Great Golf Course: Riviera

2008 Joann Dost All Rights Reserved

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.

Hogan, Riviera, 1950.

Hogan, Riviera, 1950 L.A. Open.

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.

Katharine Hepburn, golfer.

Katharine Hepburn, golfer.

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.

Bogey, scratch.

Bogey, scratch.

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.

My home away from home for four days.

My home away from home for four days.

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).

My close personal friend Larry David.

My close personal friend Larry David.

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.”

Amy Alcott, Walter Keller, and Tony Sills (who was also a student of Keller's) and a significant collection of junior-golf trophies.

Amy Alcott, Walter Keller, and Tony Sills (who was also a student of Keller’s) and a significant collection of junior-golf trophies.

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.

Dino.

Dino.

 

The Greatest Golf Movie Ever Made

No, it's not Caddyshack.

I recently watched, for the twentieth or thirtieth time, the greatest golf movie ever made. Not Caddyshack, although I’m a fan. And not Tin Cup, in which Kevin Costner swings like a chicken and tucks his sweater into his pants. And not Follow the Sun, in which Glenn Ford makes you believe that Ernest Borgnine (for example) would have made a better Ben Hogan. And definitely not Bagger Vance, which I’ve seen only scattered fragments of, without sound, while accidentally looking up from the book I was reading on an airplane, but still couldn’t wait for it to be over.

No, the all-time No. 1 golf movie was made in 1942 by Michael Curtiz. It’s set in Morocco, and it stars Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains. Ingrid Bergman is in it, too. It’s called Casablanca. Have you seen it?

Casablanca isn’t only about golf. There’s a long boring part at the beginning in which the Nazis make a lot of trouble, and various people sing various songs in Bogart’s nightclub, and Bogart apparently has some sort of love affair with Bergman—although you never actually see them doing anything except talking to each other with their faces a quarter-inch apart. This boring stretch lasts for about an hour and a half. I usually let my wife watch it by herself, while I make popcorn or take the dogs for a walk.

The golf part comes near the end. Bogart and Bergman and a wimpy-looking foreign guy, who appears to be wearing lipstick, turn up at a foggy airport one night, and for a moment you think that Bergman is going to dump the lipstick guy and marry Bogart. That’s the suspense. Bergman is good-looking, despite the hat, but you can tell that as soon as the wedding is over she’s going to start demanding lifestyle changes, and the first thing to go will be the nightclub. Then she’ll say, “Oh, Rick, do we really need to live in Africa?” Then they’ll have four kids in a hurry, and that will be that.

But Bogart sees the trap a mile away. He makes Bergman think he’s going along with her scheme, but at the last second he tricks her into getting on the plane. “You’re taking the fall,” Bogart says to the lipstick guy. (I’m paraphrasing now.) Then the plane heads down the runway—whew!—and Bogart and Rains escape into the fog, so that they can spend the rest of the Second World War drinking gin and playing golf. I tell you, that movie makes me cry every time.