn’t a one-way street.”
That’s what Stiles had been saying: “He wasn’t jealous of other men who could afford her, but staying in Brentwood and spending his money on muscular young Ken dolls, flaunting it in his face—she found his soft underbelly, his Achilles’ heel, and he couldn’t handle it. Not of course that she deserved to die. That’s why movie stars marry other stars. If one person in the couple is always oohed and aahed, it doesn’t fly. Nicole was second fiddle all the time. In every situation she wanted to be recognized as a celebrity in her own right—and she got her wish.”
I decided to tell Rick and Val that I was writing about O.J. the golfer, trying to learn about his game. Val suggested it would be more interesting to study the way he plowed through defensive lines. I asked Val whether he thought that after 18 holes you know a lot about your partner, and he emphatically nodded yes. “So you should be able to tell from O.J.’s game whether he did it, right?” I pressed.
“Are you talking theoretically or actually?” he asked.
“Actually,” I said.
“Well, he was aggressive and temperamental,” Val said a little nervously, then stopped himself. “Wait. I don’t think I want to be a part of this. I gotta belong to this club.” Rick started spelling out Val’s last name, and Val said with irritation, “That isn’t funny.”
Back in the men’s locker room, a TV nobody was watching was showing the O.J. trial. But an old man was sitting below another set in the card room. “I knew O.J. from when he was a teenager,” he said, “and I was the head coach of the 49ers, and he would crawl under the fence to watch us practice. I scouted him at USC. I think he’s being framed. How could he do that with all he had going for him?”
The air at Bel-Air
The next day, it was golf at Bel-Air with Don Klosterman, former general manager of the Rams and the Colts, who had also scouted O.J. at USC and had played golf with the Juice on many occasions. “O.J. was very competitive, but he laughed a lot, and he was very erratic,” Klosterman said. “He had terrible balance, not what you’d expect from one of the greatest running backs of all time.” Wasn’t his short game good? “That was because he had plenty of time to work on it.” Unlike the Riviera idolators, Klosterman seemed to have written O.J. off. As the head of Bel-Air’s greens committee, he was much more concerned about getting rid of the ugly concrete-lined ditch that ran through the back nine “like a scar on a beautiful woman.”
Peter Read Miller
The sportswriter Jim Murray observes that Riviera is for “ruthless players,” while Bel-Air is “fun.” The course is a balmy bower, almost like a step into the American dream itself, full of beautiful trees from all over the world—jacaranda, kaladendron, 15 species of pine, three kinds of ficus, Deodra cypresses from up the coast, like the ones that are native at Cypress Point. Klosterman pointed out the vine-smothered cave along the fourth fairway where the Tarzan movies were shot. Clark Gable and Richard Nixon got aces on this ambrosial track. Howard Hughes, late for a round with Katherine Hepburn, landed his plane on the eighth fairway, which her house overlooked. He paid the damages to the club’s favorite charity and left Riviera soon after. Hughes played to a 4 and gave up the game after being told that was as good as he was going to get.
At the changeover, Robert Wagner came out of the dining room to say hello to Don. One of the last exemplars of the old, gentlemanly Hollywood, Wagner had caddied at Bel-Air as a boy, and he watched as I teed off the 10th with a screaming slice into the garden of a white Tudor mansion that Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford had just unloaded. Bill Holmes, our caddie, pointed to the dense eucalyptus grove where the Reagans live. “He’s got that old-timers,” said Bill, who had caddied for O.J. one time. O.J. was playing with the grandson of Conrad Hilton, and Bill thought O.J. was “a pretty decent golfer, a 10 or an 11. Of course, he thought he was better than he was, like most golfers. He was sweet and easygoing. If you met him, you wouldn’t think he could do something like that. He wasn’t in his right mind. Nobody in his right mind could have done something like that.”
An anonymous source at Bel-Air told me that back in the early ’70s, when O.J. was playing for the Buffalo Bills, he allegedly beat up a Swedish girlfriend with whom he was cheating on his first wife, Marguerite. Another time, Marguerite had to flee the house and get police protection against him. This source also confirmed O.J.’s voracious appetite for cocaine, as did Faye Resnick, who had a cocaine problem herself and had been persuaded by Nicole to check herself into a drug-rehabilitation clinic a few days before Nicole, her best friend, was murdered.
