Rancho Park Golf Course once again found itself in the spotlight last week, and this remarkable old track proved it hasn't lost its ability to moonlight. Jack Kiefer won the Ralphs Senior Classic in another pleasant stop on the Senior PGA Tour gravy train. But as the heady days of hosting the senior tournament recede, Rancho will slip back into its comfortable and essentially immutable form: a municipal course, run by the city of Los Angeles, a green respite for the everyman in a land of mall and sprawl.
Playing Cinderella by going from worn-out muni to championship venue for a week is a familiar role for Rancho. For all but one year from 1956 until 1972, the course was home to the L.A. Open, one of the PGA Tour's oldest and most glamorous stops. But hosting the L.A. Open is only a part of Rancho's past, which even the most storied of country clubs would be hard pressed to match. How many golf courses vanquished the King, Arnold Palmer, in his prime? Basked in the sheen of silver-screen luminaries? Played host to golfers who considered a fedora and a derringer part of the dress code? Rancho has been there, done that, and more. Yet the course has remained the property of the golfing have-nots, a beacon of pride for that most downtrodden of sportsman, the public-course golfer. The beauty of Rancho Park is that it has been so much to so many.
Built in the 1920s. Rancho started as a private country club, and it boasted a stellar Hollywood membership through the 1920s and '30s. The 20th Century Fox studio was just across the road, on Pico Boulevard, and many of the movie industry's movers did their shaking at the course. Director Frank Capra, who made the classic It's a Wonderful Life, was a regular, as was Jack Benny. Jackie Coogan, the precocious child actor, used to be taken to the course in his Rolls-Royce. How different were those days? As late as 1929 the club was still using horse-drawn mowers to cut the grass, and when professional golfers visited the course, they often had to use the back entrance. "Everybody at the club used to look down on the pro golfers when they came through," says Harry Sobelman, a retired produce shipper who caddied at Rancho as a teenager in the late '20s. "They were mostly hustlers from Texas and places like that, and the members were often appalled by their manners, or lack thereof."
The club fell on hard times in the late '30s, and during World War II it was used as a military depot. In 1946 the city of Los Angeles ponied up $225,000 to take over the course. Over the next three years Rancho was redesigned and rebuilt into its current layout, a 6,500-yard par-71. It reopened for play on July 4, 1949.
It wasn't long before the place began attracting a crowd that was equal parts Cover Girl and Chinatown. The first head pro at the public Rancho was Charles Lacey, who quickly became known as the pro to the stars. A standout player in Europe in the 1930s, Lacey in the '50s was a rotund figure who loved straight Scotch and had an unmistakable Old World charm. He died at age 59 in 1957, but by then Rancho had established a personality all its own, including a shady element.
Indeed, many of the course's old-timers sprinkle their recollections with tales about wise guys and golf bags full of $100 bills. Ron Weiner, the head pro since 1965, caddied at the course in the '50s, and he tells the story of a couple of Rancho's questionable characters. "These two guys," Weiner says, "they could play a little, and oftentimes for some serious money. They had real steady nerves. But I remember before the rounds, they would be on the putting green in front of the pro shop, and they were real jumpy, always looking around. They were afraid they were gonna get rubbed out right there on the putting green."
But it was more than just matinee idols and post-office poster boys that gave the course its color. The Rancho Golf Club, more commonly known as the Men's Club, was formed in 1950 (the Women's Club followed a few years later), and it soon boasted some of the finest amateur players in the country. In back-to-back years Men's Club members won the USGA's national Public Links tournament, with Ted Richards taking the title in 1953 and Gene Andrews triumphing the following year. The 1951 champ, Dave Stanley, was also a regular in the bustling money games that were common at Rancho, but for the record, he played out of a different course.
"We had one of the finest groups of players you're ever going to find at a golf course, public or private," Andrews says. At the age of 81, Andrews still carries his bag and plays golf two or three times a week, and his eyes are as blue and alive as the ocean that his Pacific Palisades house looks out upon. "Rancho has always been a difficult layout for a public golf course, and because of that it has developed a better quality player."
