They have two types of members: moguls and tycoons, with a few
captains of industry thrown in for diversity. They boast more
stars than Hollywood Boulevard and histories richer than
Godiva's. Membership is as unattainable as the beautiful
baby-sitter you had growing up.
The six grand old golf clubs of West Los Angeles--Bel-Air,
Brentwood, Hillcrest, Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera and
Wilshire--have long been oases for the privileged in a land of
mall and sprawl.
Outsiders are treated like a kikuyu grass infestation. Witness
this call to Wilshire inquiring about a friendly game. "That's
not what we're about," says John Beck, the club's general
manager. "The answer is no. We're a private club, to be used by
members only.... I'm not sure what part of the word no you don't
understand. I think we need to conclude this conversation, and
the only thing I have left to say to you is, 'Have a nice day.'"
The xenophobia is grounded in exclusivity. The clubs do not want
everyday people peering over the hedges at their Elysian
fairways. Riviera is the only one of the Westside Six that has
drawn the public's eye, either through its role as host of the
Nissan (nee L.A.) Open and of last week's PGA Cham pionship or
through its dubious distinction in the mainstream lexicon as the
place where O.J. played most of his golf.
August 20, 1995
Membership in the other five remains much more elusive. All
are equity clubs, with every member owning his (or,
occasionally, her) own little piece, and the waiting list is
longer than Mezzaluna's on a Saturday night. A hundred grand
will get you a locker in any of the clubhouses, but there won't
be anything left over to pay out gambling debts (and there will
be plenty of those).
Bel-Air Country Club has been a haven for Hollywood luminaries
ever since it opened in 1926. Over the years it has been home to
such dashing leading men as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Jimmy
Stewart, Fred Astaire and Spencer Tracy. Even the course itself
has a Hollywood glow. The 12th hole for years was known as Mae
West, because of two huge mounds in front of the green; alas,
the effect was lost after the course underwent cosmetic surgery
in the 1960s. An amazingly lush hillside off the 4th fairway was
a backdrop in an old Tarzan movie. The star of that flick,
Johnny Weissmuller, was a frequent guest at the club and upon
reaching number 4 could rarely resist uncorking a thunderous
Tarzan yell that rang throughout the course. Honest.
Actors weren't the only ones to leave their mark on Bel-Air.
Richard Nixon, a dues-paying member at the time, in 1961 made
his lone ace, on the 3rd hole. Howard Hughes (reputedly a one
handicapper) once landed a single-engine plane on the 8th
fairway because he was running late for a golf date with
Katherine Hepburn, who happened to live off the 14th fairway and
was such an accomplished golfer that she insisted on playing
from the men's tees. The club had Hughes's plane towed away and
presented him with the bill, but he wouldn't pay it and instead
resigned his membership.
Bel-Air is more than just famous names and colorful stories. The
captivating 6,482-yard par-70 layout snakes through so many
canyons and crevices that in order to get around it players must
go through four underground tunnels and take two elevator rides
and a 350-foot stroll across the famous Swinging Bridge. Bel-Air
hosted the 1976 U.S. Amateur, and former U.S. Open champ Ken
Venturi has called its back side the toughest nine holes in Cal
ifornia. The club is home to accomplished players and robust
money games, in which a "Bel-Air dollar" means a C- note or a
cool grand, depending on the company.
Thankfully, the club has none of the stuffiness its famous name
conjures up. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray has gone so
far as to call Bel-Air "the friendliest club in America." The
500-plus membership is still sprinkled with glittering names,
including Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Joe
Pesci, Bob Newhart, James Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry West and
dealmakers Mike Ovitz and Michael Eisner. But the atmosphere is
true to a club motto: "One comes not to be seen, but to join
in." It is the golf clubs, not the egos, that are oversized at
The club's sunny atmosphere has been shepherded by Eddie
Merrins, known far and wide as the L'il Pro, or simply Pro to
Bel-Air's members. Born with a plastic spoon in his mouth in the
backwaters of Mississippi, Merrins scraped for five years on the
PGA Tour before finding his way to Bel-Air and becoming head pro
in 1962. He has a Southern gentleman's charm to go with an
Angelino's mellowness, and in his soft drawl he says,
accurately, "There is a certain romance to Bel-Air you just
can't turn your back on."
