Golf tales from old Hollywood
Riviera and LA’s other famous courses have a long connection with the celebrity culture that drives this town
February 13, 2018
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- (Jon Ferrey/Getty Images)
The distance is approximately 13 miles and doesn’t even require you to access any of the local freeways – which is fortunate, given the recent study that Los Angeles drivers spend more than 100 frustrating hours a year stuck in traffic. No other city in the world has worse traffic; Moscow, if you must know, was second.
Of course, you still must navigate one of LA’s most famous streets, Sunset Boulevard. Those 13 miles will take you 45 minutes on a good day; more if you hit rush hour. But that’s the straightest shot from Riviera Country Club – hosting an annual PGA TOUR stop for the 55th time for this week’s Genesis Open -- to Hollywood.
It’s the truest connection between the golf world and celebrity star power.
Riviera – you can simply call it The Riv -- is one of five exclusive golf clubs within roughly a 20-mile radius of each other that have been home to movie stars and entertainment moguls since the Roaring Twenties.
Along Sunset is another famous course, Bel-Air Country Club. Meanwhile, Wilshire Country Club is roughly a five-minute drive from Paramount Studios, where Bing Crosby and Bob Hope filmed their famous “Road To …” movies. Lakseside Golf Club’s imposing neighbor is Warner Brothers. Hillcrest Country Club is basically across the street from Fox Studios.
Los Angeles Country Club was in the vicinity, too, but the members shied away from admitting entertainers in its early days. It was more of an old money/oil money crowd, according to David Pavoni, co-author of the book, “Golf in Hollywood” with Robert Chew. Hollywood stature meant nothing to them.
“There’s a funny story about actor Randolph Scott,” Pavoni says in reference to LACC. “He wanted to be a member there and they said we don’t accept actors and he said, ‘I’m not an actor and I have 50 films to prove it.’”
The other courses were more accommodating. And as with everything in Hollywood, there are plenty of stories.
John Wayne wasn’t much of a golfer, but he would head over to Lakeside after shooting yet western movie on the Warner Brothers lot to play bridge in the men’s grill. Of course, W.C. Fields, the perennially tipsy vaudevillian who lived across Tocula Lake, had different priorities there.
“There’s a great story on him during Prohibition,” said Pavoni, who found a treasure trove of memorabilia when he worked on Lakeside’s 50th anniversary book, including Hope signature golf balls and a scorecard from a round Hope, Crosby and Arnold Palmer played. “(Fields) had his own stash and he’d get in a rowboat and row across the lake and bring it in the back door to Lakeside Country Club and sit at the bar and drink.”American comic actor W.C. Fields, formerly William Claude Dukenfield, in the living room of his Bel Air home. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In addition to celebrities such as James Garner, Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger and James Woods, Bel-Air – which, like Riviera, was designed by George Thomas Jr. -- had some unusual features. Two grassy mounds, since removed, in front of the 12th green earned the hole the nickname of Mae West. And Johnny Weissmuller filmed scenes for one of his Tarzan movies in a hidden cave above the fourth hole.
Pavoni once worked as a writer on one of the Bob Newhart shows. The now-88-year-old comedian, who sold his home at Bel-Air last year for $14.5 million, was an avid golfer and told Pavoni about an interesting group he came upon one day when he was playing as a single.
“He said he got to the tee and it was the strangest twosome he ever saw,” Pavoni recalls. “He couldn’t imagine the conversation. It was Joe Pesci and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
“He said it was funny when he pulled up and got to the tee, Pesci has that kind of chop swing and Barishnykov, everything was graceful. That’s something you’d see at these clubs that you’d see nowhere else.”
Hillcrest Country Club was formed when the other clubs declined to admit Jews. Dinah Shore wanted to join, too, but there was a rule against admitting single women. When she mentioned that in an article in the Los Angeles Times, more than 100 other clubs offered her membership – several men even proposed – and Hillcrest finally relented.
Pavoni says the club was famous for its “Round Table” in the dining room where comedians such as Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle and Danny Kaye held court. And according to a 2003 article in the Los Angeles Times, Hillcrest had an unusual dress code – allowing men to take off their shirts after playing the first hole on a very hot day. But players had to be fully clothed again when they made the turn.
One day, the newspaper reported, Harpo Marx played without his shirt on the front nine and sans pants on the back. Such hijinks of the Golden Years of Hollywood, though, have given way to a social-media driven world where celebrities are much more controlling of their individual brand.