The Men's Club that dominated Rancho in the early years was truly exceptional, and not just because of the caliber of its golfers. The club was also a social institution for several hundred members. On the second Thursday of every month, they would gather in the clubhouse at Rancho with the stated intention of discussing club business, but in actuality with whooping it up in mind. Entertainment included comedians, singers, belly dancers and magicians, and guest speakers ranged from UCLA basketball coach John Wooden to Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, from Laker star Jerry West to pro golfers such as Charlie Sifford and the late Jerry Barber.
In essence the Men's Club carved out its own little country club. "We moved here to be near Rancho," says Pepper Brenkus, waving her hands at the interior of her home, which sits just a couple of blocks from the golf course. Pepper's late husband. Chuck Brenkus, was Rancho's first men's champion, in 1950, and won the title again in 1958. They got married at St. Timothy's Church, crossed Pico Boulevard and had their wedding reception at Rancho's clubhouse. "We never really thought of it as a public course. It was where we all came to socialize."
As popular as the place was, it was the L.A. Open that really made it a headliner. The Open began in 1926, and for 30 years it bounced around to eight different courses. In 1956 it settled in at Rancho. Hosting the Open was a great honor because of the tournament's rich tradition. From 1945 through '48 the list of champions went like this: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Ben Hogan. And more than that, professional golf tournaments were as rare as miniskirts in the '50s. Says Andrews, "The L.A. Open gave Rancho such star quality."
Lloyd Mangrum did the honors at Rancho's first L.A. Open, at one point going 63 holes without a 5 appearing on his card, and winning easily. It was, however, a blunder of legendary proportions that forever secured Rancho's place in golfing lore. In 1961 Arnold Palmer arrived at the L.A. Open at the height of his powers. The previous season he had won the Masters and then followed that up with a breathtaking come-from-behind victory in the U.S. Open. But Palmer would meet his match on Rancho's 18th hole.
The par-5 18th is a sweeping downhill dogleg left that measures 508 yards. It begins on an elevated tee from which you aim at a large landing area. The fairway bottlenecks toward the green. In the first round Palmer smacked a fine drive and decided to go for the green with a three-wood. He took a mighty cut, but the ball sliced over the 30-foot-high net that separates the 18th fairway from the driving range, and it was lost out-of-bounds. Still determined to reach the green, Palmer tried again, producing another prodigious slice out-of-bounds. With smoke pouring from his ears, Palmer went for the green a third time. He yanked this one dead left, onto Patricia Avenue and, again, out-of-bounds. Palmer's fourth attempt was another duck hook into the street. His fifth ball hit the green, and he two-putted. Eight strokes plus four penalties makes a famous dozen, the highest score Palmer ever recorded on a hole in professional tournament play.
"When he hit the first one O.B., we were like, Oh no!" recalls Brenkus, who was a foot soldier in Arnie's Army that day. "On the second one we were like—gasp—Oh no! By the fourth time it was a deathly silence."
But where there is choke, there is not always ire. Asked afterward how the game's greatest player makes a 12, Palmer replied coolly, "You miss a four-footer for 11." Palmer later graciously returned to the course for the dedication of a monument at the 18th tee commemorating his calamity, and he thrilled the locals with three victories at Rancho, in 1963 and back-to-back in '66 and '67.
For Jack Nicklaus there has been no such happy postscript. Nicklaus made his professional debut at the L.A. Open in 1962, finishing dead last among those who got paid, taking home a mere 33 bucks. Along the way he was critical of Rancho, and Fat Jack's petulance hardly endeared him to Rancho's regulars. Nicklaus played there in the '63 and '67 Opens but never returned to the course after that. Acknowledging that the feeling was mutual. Rancho Park saluted the Golden Bear by naming a dish after him, and it still appears on the clubhouse menu. Below the no-frills Arnie burger on the menu is Nicklaus's ground round, and its three-word description perfectly captures the local feeling toward Nicklaus. It reads Arnie—with cheese.