A lot of people have remarked that the killings have all the earmarks of coke rage, or at least coke-enhanced rage. A woman who had coincidentally also been battered in Brentwood, and whose ex-husband had been represented by Robert Shapiro (“so I feel like this is my story”), told me that the beatings happened whenever her ex-husband took cocaine, and they stopped when he gave it up.
Faye told me in a trendy Beverly Hills eatery that a dealer named Ron X had come forth with the information that he had sold a high-powered amphetamine, “crystal meth,” earlier that evening to O.J. and Kato Kaelin in a McDonald’s parking lot.
It was curious that the coke use hadn’t come out at the trial. Perhaps this was because, as Bill Holmes put it, “everybody connected to the case was doing it a mile a minute.” Coke is even rumored to have been sniffed on the golf course.
Neither side is interested in the drug use coming out, however. The prosecution isn’t, I was told by a journalist covering the trial, because it would raise the possibility of extenuating circumstances and of there being other people with a motive for killing Nicole. The defense doesn’t because it would tarnish the heroic O.J. image.
“Golf was that man’s life,” Faye told me. “He loved that game. That’s what he lived and breathed for—that and Nicole. It got so winning or losing determined how his day went. I remember one night we all went to the Babylon restaurant, and he insisted on treating everybody because, he told us, ‘I just won $7,000 at golf today.’ He and his buddies lived their lives playing golf, making deals mainly on the golf course—it seems that a golf course is one big-deal city, isn’t it?—and chasing women who weren’t necessarily their wives.
“He was the house golfer for Hertz,” Faye went on. “Whenever they had somebody they needed to impress, they had O.J. play with him. I asked him one time if it wasn’t like being a prostitute, and he said, ‘It’s my job.’ And he’d talk ad nauseam about the time he played with Clinton. O.J. jokes about how it was the only time he didn’t cheat. He gave Clinton a Swiss Army watch off his wrist. He was on Swiss Army’s board. He gave me a Swiss Army chronograph, and he gave regular ones to all the Browns. Nicole’s funeral was like a Swiss Army convention. They were all wearing them.”
The bombshell theory
Then Faye dropped a bombshell: The prevailing rumor about what happened to the knife is that A.C. Cowlings, O.J.’s childhood buddy, who always covered for him and did his dirty work, threw it into the ocean. A.C. Cowlings’ one-time girlfriend has said he told her this. But this girl is a prolific porno starlet, so she wouldn’t hold up on the witness stand. “My theory and the one of a lot of people in the know,” Faye confided, “is that the knife wasn’t thrown into the ocean. O.J. put it in his golf bag! The golf bag [or its cover] O.J. went to Chicago with a different bag from the one he came back with. Either that, or a different bag was turned over to the prosecution, because when the driver of the limo that took him to the airport was shown the golf bag in possession of the prosecution, he said it wasn’t the same one. Putting it in the golf bag was very smart because the machines at the airport wouldn’t have picked it up among all the metal clubs.”
I asked Faye where she had heard all this and she said, “It’s in the transcripts.”
I told Faye how several of O.J.’s buddies had described O.J. as a Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde type. “There was Orenthal,” I suggested, “who took his duties as an American icon seriously and was so squeaky clean you could put him on a Wheaties box, and there was James, who snorted coke and beat his wife.” Faye agreed that there was a split, only it was between Orenthal the street kid and the Juice, his creation. “The Juice was the world he created, which was above the law, color and everything else. The Juice did anything he wanted. He even cheated at Scrabble,” she said.
I told Faye something his buddies had said about the Juice’s golf game that she found very telling: He would routinely improve his lie, openly nudge his ball, and none of his buddies would call him on it because he was the Juice, and it was such a thrill to be in his aura. “In his childhood he didn’t get the proper ego structure for a balanced life,” she theorized. “His father was gay and abandoned him. You can see how he would have gone into delusion and created a different personality. A couple of times I saw that animal rage where his jaw muscles tighten and his veins pop out and he becomes this creature of rage. It scared the hell out of me.” This was the look Nicole described to police responding to her 911 call after O.J. kicked in her door on Gretna Green: “When he gets this crazed, I get scared. … He gets a very animalistic look in him. All his veins pop out. His eyes are black, just black, I mean cold, like an animal.” Nicole told the police that when she saw this look, she knew that, sooner or later, O.J. was going to kill her.
