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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON GOLF

Only In L.a.

In 75 Years, the Los Angeles Open Has Produced Some of the Greatest--and Most Unusual--Moments in Golf

February 22, 2001|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's all in the names. After 75 years of the Los Angeles Open, which we now know as the Nissan Open, you could fill up that barranca at Riviera Country Club with all the great champions, their names some of the biggest in the history of golf.

Of course, we know what great players do--they produce great moments.

Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer . . .

And because this is Hollywood, there have always been the celebrities.

Nelson remembers playing the pro-am one year with Chico Marx. How did it go? Let's just say it's a good thing Chico kept his day job with his brothers.

Nelson remembers that Chico sent him a signed picture some time later.

"He wrote on it 'I enjoyed it, I bet you didn't,' " Nelson said.

But if you look at the history of this tournament, that really never was true.

The fact is, we always enjoyed it.

Some of golf's more noteworthy and even some considerably quirky moments took place at the L.A. Open. You should expect that in 75 years.

For instance, there was Hogan's remarkable run at Riviera, which began in 1947 when he set a course record, then broke it when he won the next year, then won again at Riviera in June at the U.S. Open.

Snead made news at Riviera in the 1950 L.A. Open when he beat Hogan in an 18-hole playoff. And Nelson added the L.A. Open to his collection of titles when he won in 1946--on his 13th try.

Another legend, Jack Nicklaus, cashed his first pro check in the 1962 event at Rancho Park. The amount was $33.33. Nicklaus made the cut but finished last.

There were other stars who performed their own special treats at the L.A. Open, names such as Babe Didrikson, the first woman to play in a men's pro golf event; and Charlie Sifford, who scored a victory for African Americans with a stirring victory in 1969.

Palmer won three times, but he is also remembered for the 12 he took on the par-five No. 9 at Rancho Park when he tried for the green in two and knocked four balls out of bounds.

MacDonald Smith won four times on four courses. Dapper Lloyd Mangrum won three times, the first in 1949 when Smith was making his 23rd and last appearance. Fred Couples won twice and was never more of a fan favorite anywhere else. Then there was "Lighthorse" Harry Cooper, who won the first one in 1926, and is the odds-on favorite in the nickname category.

We'll always remember the players who made it special. On the occasion of 75 years of what began as the L.A. Open in 1926, here's a list of 10 of the greatest players who produced some of the game's most compelling history.

BEN HOGAN

If you think about it, the two words almost go together . . . a seamless fit, a comfortable association . . . Hogan, Riviera.

They are linked for all time--one of the greatest golfers the world has ever seen and one of the most revered courses on the map.

While it is true that Riviera did not make Hogan even though Hogan surely made Riviera, it is also true that Riviera had at least something to do with defining Hogan's nearly supernatural mystique and his place in golf's history.

Riviera is not only the place where Hogan made this history, this course where strange sounding words like kikuyu and barranca and eucalyptus crop up at every turn. It actually enjoyed a much more active role.

Call it Hogan's accomplice.

Most call it Hogan's Alley.

Hogan won the 1942 L.A. Open in a playoff with Jimmy Thompson at Hillcrest, lost to Byron Nelson by five shots in the 1946 L.A. Open at Riviera, then came back to win two in succession, in 1947 and 1948 at Riviera.

Even though that 1948 victory was more than half a century ago, it isn't likely to be forgotten any time soon . . . if ever.

Hogan was at his zenith in 1948, as was Riviera. Hogan won 11 times that year, a stretch of success that included the L.A. Open and the U.S. Open, both of them at Riviera. Hogan also won the PGA Championship at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, but by then, his link with Riviera was already dead solid and perfect.

In the L.A. Open at Riviera, Hogan opened and closed with 67s for a 72-hole score of 275, four shots better than Lloyd Mangrum. For 25 years, it was a tournament record score.

In the U.S. Open at Riviera, five months later, Hogan's 276 beat Jimmy Demaret by two shots.

Figuring in his 1947 L.A. Open triumph, it was Hogan's third consecutive victory at Riviera.

There would be no others, only a triumphant return. On Feb. 2, 1949, a Greyhound bus on the wrong side of the road struck a car carrying Hogan and his wife, Valerie. Valerie was not seriously injured, but Hogan was nearly killed. He had numerous fractures and seemed to be improving until a clot began to form and a major vein was tied off.

Would Hogan walk again? Possibly. Would he return to pro golf? Almost certainly not.

Hogan, however, had other thoughts. He did come back, on Jan. 7, 1950, to the L.A Open--to Riviera. And Hogan very nearly won, forcing Snead into a playoff, which Snead eventually captured.

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