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Celebrity hijinks on the links were a matter of course
The sycamore that guards the 12th green at Riviera Country Club? That's where Humphrey Bogart used to sit with a trench coat and a thermos -- contents undetermined -- to watch players go by.
Some people still refer to the spot as "Bogart's tree," so with the PGA Tour at the Pacific Palisades course for the Nissan Open this week, the pros might hear the story.
But will they know that Errol Flynn once got arrested for trying to seduce a married woman at a party in the clubhouse?
Will they know that Greta Garbo used to walk the course, sneaking out from her house on a ridge overlooking the 13th hole?
Although Los Angeles country clubs still attract a celebrity crowd -- Kevin Costner, Joe Pesci and Samuel L. Jackson are known as avid players -- something has changed with the peculiar and sometimes volatile mix of glitz and golf.
A tradition of Hollywood antics has been subdued by what "Golf in Hollywood" co-author David D. Pavoni calls "the era of political correctness."
Even Jack Nicholson, who used his three-iron to smash a Mercedes-Benz windshield during a 1994 traffic dispute, has a reputation for acting civilly on the course.
The best stories come from the old days.
Howard Hughes landing his airplane on a fairway at Bel-Air Country Club to impress a young Katharine Hepburn. Harpo Marx playing without pants at Hillcrest Country Club. W.C. Fields being, well, W.C. Fields at Lakeside Golf Club.
"Back then, everyone would hang out, drinking and having fun," Pavoni said. "Five deep at the bar. Bogart sitting there. John Wayne playing bridge. Bing Crosby and Johnny Weissmuller."
Each club has its folklore.
It was the mid-1930s and Hughes was courting Hepburn, who lived off the 14th fairway. She was taking a lesson with the club pro when a two-seater plane buzzed low overhead and settled onto the manicured grass.
Hughes emerged with clubs in hand and joined the twosome for the rest of the round.
Club executives were furious. They reprimanded the billionaire, who quit the club the next day and never played Bel-Air again.
No matter. Other stars took his place.
Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy were members.
Over the years, the course itself became famous.
A hidden cave in a rocky outcropping above the fourth hole served as a set for Weissmuller in a Tarzan movie.
The 12th hole was known as "Mae West" because of two grassy mounds that obstructed the green (they were later removed).
According to "Golf in Hollywood," the 13th hole is the "actors' hole" because so many stars -- among them Gable, Astaire and Ray Bolger -- scored holes in one there.
Pavoni and co-author Robert Z. Chew also tell a story about the 13th tee:
Pro Fuzzy Zoeller was playing with Dick Martin of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" fame when Martin pointed to his home on a hillside overlooking the canyon, its front porch about 300 yards away.
"I'll bet I can land it in your armchair," Zoeller said.
Martin took him up and Zoeller smacked a drive across the 14th fairway, up the canyon side and onto the porch.
Martin called it the first-ever "house in one."
"Which story do you want first?" asked Eric Monti, former pro at Hillcrest.
How about the time Harpo Marx tweaked the dress code?
On hot afternoons, players were allowed to take off their shirts after the first hole, but had to cover up as they made the turn to the clubhouse.
"One day, Harpo played all the way to the ninth and put his shirt back on," Monti recalled. "Then he took his pants off."
Golf can be a great equalizer, reducing a matinee idol to the level of car salesman when it comes to making par. But Hillcrest serves as an example of the weight actors carry.
Dinah Shore turned to this West Los Angeles course when she got serious about learning the game. But the club had a rule against single women as members, which she lamented in a Times article.
The actress promptly received offers from more than 100 clubs nationwide, as well as marriage proposals from men claiming to be country club members.
Hillcrest quietly admitted her.
A different exception was made for George Burns.
For all the action that took place on the course, Burns made the dining room famous. He held court each day at the so-called "Round Table," joined at various times by Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas.
"The average member couldn't sit there," Monti said. "But you could sit close and overhear it."
