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77TH PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: RIVIERA : Lots of Bogeys, No More Bogie : Despite a Grand Tradition, Riviera Isn't Exactly a Hollywood Hangout These Days

August 07, 1995|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Pickford to Pavin, Hepburn to Hogan, Erroll to O.J., the Riviera Country Club has catered to swingers, hobnobbers and tabloid tattlers for almost 70 years now.

It has passed every test of time, recovered from its Hollywood hangovers, withstood flood waters, kikuyu grass and graphite shafts.

Riviera, with all its dated dignity, is eager to prove it is just as worthy of holding the 1995 PGA Championship as it was in 1948 when it was awarded the first U.S. Open west of the Mississippi.

"It's a big, rough, tough course . . . with makeup," says Bob Williams, Riviera's oldest member at 81.

Riviera's classic, oversized Spanish-style look has remained virtually unchanged in seven decades. In the ornate main lobby, spider-webbed earthquake cracks splinter the fireplace, over which hangs a portrait of Ben Hogan, who played his last competitive round at Riviera in 1950.

Riviera has remained true to the vision of architect George C. Thomas, to ensure that a foursome today will experience much the same as the first one did on June 24, 1927, after the course was completed at a cost of $243,827.63.

The elevated, knee-knocking first tee still leaves a lump in the best players' throats. The fourth hole has fought to live up to Ben Hogan's boast of it being "the greatest par-three hole in America."

Players continue to speak of the par-four 10th with reverence, while No. 18 remains a classic finishing hole, "a great place for a picnic," Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote, "also a great place for a bogey."

Club pro Mike Miller compares Thomas' work at Riviera to the best work of the masters.

"Should we touch up a Rembrandt?" he asks. "I don't think we touch anything done by Monet."

Yet, frankly, Riviera isn't the celebrity club it used to be. Most of the bigwigs packed their bags and moved to the plusher confines of Bel-Air Country Club.

Dean Martin, a star who embodied the old Riviera, a dry-martini crooner who used to leave blank checks behind to square his links losses, has not been seen at Riviera since his son died in a plane crash eight years ago.

James Garner, maybe the best-ever celebrity golfer at Riviera, is a Bel-Air man now.

Peter Falk and his 13-handicap remain faithful, but the course is mainly grazed now by executives and movie moguls.

Once, Elizabeth Taylor and her mother leased one of Riviera's 36 adjoining hotel rooms.

W.C. Fields roamed the grounds as one of the original "Divot Diggers."

Humphrey Bogart liked to lean against a sycamore tree on the 12th hole, in a trench coat, and sip his favorite beverage.

You can still come to Riviera and feel sea breezes whipping up the Pacific Palisades corridor, but its most guarded secrets are locked in the walls.

"Half of coming to a place like this is feeling the tradition," Riviera historian Geoff Shackelford said.

Riviera's hold on celebrity status is tenuous, linked to a morning round of golf played on June 12, 1994, by club member O.J. Simpson.

Simpson played perhaps his last round of golf at Riviera that morning with some of the buddies later mentioned in the so-called Simpson suicide note read on television by attorney/friend Robert Kardashian.

"People don't talk about it here at all," Shackelford says of the Simpson case. "Not at all. Everyone is waiting to see."

There are reports Simpson and playing partner Craig Baumgarten, a Hollywood producer, got into a heated argument on the par-five, 463-yard second hole.

This would not have been a first. The hole, played as a par four in professional tournaments, was ranked in 1990 by PGA of America as the toughest No. 2 in America.

Mitch Mesko, Baumgarten's caddy that day, went on the television tabloid show, "A Current Affair," and claimed an argument ensued after Simpson distracted Baumgarten on his backswing off the tee.

Simpson was reportedly famous for this.

Alan Austin, playing in the group that day, corroborated the story in a recent interview with Golf Digest.

Austin remembered that O.J. confronted Baumgarten on the fairway.

"O.J. said, 'What's with this guy?' " Austin told Golf Digest.

And then, reportedly: "'Craig, if I hear another world from you, I'm going to deck your . . . right here on the golf course.' He must have said it very believably, because Craig turned white and backed off."

Riviera is reserving judgment on Simpson.

"We're very leery of the possible taint," says Williams, a former Hollywood publicist and Riviera member since 1948. "I can't say we've been tainted, because this could happen at any club. But I can say the regulars who played with him are now very sad. They're really unhappy about what happened."

The Simpson saga is the biggest celebrity story to hit Riviera, dwarfing the antics of swashbuckler Erroll Flynn in the 1940s.

Flynn's most infamous escapade is recounted in the new book, "The Riviera Country Club, a Definitive History," researched and written by Shackelford.

At a party held in the Main Ballroom, Flynn tried to make time with a woman who turned out to be the wife of a security guard.

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