Howard Hughes: Golf's Bizarre Billionaire

Howard Hughes: Golf’s Bizarre Billionaire

The rumble from a low-flying, single-engine plane made Bel-Air Country Club’s golf gentry squint in dismay toward the sun, their play interrupted, nerves frayed. But not Katharine Hepburn.

It was a Thursday in October 1936, and the Oscar-winning actress was enjoying a round with her instructor, Joe Novak. She dismissed the approaching plane with a flutter of her hand, as if waving away a mosquito. And she may have wished that she could wave that plane away, for piloting the two-seater was Howard Hughes–playboy, flyboy, movie mogul and Hepburn’s relentless suitor.

Hughes, 30, was tall, rich, handsome–and strange. Nearly deaf from a congenital inner-ear disease, he had spent their earlier dates listening intently as Hepburn expounded on politics, civil rights and golf. Always golf. A devoted player, Hepburn often shot in the 70s. Hughes, himself a 2 handicap, had been hooked on the game since his teens.

Even as Hughes guided his Sikorsky amphibian between two towering pines and touched down on Bel-Air’s eighth fairway, Hepburn refused to acknowledge that anything was amiss. Secretly, though, she was in awe. She knew of his daredevil flights, his movie credits and his conquests: the moonlight tryst at Wilshire Country Club with actress Ida Lupino; the mink-lined negligee he gave to silent-film star Billie Dove; a bed full of orchid petals for Bette Davis. That Hughes would now pursue the willowy, 29-year-old redhead was only appropriate. “He was sort of the top of the available men,” Hepburn later wrote, “and I of the women. And we both had a wild desire to be famous.”

Both were loners, though solitude was the furthest thing from Hughes’s mind. After climbing from his plane, clubs in tow, he approached Hepburn on the 10th tee and coolly asked, “Mind a third?” They played the back nine while club officials fumed.

“Can I drop you somewhere?” Hepburn asked after the round. So began a three-year affair.

It was typical Hughes. He got what he wanted, and he wanted Hepburn. He loved her spontaneous nature. She once interrupted him mid-haircut and demanded they play golf; off they went, his head only half trimmed. She was also maternal, personally packing turkey-and-cheese sandwiches for his record-breaking flight around the world in 1938. And she in turn found him thrilling. How many men could fly a girl over New York City in a Sikorsky and let her steer the plane under the 59th Street Bridge?

By the end of 1936, Hepburn had moved into Hughes’s Spanish villa at Wilshire Country Club, a mere fence-hop from the eighth hole.

Their on-course goals were different, she later said. “I played for fun and exercise. Howard played always to improve his game. He was slow…I finally used to be almost a hole ahead of him. I was busy admiring the sky–the flowers–the relaxation. He would be utterly disgusted with me: ‘You could be a really fine golfer if you would only practice.’ I used to think, ‘And you could be fun if you weren’t so slow.’ “

For Howard Robard Hughes, golf was never just a walk in the park. He was 9 when he first held a club, a gift from Howard Sr., an oil wildcatter from Texas for whom golf was an entree into Houston’s elite social circles. The family joined Houston Country Club, and young Howard became a fine player. One day, the ambitious boy scribbled his three life goals on the back of a haberdashery receipt:

Things I want to be:

The best golfer in the world

The best pilot

The most famous producer of moving pictures

For Hughes, each swing was a test, a chance to better his last. He routinely played hooky from school to try to beat his previous round–and to network with Texas politicians, judges and businessmen. They knew Howard Hughes only as the shy, gangly boy whose father struck it rich by patenting a granite-busting drill bit that became standard for oil wells around the world. Howard Sr. and his germ-conscious socialite wife Allene spoiled their only child, giving him a $5,000 monthly allowance–about $50,000 in today’s dollars.

In 1922, when Hughes was 16, Allene died suddenly of a hemorrhage during minor surgery. Two years later, his father suffered a fatal heart attack during a business meeting, leaving their 18-year-old son the family heir. Howard’s aunt, Annette, became his de facto guardian, and she expected her nephew to proceed with his plan to study business at Rice University. For the young Hughes, however, life was to be enjoyed, and that meant playing golf–all day, every day.