“Those days are gone and I don’t think they’re coming back,” Pavoni says. “Celebrities seem a lot more private now whereas back in the day, Sinatra would drive by and pick Dean Martin up and they’d go out. Is Mark Wahlburg picking up Luke Wilson and going to play golf?
“I think it was before all the paparazzi drama. And then the cell phone, no matter what happens there it is. I think, too, back then people respected privacy.”Dinah Shore eyes her shot during the 1990 Los Angeles Open at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. (Ken Levine/Getty Images)
Among the earliest celebrities to play golf were silent screen stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The couple, who lived in on a sprawling 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills that the media dubbed Pickfair, joined Riviera in the mid-1920s and could frequently be seen playing there.
The two were extremely influential in Hollywood, starting the United Artists studio, and were among the founders of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. In fact, Pickford was so beloved that when she cut her trademark curls, it was front page news in The New York Times.
So, it wasn’t surprising that friends like producer Hal Roach, Charlie Chaplin and actors Lillian Gish and Harold Lloyd (who had a nine-hole course designed by legendary architect Alister Mackenzie at his house) followed Pickford and Fairbanks to Riviera.
According to the Geoff Shackelford book, “The Riviera Country Club: A Definitive History,” Fairbanks even offered prizes to players who broke par in the 1928 Los Angeles Open -- $400 for shooting 67, $300 for 68s, $200 for 69s and $100 for a 70. Insignificant money now, considering the $7.2 million purse on offer at the Genesis Open, Fairbanks’ top incentive would be worth about $5,600 in today’s dollars.
A year later, the Los Angeles Open was played at Riviera for the first time and featured $10,000 in prize money. Fairbanks was so keen on the game, he put up $1,000 of the purse for the tournament that was won for the second straight time by Macdonald Smith.Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks play golf in 1931. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Rivera has also hosted three major championships, most recently the 1995 PGA Championship, and it will be the home of the golf competition at the 2028 Olympics. The late Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, first attended the Los Angeles Open in 1946 and wrote the following about his experience in the forward to Shackleford’s book.I remember how impressed I was. Ted Williams was there. So was every movie luminary, actor, director and producer who was anyone in Hollywood. Bogart used to sit under the tree at the entrance to the 12th green, wearing a trench coat and holding a thermos filled with God knows what.
That tree, still standing, is known as “Bogart’s Tree.” Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson is reported to have had an adventure at that same hole, hooking his drive and failing to advance his second shot. In frustration, he grabbed some vines in a nearby tree.
“They pulled back,” Nicholson told Golf Digest in 2007. “Lifted me straight up in the air, so I was flying around for a few seconds before I came down. Now I can’t play that 12th at Riviera without somebody saying, ‘The Tarzan Hole.’”
Weissmiller, the real-life Tarzan, could often be seen playing at Riviera. Not surprisingly, the man who won five Olympic gold medals in swimming was one of the biggest hitters of his day. He was known to shoot in the 70s, too.Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan holds hands with 'Cheetah' the chimpanzee in a still from the 1934 film 'Tarzan and His Mate'. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Dean Martin was a Riviera member, and parts of his 1953 movie “The Caddy” with comedic partner Jerry Lewis were filmed at the course. Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Julius Boros had cameos in the movie.
The movie is one of several filmed at Riviera, including “Follow the Sun,” the 1951 biopic starring Glen Ford and Anne Baxter which chronicled Hogan’s recovery from his near-fatal car crash. Riviera is known as Hogan’s Alley after he won three tournaments, including the 1948 U.S. Open, there in a mere 18 months.
“Ruth-Gehrig, Dempsey-Tunney, event Notre Dame-USC, have nothing on Hogan-Riviera,” Murray, a member of the Riv, once wrote.
Parts of the 1952 romantic comedy “Pat and Mike,” starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, were also filmed at Riviera. (World Golf Hall of Famer Babe Didrickson Zaharias, who played in the 1945 and ’46 Los Angeles Opens at Riviera, was also featured in the movie.) Hepburn and Tracy, who had a 26-year relationship, both personal and professional, were also Riviera members, although Tracy was most noted for his talents on the polo field.
Martin was a particularly avid golfer and once shot even par on the back nine at Riviera. In the 1960s, the singer even had his own brand of golf balls called “Dino’s” – Pavoni says he found one on eBay about 20 years ago.
“Dean liked playing with really good golfers. He didn’t play with hacks, because it made him better,” Pavoni said. “And one guy was saying that Dean was a guy that everybody liked him -- guys liked him, girls liked him, he was the real deal.
