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Missing greens fees prompts closure of popular Brentwood golf course

The nine-hole course at the VA Medical Center, built for returning World War II veterans, is closed to the public as investigators look into suspected embezzlement of as much as $200,000 in user fees.

May 30, 2009|Bob Pool

A popular golf course at the VA Medical Center in Brentwood has been closed to the public as federal investigators look into suspected embezzlement of greens fees there.

The nine-hole, par-3 course -- built for returning World War II veterans by members of the Hillcrest Country Club -- has been open in recent years to others who pay $12 per round to play.

But as much as $200,000 in user fees may be missing, according to some who are familiar with the course's operation.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General is investigating. VA officials in West Los Angeles say they do not intend to reopen the course until the probe is complete and an independent operator can be found for it.

Golfers banned from teeing up are angry at the shutdown.

"It's a bummer. It's sad," said Adam Goodly, a Santa Monica golfer who has played there two years.

"There are people who played there every day. It was cheap and not that crowded, a place you could take your time to play. It was just a fun place."

Gates to the rolling 7-acre course were padlocked March 30. The lush links are located beneath the Getty Center on the north side of the VA complex, which is divided by Wilshire Boulevard.

A VA spokeswoman initially attributed the closure to "operational issues" related to scheduling problems between public play and VA patients' therapeutic golf outings.

This week, officials acknowledged that "financial improprieties" at the course were to blame.

"It's not a scheduling conflict. We have no means to take money for public play," said Ralph Tillman, director of asset management at the medical center.

"We are continuing to maintain the golf course. We have it open for patient or veteran activities for therapeutic uses."

Tillman said local VA officials plan to contract with an outside vendor -- perhaps a nonprofit group -- to operate the course in the future. He said there are no plans to redevelop the course for any other purpose. "We'll reopen when we get an outside partner to run it," he said.

The VA's inspector general declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, which was described as ongoing.

"A lot of people used the facility, a lot more than I'd imagined," said Doug Carver of the inspector general's office.

The closure was particularly disheartening to Terry Gray, a Vietnam War veteran who is credited with turning what had become a weed-choked, gopher-ridden space described as "a mortar impact area" into a showplace course.

Gray restored the course in the mid-1990s, working there seven years. Now 62, he lives in Arkansas.

Gray said the suspected embezzlement was uncovered by surveillance cameras reportedly installed in the circa-1947 tin Quonset hut that serves as the course's "clubhouse."

For their part, users of the course were looking forward to its reopening.

"It's a great place, especially for beginners," said Rob Scribner of Santa Monica as he waited to hit balls at the Rancho Park Golf Course driving range. "My wife learned to play there."

Jennifer Scribner agreed. "I'm disappointed. You could get on any time you wanted up there," she said. "It is so casual. It's a pleasant place and it's beautiful."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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