Column:  Heroes Golf Course, on Veterans Affairs campus, is their cause

Vietnam veteran Walter Donaldson plays on the nine-hole Heroes Golf Course in Westwood in 2002. A fundraiser to repair and maintain the golf course is being held Wednesday.
(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)

A miraculous thing happened to Heroes Golf Course in January. It turned green.

That, of course, prompts two questions: What is Heroes Golf Course and how can a golf course not be green?

Heroes Golf Course could not be more aptly named. It is a nine-hole layout in Brentwood on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs complex. It was created by the nearby Hillcrest Country Club in 1946 to honor returning World War II veterans.


That mission hasn’t changed since, but there have been lots of sand traps and unplayable lies along the way.

Now there is a big push to make the course worthy of its name, to get it up to the standards we should all demand for the war heroes who work and play golf there.

A key moment in that push is a fundraiser at the course Wednesday night. Celebrities will come out, broadcasting stars Al Michaels and Rich Eisen will host the program, and it will reflect the behind-the-scenes work of veteran television executives Steven Bochco and Andy Friendly.

Writers and producers Bochco (“Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” etc.) and Friendly (“Entertainment Tonight,” executive producer of CNBC, etc.) are friends and had been involved in other charitable causes together. But those were bigger, glitzier things. This one, a scraggly little golf course that few knew and fewer cared about, struck a chord.

After a few visits and some volunteer work on the grounds, located right around the corner from UCLA’s Jackie Robinson baseball stadium and its big 2013 national champions sign, Bochco and Friendly were hooked on the cause.

Heroes Golf Course became much more than just a place for vets recovering at the nearby VA hospital to get in a few cheap rounds. Several vets started volunteering to work the course and do the heavy maintenance needed for even a par-three layout that plays to about 1,200 yards.

Jobs were created, loyalties to the place born. Dozens, and then scores, of vets volunteered to work, some even graduating to paying jobs.

Friendly visited.

“The pro shop is a Quonset hut,” he says. “It looks like something out of ‘MASH.’ Or kind of like Kevin Costner’s driving-range shack in ‘Tin Cup.’”

He talked to Bochco. It became more than just a couple of Hollywood guys with time on their hands. The symbolism was too much to ignore. Here were young men, returning with serious injuries from wars that kept us safe, discovering a therapeutic outlet in a golf course, either playing on it or maintaining it.

Should they (Friendly and Bochco), among the millions of protected beneficiaries of the veterans’ efforts, not at least make it the best little golf course in the world?

And so it began.

First came a donation of $200,000 from the Community Justice Foundation to install an irrigation system. Before that, the vets crew lugged hoses to all corners and tried to keep the grass growing that way.

“We’d get a little patch here, and another there,” says Shane Parrish, “but it would be mostly brown and dirt in between.”

Then the irrigation system went in and, presto, green grass. Everywhere. Like a real golf course.

“We kind of looked up one day,” Parrish says, “and it was all green.”

Phase I was a success. The course is open. The public is returning ($11 greens fees on weekdays, $13 on weekends). The lies are grass now, not mud.

Phase II is still wound up in tape, the red kind at which the government excels. A year ago, Bochco’s wife, Dayna, delivered a million-dollar contribution from the Annenberg Foundation that would build quite a nice clubhouse. The money is there. But so is the Quonset hut. The red tape remains wound tightly.

Phase III might be the most important. Heroes Golf Course needs a driving range. It would provide cash flow and exposure.

The densely populated Westside of L.A. is public golf course-challenged anyway. You can get on Penmar, but there is no driving range. You can play Rancho Park if, by chance, you can ever get a tee time.

So most of the Westside driving-range traffic goes to Westchester, and that is often so packed it seems obvious there is need for another. Why not Heroes?

That’s what Wednesday night’s fundraiser is targeting. A driving range would also take some of the onus off the current check-writer, Ricardo Bandini, who established a Bandini family foundation to keep the place going and has already invested $135,000 of his own money.

He is doing this because it was his family, back in 1889, that donated the land where the Heroes course stands today.

Bandini started funding Heroes in July 2011. At that point, it had been shut down and was on life support. That’s because, in 2009, two employees were found to have embezzled nearly $180,000 from the operation.

But like the war vets whom it serves, and who serve it, Heroes is getting back on its feet with a nice boost from some important people of means.

Stability and normalcy is the goal.

Heroes has a golf pro, Jim Dennerline, for 38 years an established area player and teacher. His brothers-in-law are Coach Chuck Pagano of the Indianapolis Colts and defensive coordinator John Pagano of the San Diego Chargers.

Dennerline is paid from the Bandini funds, which come from possibly the most hands-on foundation anywhere.

If you stop by Heroes just about any day, you will find the man driving the power mower to be Ricardo Bandini himself.

Twitter: @dwyrelatimes