Rancho Park, where Arnold Palmer won three L.A. Opens, is one of the busiest courses in the world. To pay your green fee there, you move along a cattle chute until you find yourself standing before the starter, to whom you hand your cash or card through vertical metal bars. The doors don't lock on the men's clubhouse bathroom stalls, and a few of the tees have more dirt than grass. Still, more than 100,000 rounds are played there every year, mostly by regulars. Parks and Recreation in Los Angeles must be doing something right.
I toured Rancho for the first time on a recent Saturday. (The nonresident green fee was $48, walking.) In the parking lot, I saw a young guy hop out of his truck, zip oranges into his golf bag, slide into his spikes and march off to the clubhouse. (Such an echt display of pre-round enthusiasm.) In the restaurant/pro shop, a man in a nearby booth ate breakfast with his bag beside him, headcovers on all 14 of his companions. A waitress arranged for my rental set, an interesting assortment of lost treasures: Ping Eye 2s, Titleists likely from another century, Stratas, a Zebra putter. On the driving range, there was a middle-aged man loading up his face with sunblock and his mouth with chew. All the while, over loudspeakers, the starter announced the batters off his ever-changing lineup card: Aiello, Shapiro, Chu. The American tapestry.
Three holes in, I was already loving it, and not only because the group ahead waved us up on the par-3 third. (Manners!) The course has less rough than Augusta National, the bunkers are nasty and unkempt (yes!), the fairways are firm, the land heaves and haws and the greens look like members of the family. (They belong.) Rancho is notorious for slow play, and no one can say how many rounds there are actually completed. But Steve and Min and Mike and I — thrown together by the starter — got lucky and toured the park in well under five hours. Camaraderie was excellent. When I hit my best drive of the day, on 17, with Steve's Titleist 913 driver, he took it back, got in the lines of its face and said, "You betrayed me!" None of us, by the way, kept score, and we weren't doing the rule book proud, either. We were just four duffers trying to make bogeys and pars on a course that is challenging, playable, affordable — beautiful.
At the cinder-block halfway house — where the lavish booze and cigarette offerings gave me a '70s flashback — Mike ordered noodles. When his microwaved container came with a plastic fork, he asked for chopsticks and used them as we waited on the 12th tee.
Tiger has stood on that tee, in junior events. Mac O'Grady, broke but driven, grew up at Rancho, among the hustlers and the salesmen. Charlie Sifford won the '69 L.A. Open there at age 46, and at this year's L.A. Open (a.k.a. the Northern Trust Open), Harold Varner played in a special slot for a minority golfer, an annual exemption that honors Sifford, a six-time winner of the old National Negro Open. Dolphus "Golf Ball" Hull, a caddie legend from the Tour's polyester heyday, recalled recently how the caddies could walk right into the Rancho clubhouse during tournament week, and could get good action there any other time of the year, "especially if you was playing with Mitch." Herman Mitchell, Trevino's man, who was scratch. Ball could shoot par, too.
The number of rounds recorded at Rancho Park is like an annual health report for American golf. In 1993, 119,000 rounds were played there. By 2013, that number had drifted down to 102,000. Yes, it's true that modern life is fast and golf is slow and kids today like their screens. Plus, the recession. But it's also the case that golf hasn't had a true pied piper in years.
A plaque on the 18th at Rancho commemorates a 12 that Arnold Palmer himself once made there. (That he came to the unveiling tells you loads about the man.) We decided to play the last hole in Palmer's footsteps and went to the black stones. It's a 470-yard par 5, downhill to start and uphill at the end, with a city neighborhood left and a driving range right.
I hit a pull-hook tee shot, chipped out with a putter, bunted one down the fairway and staked an 8-iron. The green is semi-blind (always fun) and I arrived to see my ball four feet from a closing par. In '61, the King hit a "fine" drive (says the plaque), served four O.B., knocked his 10th shot on and needed two putts. I take no pride in saying I beat Arnold Palmer by five. Steve tried to help me read the par putt. The rest you can imagine.
I trudged off to the clubhouse, redassed and hungry, and passed the starter, out of his booth and enjoying the sun.
"You look done," he said.
Only for the day.