“He was a super nice guy. And he played golf all the time.”Actor Dean Martin playing golf circa 1960. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Golf wasn’t the only sport played at Riviera, though. There was an equestrian center and polo grounds often frequented by stars like Tracy, Walt Disney, Leslie Howard, Gary Cooper, Will Rogers and Daryl Zanuck. The facility hosted the dressage portion of the equestrian and riding part of the modern pentathlon in the 1932 Summer Olympics. Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney learned to ride there as did Elizabeth Taylor in preparation for her star-making role in “National Velvet.”
The mysterious and reclusive Greta Garbo could often be seen walking from her home below the sixth fairway to watch her friends play polo. In the 1960s, though, the polo club gave way to tennis courts that attracted the likes of Tom Cruise and Chevy Chase.
Howard Hughes was a member at Riviera, too, along with five other Los Angeles clubs. One of those was Bel-Air, although his departure from that club was hastened after an incident involving an aerial incident.
“He was late for a golf date with Katherine Hepburn and he landed his plane on the fairway,” Pavoni says. “And when he finished his round, his plane was chained to a tree. … I guess it damaged the fairway a bit so they fined him to get it back.
“He paid the fine and said I’ll never play here again.”
Gregory Peck, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, James Garner and Jim Backus, who played TV’s Mr. Magoo, and later Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr., both of whom lent their names to PGA TOUR events, were also among the members at Riviera. In fact, Hayworth’s membership certificate can be bought for $850 on eBay, but there have been no takers since it was updated in 2014.
Among the many historic rounds played at Riviera was the 85 shot in 1995 by Bill Clinton, who was the first sitting President to ever play at the course. Grammy Award winner Kenny G, who is a club champion at Sherwood Country Club, once shot 67 at Riviera although he told Golf Digest in a 2008 interview that it was from the “middle tees with no rough. I don’t want to ever fool myself that I’m better than I am.”Bill Clinton plays an iron shot in 1995. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)
At one time, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell lived on the cliffs overlooking Riviera, which is generally regarded as one of the best on the West Coast. A future president, Ronald Regan, lived about three blocks away from the course during the 1950s.
Mark Wahlberg, Adam Sandler, New England quarterback Tom Brady (who also became a member at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., last year after a two-year wait) and Larry David are among the current members. Wahlberg, the former boy-band singer who is now one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, got the golf bug reluctantly after his agent talked him into a round at Riviera.
He admits to being frustrated by the game. But Wahlberg, who is playing in the pro-am this week, wanted to get better and he worked hard to whittle his handicap as low as a 5, although he now admits to something in the teens.
The first time he played Riviera as a member, “I hit an errant shot and almost killed Peter Falk,” Walhberg told Executive Golfer Magazine in 2016.
Carson Daly, who hosts NBC’s “The Voice” and is an avid golfer -- last year he and Ken Duke won the team portion of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am – is a bridge from the previous generation of Riviera celebrities to the current ones.
He remembers caddying at Riviera for several celebrities, including Peter Falk, who played the the detective Columbo on TV. Falk, incidentally, was once mistaken for a caddie himself at Riviera. It easy to understand why, given the chronically disheveled character he made famous.
Daly’s stepfather Dick Caruso was a member and worked at the club. Caruso, who died last year, was chairman of the 1985 PGA and 1995 U.S. Senior Open.
“I just remember that Dean Martin was one of the biggest (celebrity members),” says Daly, who was the Riviera junior club champion when he was 15. “My dad had a red parking spot that said Dick Caruso right in the front because he had the golf shop and right behind him was Dean Martin and that was pretty cool seeing that.”
Daly recalls the Riviera Invitational being a huge event. He used to go through his stepfather’s photo albums, looking at the celebrities who played in the tournament.
“It was like Jack Benny was doing all the emceeing and Dean Martin was doing all the entertaining,” Daly says. “So it has a long history of the old world Hollywood and golf coming together.
“It’s still that way, but it’s a little different bit of a culture now. But it’s a special place. I don’t know if they have as much fun as they used to back in the day, but what a great, special place.”
Daly, who was born and raised in nearby Santa Monica, is a member at Riviera now, too. He calls the day he found out he’d gotten into the club “incredible.”
“It was a very special day,” Daly says. “Of course, I got a job on the Today show (in New York) and I ended up relocating back east, but it a membership you can have for the rest of your life. There’s not a lot of them.
“And now whenever I’m back in L.A., which is nearly half the year, I make a point to stay there. I play golf there. We have holidays there with the family.
“It’s still home.”Carson Daly won the team portion of the 2017 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)