With Walker Cup, Los Angeles Country Club finally lets down its guard
Seclusion would seem unattainable with 300 acres bisected by the busy four-lane Wilshire Boulevard. How can it hope to remain inconspicuous in a conspicuous-consumption zip code, Beverly Hills, 90024, $10 million condos overlooking it, a $200 million house and Hef’s Playboy Mansion adjacent to it, Rodeo Drive down the street from it?
Attention historically has been anathema to the membership of the Los Angeles Country Club, one of the country’s most exclusive clubs featuring one of its greatest courses. It has not even wanted anyone to know it’s there, two nondescript signs, one on either side of its entrance, revealing its address, but not its identity.
Yet is has largely succeeded in keeping the public at bay and scrutiny to a minimum. For more than half a century, Los Angeles C.C., for reasons understandable and maybe less than honorable, has resolutely protected its privacy, resisting any overtures that might expose it to the outside world.
Finally, the public will be allowed to see what’s behind the curtain, the North Course at LACC hosting the biennial Walker Cup matches between a team of U.S. amateurs versus counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland this weekend.
FS1—yes, even television—will be allowed inside to showcase the club’s first tentative step in advance of truly opening the doors to the public when it hosts the U.S. Open in 2023.
This is not the first time LACC will have ventured forth timidly. In 1954, it hosted the U.S. Junior Amateur, a trial run of sorts to its agreement to host the U.S. Amateur in 1956. But the membership had not anticipated a final between two Los Angeles kids, Al Geiberger and Bud Bradley, that attracted more than 3,000 spectators onto its heretofore inaccessible premises.
The club recoiled, “horrified,” the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, “when the public showed up in [ugh!] shorts and no shirts … and, in general, showed little respect for the musty old place, actually looking in the windows and disturbing the members dozing in front of their cribbage games.”
The club promptly withdrew its agreement to host the U.S. Amateur, essentially shutting off the outside world from a course that had hosted five Los Angeles Opens, the last in 1940.
In the wake of its Amateur withdrawal, LACC stubbornly resisted USGA efforts to take the U.S. Open to LACC’s North Course, No. 23 in Golf Digest’s latest ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, and the crown jewel of architect George Thomas’ Los Angeles portfolio that includes Riviera and Bel-Air.
Thomas' North Course design was a complete redesign of architect Herbert Fowler’s uninspired layout from 1920 and eventually stamped it U.S. Open-worthy. He had “injected some strategic unpredictability by establishing ‘courses within the course,’ ” architect Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford wrote in The North Course Commemorative Edition, following their 2010 restoration of the course. “Captain Thomas felt this idea of ‘supreme diversity’ within each hole would add great interest to playing the course and prevent it from ever becoming predictable.”
Copyright USGA/John Mummert
A former USGA president, Sandy Tatum grew up there, his father a member, and was a passionate advocate on behalf of a U.S. Open being played at LA North. In 1982, the club came close to relenting on its opposition to the USGA's courtship, reportedly involving a 1986 U.S. Open bid. It even had the endorsement of the club president, Judge Charles Older (the presiding judge, incidentally, in the Charles Manson murder case). Older, Eddie Merrins, the Little Pro from nearby Bel-Air CC, once said, foresaw the Open as “a big lawn party, with the public invited in, so they could see that the members of the club weren’t so bad after all.”
Ultimately, Judge Older was unable to persuade enough board members to side with him and the Open was rejected by a vote of five to four.
“I find it so regrettable,” Tatum said. “Just once I would have liked to have had the Open experience that course. It was an absolute marvelous test of golf.”
The run-up to a U.S. Open causes disruptions to its course that include limiting play, to which many members paying steep monthly dues understandably have an aversion. Tatum speculated that LACC’s decision to reject the USGA’s offer in 1982 might also have been influenced by an aversion to unwanted scrutiny.
LACC, renowned for excluding entertainers from joining, had no Jewish members until 1977 or so, and no African-Americans for some time after that. Its exclusion of Jews was alluded to in a legendary anecdote about Los Angeles’ private club scene at one time.
It involved a Texas oil man, Frank Rosenberg, who was rejected for membership at LACC. “They probably thought you were Jewish,” a friend said. Rosenberg was advised then to try Hillcrest, a club founded by Jews who were unable to join LACC. So he applied there, but made the mistake of telling the club he wasn’t Jewish.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry. We don’t admit gentiles,” a Hillcrest member said.
“Well I’m an SOB,” a frustrated Rosenberg replied.
“If you can prove that,” he was told, "you can get in Riviera!”
Bradley, a USC stalwart who defeated his future Trojan teammate in the ’54 Junior Amateur, called LACC “the most gentile club in California.”
The club absorbed the criticisms quietly, privacy prevailing over protest, and over time made the necessary amends that erased the tarnish from its history.
And no, as Judge Older hoped to demonstrate three decades ago, the members aren’t so bad after all.
Let the big lawn party begin.
Courtesy of Los Angeles CC