The United States Open golf championship is coming to the Los Angeles Country Club for the first time next week. So, here’s a 50-year-old article from Golf Digest by the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray on L.A. golf clubs a half century ago:
By Jim Murray
… 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. …
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.
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. … 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.
When I was a kid, Titanic Thompson, America’s most legendary gambler, used to practice at my local driving range. A famous Titanic hustle was that he trained a dog to jump off a city bridge into a river and swim to the shore. He’d station the dog in the middle of the bridge at rush hour and then buttonhole a prosperous-looking pedestrian: “Hey, buddy, look at that little bitch. I can tell by the glint in her eye that she’s about to jump.”
“What? Are you crazy?
“No, really, I’ll bet you $100 she jumps.”
“Two to one odds.”
Titanic would whistle and the dog would obediently jump into the river.
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.
… 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.
… 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.
… 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.
About a decade and a half ago, Wilshire restored its course to its 1920s brilliance. It’s always going to be a short course at 6500 yards on only 104 acres in L.A.’s ritzy Hancock Park section. But now it’s ideal for a rich Korean guy who wants his daughter to play on the LPGA tour.
… 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.
Lee Elder was Titanic Thompson’s chauffeur. Thompson would roll into an unsuspecting town and start negotiating a bet with two of the local country club’s hotshots. Eventually, he’d proclaim that he and his chauffeur could beat them. He’d look over to Elder, who was polishing the limo, and ask him if he’d like to try his hand at golf. “Why yassah, Mistah Thompson, I’ve always been hankering to play the game of golf, if you please.” And then Elder would shoot a 65.
…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 …
Perhaps the most spectacular golfer at Riviera in 1973 was the NBA Lakers Hall of Famer Jerry West, a +3 handicap at Bel-Air, who frequently played PGA Tour pros at Riviera in matches that attracted heavy betting.
West is immortalized in the NBA’s logo and he was a much better athlete than any of the touring pro golfers.
West could outdrive most pros other than perhaps Jack Nicklaus by 20 yards and could shoot very low scores in the 60s at mighty Riviera. West seriously considered quitting the NBA for the Tour.
But West is a very tightly wound and also highly intelligent individual. He realized that while he might score lower than, say, Lee Trevino (I’m just making up the names of his opponents in private games—to this day all this history is murky) much of the time, a Trevino was infinitely better at holding things together on a bad day than West was. West eventually decided that shooting 68-66-69-82 was no way to make a living.