As popular as the place was, it was the L.A. Open that really made it a headliner. The Open began in 1926, and for 30 years it bounced around to eight different courses. In 1956 it settled in at Rancho. Hosting the Open was a great honor because of the tournament's rich tradition. From 1945 through '48 the list of champions went like this: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Ben Hogan. And more than that, professional golf tournaments were as rare as miniskirts in the '50s. Says Andrews, "The L.A. Open gave Rancho such star quality."
Lloyd Mangrum did the honors at Rancho's first L.A. Open, at one point going 63 holes without a 5 appearing on his card, and winning easily. It was, however, a blunder of legendary proportions that forever secured Rancho's place in golfing lore. In 1961 Arnold Palmer arrived at the L.A. Open at the height of his powers. The previous season he had won the Masters and then followed that up with a breathtaking come-from-behind victory in the U.S. Open. But Palmer would meet his match on Rancho's 18th hole.
The par-5 18th is a sweeping downhill dogleg left that measures 508 yards. It begins on an elevated tee from which you aim at a large landing area. The fairway bottlenecks toward the green. In the first round Palmer smacked a fine drive and decided to go for the green with a three-wood. He took a mighty cut, but the ball sliced over the 30-foot-high net that separates the 18th fairway from the driving range, and it was lost out-of-bounds. Still determined to reach the green, Palmer tried again, producing another prodigious slice out-of-bounds. With smoke pouring from his ears, Palmer went for the green a third time. He yanked this one dead left, onto Patricia Avenue and, again, out-of-bounds. Palmer's fourth attempt was another duck hook into the street. His fifth ball hit the green, and he two-putted. Eight strokes plus four penalties makes a famous dozen, the highest score Palmer ever recorded on a hole in professional tournament play.
"When he hit the first one O.B., we were like, Oh no!" recalls Brenkus, who was a foot soldier in Arnie's Army that day. "On the second one we were like—gasp—Oh no! By the fourth time it was a deathly silence."
But where there is choke, there is not always ire. Asked afterward how the game's greatest player makes a 12, Palmer replied coolly, "You miss a four-footer for 11." Palmer later graciously returned to the course for the dedication of a monument at the 18th tee commemorating his calamity, and he thrilled the locals with three victories at Rancho, in 1963 and back-to-back in '66 and '67.
For Jack Nicklaus there has been no such happy postscript. Nicklaus made his professional debut at the L.A. Open in 1962, finishing dead last among those who got paid, taking home a mere 33 bucks. Along the way he was critical of Rancho, and Fat Jack's petulance hardly endeared him to Rancho's regulars. Nicklaus played there in the '63 and '67 Opens but never returned to the course after that. Acknowledging that the feeling was mutual. Rancho Park saluted the Golden Bear by naming a dish after him, and it still appears on the clubhouse menu. Below the no-frills Arnie burger on the menu is Nicklaus's ground round, and its three-word description perfectly captures the local feeling toward Nicklaus. It reads Arnie—with cheese.
The L.A. Open continued successfully at Rancho until 1973, when it returned to the ritzy Riviera Country Club, where it remains today. For the city of L.A. and Rancho's patrons, losing the tournament was a mild disappointment, but no more. Says Weiner, "By the time the Open left, Rancho had been clearly established as one of the great public golf courses in the world. It had already grown too popular for its own good."
Over the years, as courses in western Los Angeles were cut up and turned into housing tracts or shopping malls and as the number of golfers boomed, Rancho became overwhelmed. Says Clyde Blake, who retired in July after working for almost 30 years at Rancho, "The golfers back in the old days loved the game and the course, and they said, with such pride, 'This is my track.' It's a real carefree crowd now. They don't love it like the folks did in the old days." While Rancho can never have its glory days back, the course has evolved into something more vital. "Public golf in L.A. has become minority golf," Weiner says, "and you can't underestimate how important it is to have a world-class facility to learn on." With the crush of players, it would be little surprise if the greens fee had skyrocketed through the years, but it admirably continues to hover around $20. And no course has embraced the public golfer like Rancho. Last year 119,237 rounds were played there. The course averages 400 rounds a day during the summer, and there have been times when that number crept closer to 500. If Rancho is not the most heavily played golf course in the world, it must be close to it. Of course, burned-out commuters who take to the links looking for leisure are often horrified to find the fairways as crowded as the freeways. But the bottom line is that Rancho is there to be used.
The golf course is no longer even the biggest draw. Many more golfers come to Rancho for its driving range. Double-decked, shaped like a crescent moon and packed with swings that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Rancho's range is a wonderful melting pot. It also offers a rare and critical service—quality instruction. Muni golfers generally have only obtuse videos and The Little Red Book to shape their golf games, but Rancho employs eight PGA professionals who teach. Together, they give more than 10,000 lessons a year.
Ed Coleman has been helping golfers of all levels at Rancho for the last 29 years. But as one of the last living disciples of legendary teacher Ernest Jones, Coleman favors a no-nonsense approach that makes him ideal for beginners. Says Weiner, "We send Ed the people who have absolutely no chance to play golf, because he will get them to hit the ball. There's no mechanics involved, and because of that his golfers become like Christian Scientists. Their mantra is, It will heal itself." Coleman estimates he has given more than 80,000 lessons over the years.