There was one problem. Burns always clenched an El Producto in his teeth, and there was no way to overlook a smoking cigar in a dining room that was supposed to be nonsmoking.
Needing to be creative, they passed a new rule: Smoking was allowed for anyone over 90.
No Stars Wanted
Celebrities are well-suited to the country club game, if only because they possess the requisite leisure time and disposable income. That has not always made them welcome.
Wilshire Country Club spurned the Hollywood crowd, especially in its early days, rejecting applications from Bing Crosby and others.
The club's effort to avoid the spotlight was spoiled by Hughes, who bought a Spanish villa off the eighth green. Legend has it that one day, as his foursome approached, then-girlfriend Jean Harlow greeted them, scantily clad, from the window.
Another story has a frustrated Weissmuller tossing his putter into the trees and his partners suggesting that he make like Tarzan to retrieve it. He sent a caddie instead.
Los Angeles Country Club was perhaps more successful at maintaining a conservative image. The club's distaste for celebrities was so well known that when Western actor Randolph Scott applied, he downplayed his talent.
"Haven't you seen any of my movies?" he asked.
Victor Mature tried a similar approach years later when his application was rejected.
"I've never been an actor," he protested. "And I've got 70 movies to prove it."
In other cases, the rejections were not so humorous. Several clubs had exclusionary policies that have softened over the years.
According to "Golf in Hollywood" and other books on the subject, Hillcrest was founded in 1921 because Los Angeles Country Club did not admit Jews.
The new course, across from 20th Century Fox studios, welcomed actors and directors. So did another new club over the hills in the San Fernando Valley.
Like Hillcrest, Lakeside was built near a studio, close enough to Universal that players could hear the roars of wild animals used for movie shoots.
"It was the Hollywood course," Pavoni said.
The membership included Crosby and Bob Hope, William Holden and Dorothy Lamour. Weissmuller lived nearby and supposedly swam in the lake at night.
Pavoni and Chew wrote about another regular, W.C. Fields, who carried a hip flask he said contained "oraaange juice."
One morning before teeing off, when the comedian excused himself for a moment, his partners emptied the flask of its vodka and replaced it with a less-potent substance. Fields took his first swig and exclaimed, "Somebody put oraaange juice in my oraaange juice!"
Off the course, Bogart hung around the bar and Wayne was often seen playing cards.
Pavoni, who wrote the club's history, said Crosby used to take caddies along on trips to the racetrack.
According to legend, the omnipresent Hughes once wrote a $1-million check during a high-stakes poker game at Lakeside and stated, "It's good. I'm Howard Hughes."
The Westside course that Tiger Woods and other pros are playing this week is renowned for its George Thomas Jr. design. The stars used to flock there, too.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford played at Riviera. So did Bogart and Gable.
Errol Flynn was known for his gamesmanship off the course, sparking a controversy in the 1940s when he pursued the wife of a security guard. The guard, an off-duty police officer, flashed his badge and Flynn grabbed it. The actor was promptly arrested.
Other Riviera stories are tame by comparison.
Mike Miller, the club's former pro, recalls Don Rickles laying into fellow celebrities -- James Caan, Glen Campbell and James Garner among them -- in the locker room.
"Just ripping them," Miller said. "Guys were laughing so hard they were crying."
And there was the time Peter Falk showed up in sloppy, "Columbo"-esque clothes. A course worker mistakenly yelled at him to get down to the caddie shack with the other caddies.
After that, Miller said, "he actually bought some golf clothes."
For the most part, Riviera's celebrity members -- especially Dean Martin -- were too focused on the game to cause much of a stir. And that seems to be the current trend.
A disappointed Pavoni says modern celebrities most often play with members of their own entourage rather than with fellow stars. The locker room and clubhouse are no longer a social scene.
"I can't imagine today you would go to a club and see Costner, Nicholson and George Clooney playing cards in the card room," the author said.
No more scantily clad women in the window. No more planes landing on fairways.
"Those days are gone," Pavoni said. "It's kind of sad."