The L.A. Open continued successfully at Rancho until 1973, when it returned to the ritzy Riviera Country Club, where it remains today. For the city of L.A. and Rancho's patrons, losing the tournament was a mild disappointment, but no more. Says Weiner, "By the time the Open left, Rancho had been clearly established as one of the great public golf courses in the world. It had already grown too popular for its own good."
Over the years, as courses in western Los Angeles were cut up and turned into housing tracts or shopping malls and as the number of golfers boomed, Rancho became overwhelmed. Says Clyde Blake, who retired in July after working for almost 30 years at Rancho, "The golfers back in the old days loved the game and the course, and they said, with such pride, 'This is my track.' It's a real carefree crowd now. They don't love it like the folks did in the old days." While Rancho can never have its glory days back, the course has evolved into something more vital. "Public golf in L.A. has become minority golf," Weiner says, "and you can't underestimate how important it is to have a world-class facility to learn on." With the crush of players, it would be little surprise if the greens fee had skyrocketed through the years, but it admirably continues to hover around $20. And no course has embraced the public golfer like Rancho. Last year 119,237 rounds were played there. The course averages 400 rounds a day during the summer, and there have been times when that number crept closer to 500. If Rancho is not the most heavily played golf course in the world, it must be close to it. Of course, burned-out commuters who take to the links looking for leisure are often horrified to find the fairways as crowded as the freeways. But the bottom line is that Rancho is there to be used.
The golf course is no longer even the biggest draw. Many more golfers come to Rancho for its driving range. Double-decked, shaped like a crescent moon and packed with swings that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Rancho's range is a wonderful melting pot. It also offers a rare and critical service—quality instruction. Muni golfers generally have only obtuse videos and The Little Red Book to shape their golf games, but Rancho employs eight PGA professionals who teach. Together, they give more than 10,000 lessons a year.
Ed Coleman has been helping golfers of all levels at Rancho for the last 29 years. But as one of the last living disciples of legendary teacher Ernest Jones, Coleman favors a no-nonsense approach that makes him ideal for beginners. Says Weiner, "We send Ed the people who have absolutely no chance to play golf, because he will get them to hit the ball. There's no mechanics involved, and because of that his golfers become like Christian Scientists. Their mantra is, It will heal itself." Coleman estimates he has given more than 80,000 lessons over the years.
Al Hasson, on the other hand, tends to deal with the details in a player's game, tinkering with the grip, the setup and the foundation. The 59-year-old Hasson, who has taught golf on an Indian reservation in North Dakota and in a tiny oil town in Montana, has been at Rancho for the last eight years. Hasson sometimes becomes frustrated with his laid-back charges. "I don't know what it is with this town," he says. "People act like they're at the hairdresser or something." But he adds, "Teaching coif is all I know, and this is a pretty special place to do it."
That Rancho Park is a special place was reconfirmed in 1990, when the Senior tour chose it as the site for the inaugural Security Pacific Senior Classic (Ralphs became the sponsor in 1992). Ray Floyd, the 1992 Senior Classic champion and one of many seniors who played in L.A. Opens at Rancho, says, "It is absolutely phenomenal the condition that this course is in. I played here in the '60s, and there is more grass on the 1st hole now than there was on the entire course back then. This place is a wonder."
One man who agrees with Floyd is Ted Small, who at the age of 83 is still on the Rancho Men's Club Board of Directors. Small had surgery on his elbow in June, and after four tedious months on the shelf, he recently dragged himself back to his old haunt for a much-needed round of golf. The elbow held out fine, but on the 13th hole. Small sprained a knee and had to quit playing. His eyes positively sparkle when he talks about Rancho Park. "They brought the senior tournament here for the same reason all of us old graybeards keep coming back," Small says. "Where else are you gonna go?"