Los Angeles Country Club, on the other hand, is renowned for
giving one and all the cold shoulder. Over the years LACC has
blown off everyone from silver-screen stars to the USGA, which
has been propositioning the club for decades to hold the U.S.
Open on its renowned North course, an oppressive 6,895-yard
par-71 with roller-coaster fairways, snarling doglegs and
dastardly approach shots. It carries a staggering slope of 143.
The smell of old money clings to LACC like stale beer on a frat
house carpet. The sprawling clubhouse is understated and
comfortable. No gaudy marble here. L.A. is the only one of the
Westside Six that doesn't have valet parking. Of course, there
is always plenty of room in the parking lot. There are some
1,500 members (900 equity) yet no need for tee times. There is
that little play, even on the user-friendly South course.
Explains one member, "The average age here is deceased."
LACC was born in 1897 as a nine-hole course on the corner of
Pico and Alvarado boulevards. In 1911 the club moved to its
current location--sandwiched between Wilshire and Santa Monica
boulevards--and 10 years later George Thomas, who also designed
Riviera and Bel-Air, finished the North course. Wilshire
Boulevard back then was a dirt road, and LACC was bordered by
nothing but oil rigs and barren cattle country. The city slowly
sprouted around the club, and it is now surrounded by Bel-Air to
the north, Beverly Hills to the east, Century City to the south
and Westwood and Brentwood to the west.
In its early years the club was dominated by business, corporate
and real estate leaders, and Hollywood glamour-pusses were
pariahs. L.A. did everything but plant a NO ACTORS sign on its
front lawn. Bing Crosby bought a house on the course, fully
expecting to gain membership, and soon after was rejected,
packed up his clambake, which had been held at Rancho Santa Fe
C.C. in San Diego, and headed north. Randolph Scott, the matinee
idol who starred in such schlock as Susannah of the Mounties and
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, once approached the club about
membership and was told that there was not room for an actor.
"Haven't you seen any of my movies?" he pleaded, unsuccessfully.
Years later, after marrying into money and forsaking acting for
the oil business, Scott was finally accepted as a member. Today,
still, there are virtually no entertainment industry types in
Traditions die hard at LACC. Women still have to wear skirts or
dresses when they play the golf course. Even if it rains. Some
years ago the female competitors in an amateur tournament were
forced to wear garbage bags over their legs to stay dry.
So imagine what a humdinger it was back in 1971 when Hugh Hefner
bought an estate just behind the 13th green of the North course
and turned it into the Playboy Mansion. Today, there is little
sign of life behind the tall fence. Ah, but in the old days....
"You used to be able to see straight into the backyard," says
Biff Naylor, an LACC member since 1964. "Early tee times Sunday
morning were quite popular, because you could look in on all of
Saturday night's partyers passed out by the pool. And
occasionally there was even a scantily clad lady to be seen."
At Hillcrest Country Club you were more likely to see Milton
Berle wearing a dress. Built in 1920 directly across Pico
Boulevard from the 20th Century Fox studio, the 'Crest was home
to many of the great names of old Hollywood. Berle, George
Burns, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Danny
Kaye, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Harry, Al and Jimmy Ritz and
others would gather to exchange shticks at a nondescript wooden
table in the card room that quickly became known as the Round
Table. In fact Burns, at age 99, still comes to the club nearly
every day for lunch and an occasional game of cards.
A few years back Burns was introduced by a mutual friend to LPGA
standout Amy Alcott, who had recently joined the club. The
gentleman making the introduction went on and on about Alcott's
terrific record in golf and finally wrapped up by saying that
Alcott had won the LPGA's prestigious Dinah Shore Classic three
Burns, who had sat unmoved throughout the long-winded
introduction, took a deep hit on his stogie and finally spoke
up: "Dinah Shore ... I slept with her," he said impishly, then
stood up and walked out of the room.
Despite such levity, Hillcrest's origins are no laughing matter.
The club was founded because of the anti-Semitism of the day at
other L.A. clubs, including LACC and Wilshire. Accordingly,
Hillcrest's founders have made entrance to the club contingent
on demonstrating upstanding character, community service and
benevolence. Infamous Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel was booted
out of the club when his shady ways came to light.
But you don't have to be Jewish to join Hillcrest. Frank Sinatra
got in because they needed a baritone.