Did the Juice—O.J.’s dark, violent side—have a particularly toxic outburst on the golf course that morning? That was the question. If the answer was yes, it was another score for investigative golf. But Bob Stiles had claimed that “O.J. was always a perfect gentleman on the course. I never saw him throw a club, and God knows, I have.” He also said that “everybody argues with Baumgarten.” The guy I really needed to play with was Craig Baumgarten, but Stiles had predicted he wouldn’t be interested.
The approach to Baumgarten was made by a friend. I was described as an “interesting writer” who might want to ask a few questions about O.J. To my astonishment, Baumgarten’s secretary called, inviting me to join her boss for a round at Riviera early Friday morning: “Balls in the air at 6:15.” O.J. and Craig and the rest of the clique—Alan Austin, Bob Hoskins, Mike Melchiorre—liked to play early.
A virile game
I got there first and had the dew-soaked putting green to myself. As the orange ball of the sun rose on the horizon and birds twittered in the eucalypti, Baumgarten showed up—a fit, poised, attractive guy in his 40s. With him was the owner of a talent agency, who sent out smooth, mellow drives with a Heavenwood. For the first nine the two of them engaged in Hollywood shoptalk and gossip. “My wife made a deal with Warner Bros. that’s driving them crazy,” I heard Craig say. I concentrated on getting my game going after starting off with two 7s. After I parred the next three holes, beating him on the last two, he began to treat me with more respect. Baumgarten, who has produced Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, and whose brother pitched for the White Sox, had an incredibly virile, powerful, athletic swing. He put every ounce of himself into it. I asked him if he worked out on machines, and he said four times a week.
On one hole he drove to within 200 yards and nailed a 3-iron right at the flag. It dropped to within three feet. But not every shot was straight, and these he started cursing before they landed. “You putz. … And you call yourself a f------ golfer?”
The talent agent had split after nine, and Craig and I continued, with our caddie Derek carrying both our bags. On 11, Baumgarten pushed his approach way long and followed it with a chip to the apron that was still 40 feet short, then fuming, absolutely consumed with rage, he flung his wedge at his bag. Derek and I exchanged looks. Baumgarten salvaged bogey. I waited a few holes for him to regain his composure before getting down to business. He listened to the movie idea I had said I wanted to lay on him and briskly dismissed it with the observation that “foreign corruption doesn’t sell in Hollywood.”
On 15, Craig and I drove to within 10 yards of each other, but my ball was sitting on a slope. When I got to it, I said to Derek, “Next time you can nudge it to level ground; you don’t even have to ask me,” and Craig said, “I bet you learned that from O.J.”
“There was absolutely no thousand dollars a hole among us,” he assured me on the next fairway, “although some at the club do get into that kind of betting. That’s a bunch of nonsense, like 80 percent of what’s been coming out. The most we ever played for was six-way $50 nassaus, a hundred on the front, a hundred on the back, and a hundred on the 18.
“O.J. had one of the worst golf swings and one of the best hand-eye coordinations I’d ever known. They called us the space needles—right, Derek?—because we needled the s--- out of each other. O.J. was, and is—I don’t want to talk about him in the past on the golf course because I hope I’ll play with him again—one of the funniest people to play with. He was easygoing and had a great sense of humor and had a great time out there.”
“What about your argument?” I asked. Craig’s caddie that morning, Mitch Mesko, went on “A Current Affair” after the murders and said O.J. had disturbed Craig in mid-swing and an argument ensued in which O.J. threatened to deck Baumgarten right then and there. Afterward, Mesko claimed, O.J. was remorseful and told him, “God, I’m a pathetic person,” and Mesko said he told him, “No, you’re a pathetic golfer.”
