In 1947 and 1948, Ben Hogan competed in two Los Angeles Opens and a U.S. Open at Riviera (where the Northern Trust Open is currently being played). He finished first, first, and first. He would have won again, at the 1950 L.A. Open, his first tournament following his car accident, if Sam Snead hadn’t closed with consecutive birdies to tie him in regulation, then prevailed eight days later in an anticlimactic rain-delayed playoff. No wonder they still speak of Hogan’s game in the present tense at Riviera. His portrait hangs in the clubhouse over a fireplace that is always lighted, like an eternal flame.
Riviera opened in 1926, in a flood-carved canyon in what was then sparsely populated farmland west of Los Angeles. It cost almost a quarter of a million dollars to build, and for a time it was the second-most expensive golf course on earth (after Yale). W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks, Olivia De Havilland, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Howard Hughes all played there regularly. Will Rogers, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy competed every weekend on the polo grounds, which are the source of the kikuyu grass on the golf course. Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo, whose house overlooked the thirteenth fairway, were often seen trotting along a bridle path that encircled the course. Television didn’t exist, and martinis and cigarettes weren’t bad for you yet, and golf at Riviera was a party.
The Los Angeles Open was a very big deal in those years—more of a major, in many ways, than some of the majors. Humphrey Bogart, who in his prime was close to scratch, used to sit under a tree near the twelfth green and sip bourbon while Hogan, Mangrum, Snead, and Nelson played by.
I played quite a few rounds at Riviera in 1995, on assignment for Golf Digest. The P.G.A. Championship was going to be held at Riviera that year, and I was working on a preview article. I arrived in L.A. one afternoon, checked into my hotel, and, because it was too early to eat dinner, decided to make sure I could find the course. A guard waved me through the gate, A tournament official let me through the fence and told me I should meet the club’s greens chairman, who had just finished playing and was having a beer with friends. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he asked, “Where are your clubs?” I ran back to my car. We teed off maybe five minutes later, and got in twelve or thirteen holes before it was too dark to see. When we’d finished, my new best friend asked me where I was staying, and when I gave him the name of my hotel he said, “You ought to be staying here.” So I moved into a lovely bedroom in the clubhouse, overlooking the eighteenth green. I woke up the next morning to the sound of members rolling putts on the practice green, and after a quick shower I ran downstairs and joined them.
Over the next few days, I played with two lawyers, who met in court while representing opposite ends of a personal-injury lawsuit; a guy whose company publishes hotel room-service menus; a guy who had recently retired from the garment business; the actor who played Frank Fontana on “Murphy Brown”; the father of Robby Krieger, who played guitar for the Doors; and Larry David, the co-creator of “Seinfeld” (and later the star of his own show).
I also met Walter Keller, who was Amy Alcott’s teacher. He said that he first met Alcott on the practice tee at Riviera when she was a young girl. “I fell in love with the kid right there,” he told me. “She hit a beautiful shot, and I said, ‘Hit another.’ She did. ‘Hit another.’ She did. I turned to her mother and said, ‘You are a blessed woman.'” Keller arranged for Alcott to become a member of the club. She had a difficult relationship with her father, he said, but club members looked out for her. “She had twenty fathers here,” he said. “Dean Martin would see her on the driving range, swing by in his cart, and say, ‘Hey, Amy, let’s play nine holes.”
Alcott won the first of her twenty-nine LPGA Tour events in 1975, when she was nineteen. Keller died in 2003, at the age of ninety-five.