It was on the clipped fairways and greens of Houston Country Club where Hughes found emancipation from his family’s control and set his singular and ultimately tragic adulthood into motion–courtesy of his golf buddy, Judge Walter Monteith. The judge found the squeaky-voiced youth charming and insightful. When Hughes petitioned a Houston court to claim the family’s swelling fortune, Monteith wore the robe, and on December 24, 1924–his 19th birthday–Hughes was declared an adult “of full age.” The pair celebrated with a quick nine on Christmas Day.

The orphaned millionaire soon turned to his most pressing priority: becoming a champion golfer. He exchanged his hickory-shafted clubs for new steel-shafted models popularized by A.G. Spalding Co. The hollow shafts had holes drilled in them to reduce the clubs’ weight. When the Spaldings were swung, wind blew through the holes, hence the club’s nickname: the Whistler. Hughes, already a long hitter, was now driving the ball up to 300 yards and could reach most par 5s in two, though eagles were rare: He was a mediocre putter. An inventor at heart, he tried welding pieces of different shafts together to create a 47-inch driver, an unheard-of length at the time. Hughes also experimented with golf balls, cutting them open to analyze their cores, convinced that a cork center would improve a ball’s flight.

By 1926, Hughes had taken his new bride, 22-year-old debutante Ella Rice, to Los Angeles, where he could fly, play and break into pictures. Ella hated golf, hated the time her husband spent on it, hated that he would sneak away from their suites at the Ambassador Hotel to practice on Wilshire Country Club’s greens.

For his part, Hughes hated the club’s bentgrass greens, particularly the way they hardened and turned brown during L.A.’s arid summers. Even as he hired reigning U.S. Amateur champion George Von Elm to help his game, the millionaire began doing his own experiments with Bermuda grasses, convinced that irregular greens, not his stroke, caused his putting woes. Ella watched in horror as Hughes planted patches of grass along the Ambassador’s fence line, protecting them with cheesecloth draped precariously from bamboo poles, in his quest to create the ultimate smooth grass surface.

Hughes practiced hour after hour, day after day. Though shy, he thought nothing of pushing his way into games with startled strangers. He often angered the Wilshire management by showing up without a tee time and demanding a caddie. He brought outsiders to the club, and when the brass protested, Hughes simply bought his guests memberships on the spot.

That his first marriage ended, in 1929, was no surprise. Like his father, young Hughes was a devoted philanderer–and he wasn’t above using his playboy powers to his benefit on the course.

Sometimes, as his opponents got ready to putt on the eighth green a few paces from his villa, Hughes would give a cue and a naked ingenue would appear on his balcony to distract his rivals. Another story of gamesmanship has a Texas hustler battling Hughes in a big-money match: The two were all square on the 18th fairway, with 7-irons in, when Hughes shrugged and said, “Well, I guess this is for the whole $50,000.” It was cab fare to the millionaire, but not his opponent, who overcooked his approach and added to the mogul’s fortune.

Hughes spared no expense to improve his game. At 6-foot-3 he was a scrawny 130 pounds, so he hit the mats many mornings with a wrestling coach in an effort to strengthen his arms. By 1930, movie producer Hughes was hiring film crews to record his practice sessions. They shot him from countless angles, below and above–as Hughes became the first man to fasten a camera to a blimp for the purpose of recording golf.

Hangers-on praised Hughes for his consistent swing. The only opinion that mattered, though, belonged to Gene Sarazen. Their friendship was one of opposites’ attracting. The diminutive Squire was outgoing and quick-witted; the lanky Hughes was withdrawn and suspicious. Yet they bonded on and off the course. “We’d go to a truck stop for dinner so he could wear sneakers and no tie,” Sarazen told GOLF MAGAZINE in 1988. The pair agreed to a trade: flying lessons for golf tips.

It was a clear November day in 1929 when Hughes took off from Los Angeles in his Sikorsky with Sarazen as his co-pilot. As they climbed above the coast, the sight of an abandoned beach sparked a discussion about sand. For Hughes, the stuff suggested isolation; for Sarazen, sand meant bunkers, the bane of his game.