Craig said the whole thing had been exaggerated by Mesko, “who wanted some quick cash. It’s funny what publicity and money do to people. The problem is that every jerk that ever knew him is getting the same credibility. Suddenly, everybody was O.J.’s friend. If he ever gets out, first he’ll take care of his children, then he’ll get back out on the golf course. Tell him, Derek, you can be truthful: If anybody in our group was likely to murder his wife, it was me—right?
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“O.J. would f--- you if he could,” Craig went on. “He was coming from a game where referees keep you honest, and he got away with what he could. He was a member of a lot of places and was America’s guest host. He was always going on these junkets and inviting us to come with him. Everybody wants to judge him, but I have come to peace with the fact that this is not my job. A jury will sift the evidence, and maybe after a year it will come out with a verdict that all of us, including O.J., will have to live with. My job is to be his friend, and if he is found innocent, he’ll really need friends.”
So maybe there wasn’t a big argument, I began to think. In any case, the episode seems to have been quickly forgotten, because O.J. acknowledges Craig as a golf buddy in his open letter.
Craig, who finished with a 79, had a 10:30 a.m. conference call with Bochco. I waited in the card room for Tom Kelly, who was several groups behind us. Behind him was the rest of the O.J. clique—Austin, Hoskins and Melchiorre. “O.J. was very strong, so when he hit it, he hit it a long way, and he wasn’t a bad putter, but he never came down to single digits,” Kelly told me. “Baseball, basketball and hockey players make good golfers because they have good hand-to-eye. Football players are more speed and brute strength, so most golfers who come from football rely on strength, and having a big drive is no bad thing at Riviera.” (I recalled that Jerry West, the basketball great, holds the record for nine holes at Bel-Air: 28.)
“O.J. was fun to play with,” Kelly continued. “He was a little casual about where he marked the ball or how he kept coming up with these miraculous recoveries, but everybody out there liked him. He was a good gin player, too. I never saw him get in a confrontation, and it’s easy to get into arguments here. I’ve known him since 1965. I did all his games at USC. When you tell me he brutally hacked these two people, that’s not the O.J. I knew. It’s the antithesis.”
Austin, Melchiorre and Hoskins came tramping in, and we got talking about the argument, which they had witnessed. Mitch Mesko had been fired by the club for giving the interview to “A Current Affair.” Austin, who has a clothing store popular with Beverly Hills socialites, said Mesko was probably working at one of the other West Side clubs, like Brentwood. Later, I called Brentwood, and the caddiemaster said he had never heard of him.
“You have to understand that Craig has a terrible temper,” Austin told me. “The worse he plays, the worse it gets, and he takes it out on everyone. O.J. had already said he wasn’t going to play with him anymore. Craig hit a big hook off the second tee. O.J. walked into his field of view when his swing path was already committed. It didn’t affect the shot, but Craig threw down his club and said, ‘Damn it, O.J., you’re always doing that’—which was true. O.J. would start walking or jingle change in his pocket just as you were about to hit a big putt, just at your take-back. Then Craig stomped off toward his ball, and O.J. hit a 200-yard drive—100 yards into the air and 100 yards forward. It barely cleared the barranca. So he was pissed. He hit a good second shot, though, all the way up to a greenside bunker. Meanwhile Craig hit into the bunker, so he was even more pissed. He and O.J. rejoined each other on the fairway and Craig started giving him more crap, and O.J. said, ‘What’s with this guy? Craig, if I hear another word from you I’m going to deck your f------ white ass right here on the golf course.’ He must have said it very believably, because Craig turned white and backed off. Afterward, O.J. went over to his caddie and said, ‘I should have said your white Jewish ass.’ ”
Faye Resnick found this dig “really surprising. It’s so far from his typical behavior to differentiate himself from white men in any way. It was by hanging out with smart Jewish guys that he made himself white. They gave him his identity. I seriously think he thought he was Jewish.”
“I hung with him for 22 years,” Austin reflected. “I was there the day he met Nicole. I never once saw him lose his temper. There were no drugs during the golf years. But the DNA evidence is devastating, and I don’t buy that there was a conspiracy, because many of the cops didn’t even know each other. I keep hoping it’s a dream and I’ll wake up.”
There were tears in his eyes as he said this.