Hillcrest's sporty layout was the site of the 1929 PGA
Championship (won by Leo Deigel), making it and Riviera the only
two Southern California venues to host a major. Today, in many
ways golf is secondary at Hillcrest. Like Burns, a sizable
portion of the membership are fossils who use the club primarily
as a social hub. In September, Hillcrest will celebrate its
diamond anniversary with a blowout featuring entertainment by
members Neil Diamond, Sidney Poitier, Neil Simon and comedian
Jan Murray. Mum is the word on whether Ol' Blue Eyes will croon.
Either way, 'Crest president Buddy Pepp says, "This party has
been described as the hottest ticket in this town in the '90s."
Like everything about Hillcrest, it will be exclusive. No guests
will be allowed.
Brentwood Country Club was founded in 1947 because it was too
hard to get into Hillcrest. Brentwood's membership, like
Hillcrest's, is 90% to 95% Jewish.
While the only thing older than the members at 'Crest is their
money, Brentwood is a place for the nouveau riche. In the last
two years the club has undergone a face-lift with an eye on
attracting new, even younger, members. Millions of dollars were
spent on a palatial clubhouse, and the course is being tricked
up to make it more challenging. In El Lay you drive your
personality, and while Hillcrest's parking lot is stocked with
understated sedans, Brentwood's is a shrine to chrome and flashy
rides. "I drive the oldest car in the club, an '83 Cadillac,"
says Brentwood member Ron Weiner. "When I pull in, people look
at me like, What planet did that come from?"
Is there anything different about the predominantly Jewish
clubs? Food, it seems, is the only thing. Both Brentwood and
Hillcrest are renowned for their chow because their members
demand it. "Our members would rather spend money on upgrading
the food than the golf course," says Brentwood V.P. Bennett Wolf
with a wry (rye?) smile. But don't look for gefilte fish on
these menus. Neither club serves kosher grub, though in a
concession Brentwood recently began stocking Hebrew National hot
Just to the south of swank San Vincente Boulevard, Brentwood
Country Club comprises 129 acres of hillocks, berms, rivulets,
arroyos and streams. It is the most playable of the Westside Six
but still stern enough to have been strongly considered for the
1961 PGA Championship (which wound up at Olympia Fields [Ill.]
Country Club). The gorgeous pool and eight tennis courts see
heavy action because Brentwood has made a concerted effort to
become a family club, not just a golf course.
Back when the center of Los Angeles was the center of Los
Angeles, Wilshire Country Club was the place to be. Founded in
1919, Wilshire is a quick jaunt from downtown, and it is where
many of the city's movers did their shaking. But as L.A.'s
manifest destiny sucked the region's economic and cultural core
westward, Wilshire found itself on the outside looking in. It is
the only one of the Big Six with a 213 area code. Hoping to put
cachet back in its name, the club has signed on to host the
Senior tour's Ralph's Classic over the next four years. "It's
important from the standpoint of creating interest in
memberships," says Rick Rielly, Wilshire's head pro. "This
club is in the middle of L.A., and a lot of people don't even
know we're here."
While downtown is sometimes just another word for downtrodden,
Wilshire is a stately presence tucked into Hancock Park, one of
the city's oldest and most distinguished neighborhoods. The golf
course has considerable personality and, many think, the best
greens in town. Its membership is still predominantly
suit-and-tie business types who fill the skyscrapers of
downtown, and weekday afternoons jump when hordes of them play
hooky from the office.
The 9th hole at Wilshire has a blind tee shot, and before the
tee was rebuilt in 1948, golfers aimed at the famous HOLLYWOOD
sign on the hillside overlooking the course. The first time Ben
Hogan played Wilshire, he was told to shoot for the HOLLYWOOD.
"Which letter?" he asked.
With the tee having been altered, the new mark is the El Royale
Hotel, which Mae West was rumored to have owned.
The omnipresent Howard Hughes was a member at Wilshire and had a
pad off the 8th hole. The house is home to the semifamous Jean
Harlow window, so-named because the screen siren once draped
herself out the window and gave Hughes a lusty hello that brings
to mind, well, the old Mae West hole at Bel-Air. Hughes's
legacy is evident in other ways at Wilshire. All of the tee
markers on the course are old oil drill bits he used to amass
In fact, five years ago the club was drilling a water well and
instead struck oil.
Only in L.A.
The golf clubs, not the egos, are oversized.
The only thing older than the members at 'Crest is their money.