While Sarazen complained about his sand play, Hughes compared bunker shots to a pilot’s defeating drag as he lifted off the runway. Hughes pointed to the flaps along the wing and gave Sarazen an in-flight demonstration of aerodynamics. The golfer returned to his workshop and added solder to the sole of his niblick until it glided through sand like a wing through the clouds. Thus was born the sand wedge. Sarazen, who would go on to win seven majors, made three prototypes and gave one to his friend. Hughes would have used the club for the last time in 1939, when he quit the game for good.

Why did Hughes give up golf? One story has him walking away after Willie Hunter, Riviera’s famed pro, told him he would never be a champion. Perhaps Hughes simply lost interest as he turned his attention to test-piloting military planes. We do know that Hughes was never the same after a fiery plane crash in 1946, when his chest was crushed and his body badly burned. A codeine-addicted Hughes began to withdraw from the world, and from the game he had loved. He was now obsessed with germs. That year, he threw out his clubs and clothes, convinced they were contaminated with syphilis. Over the next 20 years, Hughes became a shattered, reclusive shell of a man. He wore tissue boxes for shoes, took to storing his bodily waste in glass jars and drafted lengthy memos on the proper way to open tin cans.

While he hadn’t played golf since 1939, he wasn’t entirely through with the game. In 1967 the naked, emaciated Hughes, now a billionaire, was living in a suite atop the famed Desert Inn in Las Vegas, site of the Tournament of Champions. Rather than move out, as the hotel’s management insisted, he bought the place. He then jettisoned the event that had become a Vegas institution, fearing insidious microbes. “He thought the people who came to the tournament would bring germs that could reach his penthouse suite,” says Robert Maheu, 87, who managed Hughes’s affairs in his later years. “I broke my back to convince him otherwise, but he just said, ‘You have your instructions. It’s your problem, not mine.’ ”

The event moved to Rancho La Costa resort in California in 1968, but Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did not attend. Though no longer linked to the tournament, Hughes took their defection as a personal affront–a PR nightmare for which he would be blamed. First he plotted to lure Palmer and Nicklaus–and the event–back to Las Vegas. He would offer Arnie and Jack starring roles in feature films (though Hughes hadn’t made a movie in 21 years). When that didn’t work, he went to plan B: Destroy them.

In wild, rambling memos to Maheu, Hughes talked of teaching the “prima donnas” a lesson, first by opening a “massive” casino sports book that would feature betting on the PGA Tour. It would “become the bible in determining odds” and “thus the determining factor in the standing of that player in his sport.” Then Hughes would catapult another elite player–Billy Casper–into the top slot. “I have been determined to shove these two bastards into the background… With my intimate knowledge of the game, I have settled on Casper as our man.”

But he wouldn’t stop with king-making. Hughes saw himself as the czar of golf. “It is my desire to establish Las Vegas as the Golf Capital of the World,” he wrote. “I am prepared to put up purses that will far exceed anything yet–$500,000 and even $1,000,000 tournaments!”

“It was all the unbelievable world of Howard Hughes,” says Maheu, who in 13 years never once met his boss. Instead, they communicated via phone and notes. “He lived in a cocoon, a complete world of isolation. His mind was his only reality. Still, he got lonesome for the past, and he never stopped talking about golf, about the mental side of the game. This from a man who once bought a hotel because he needed a place to sleep.”

Adds Michael Drosnin, author of Citizen Hughes, a book chronicling the deranged billionaire’s final years, “The obsession with Palmer and Nicklaus went back to who he once dreamed of being. He once wanted to be a Palmer or Nicklaus. Now there was only the nightmare of who he had become.”

On June 5, 1974, two years before Hughes died, burglars broke into his Los Angeles headquarters. They expected to find millions in cash and rare coins. They blowtorched through 10-foot-tall, double-steel doors, pried them open and found not riches but relics: flight logs, movie posters, Christmas cards, business documents, letters–and worthless golden golf globes, trophies of a long-lost glory. “They expected to get rich, but they got a roomful of Rosebuds,” says Drosnin, referring to the sled in Citizen Kane that symbolized the title character’s lost innocence. “They found Hughes’s childhood. This was a warehouse devoted to his youth, and in a sense it was all Rosebuds. You see, golf wasn’t No. 2 or No. 3 on his list. It was his No. 1.”

Richard Hack is the author of 16 books, including Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters. His latest book is Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover.

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