They have two types of members: moguls and tycoons, with a few captains of industry thrown in for diversity. They boast more stars than Hollywood Boulevard and histories richer than Godiva's. Membership is as unattainable as the beautiful babysitter you had growing up.
The six grand old golf clubs of West Los Angeles—Bel-Air, Brentwood, Hillcrest, Los Angeles Country Club, Riviera and Wilshire—have long been oases for the privileged in a land of mall and sprawl.
Outsiders are treated like a kikuyu grass infestation. Witness this call to Wilshire inquiring about a friendly game. "That's not what we're about," says John Beck, the club's general manager. "The answer is no. We're a private club, to be used by members only.... I'm not sure what part of the word no you don't understand. I think we need to conclude this conversation, and the only thing I have left to say to you is, 'Have a nice day.' "
The xenophobia is grounded in exclusivity. The clubs do not want everyday people peering over the hedges at their Elysian fairways. Riviera is the only one of the Westside Six that has drawn the public's eye, either through its role as host of the Nissan (née L.A.) Open and of last week's PGA Championship or through its dubious distinction in the mainstream lexicon as the place where O.J. played most of his golf.
Membership in the other five remains much more elusive. All are equity clubs, with every member owning his (or, occasionally, her) own little piece, and the waiting list is longer than Mezzaluna's on a Saturday night. A hundred grand will get you a locker in any of the clubhouses, but there won't be anything left over to pay out gambling debts (and there will be plenty of those).
Bel-Air Country Club has been a haven for Hollywood luminaries ever since it opened in 1926. Over the years it has been home to such dashing leading men as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire and Spencer Tracy. Even the course itself has a Hollywood glow. The 12th hole for years was known as Mae West, because of two huge mounds in front of the green; alas, the effect was lost after the course underwent cosmetic surgery in the 1960s. An amazingly lush hillside off the 4th fairway was a backdrop in an old Tarzan movie. The star of that flick, Johnny Weissmuller, was a frequent guest at the club and upon reaching number 4 could rarely resist uncorking a thunderous Tarzan yell that rang throughout the course. Honest.
Actors weren't the only ones to leave their mark on Bel-Air. Richard Nixon, a dues-paying member at the time, in 1961 made his lone ace, on the 3rd hole. Howard Hughes (reputedly a one handicapper) once landed a single-engine plane on the 8th fairway because he was running late for a golf date with Katherine Hepburn, who happened to live off the 14th fairway and was such an accomplished golfer that she insisted on playing from the men's tees. The club had Hughes's plane towed away and presented him with the bill, but he wouldn't pay it and instead resigned his membership.
Bel-Air is more than just famous names and colorful stories. The captivating 6,482-yard par-70 layout snakes through so many canyons and crevices that in order to get around it players must go through four underground tunnels and take two elevator rides and a 350-foot stroll across the famous Swinging Bridge. Bel-Air hosted the 1976 U.S. Amateur, and former U.S. Open champ Ken Venturi has called its back side the toughest nine holes in California. The club is home to accomplished players and robust money games, in which a "Bel-Air dollar" means a C-note or a cool grand, depending on the company.
Thankfully, the club has none of the stuffiness its famous name conjures up. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray has gone so far as to call Bel-Air "the friendliest club in America." The 500-plus membership is still sprinkled with glittering names, including Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Joe Pesci, Bob Newhart, James Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry West and dealmakers Mike Ovitz and Michael Eisner. But the atmosphere is true to a club motto: "One comes not to be seen, but to join in." It is the golf clubs, not the egos, that are oversized at Bel-Air.
The club's sunny atmosphere has been shepherded by Eddie Merrins, known far and wide as the Lil Pro, or simply Pro to Bel-Air's members. Born with a plastic spoon in his mouth in the backwaters of Mississippi, Merrins scraped for five years on the PGA Tour before finding his way to Bel-Air and becoming head pro in 1962. He has a Southern gentleman's charm to go with an Angelino's mellowness, and in his soft drawl he says, accurately, "There is a certain romance to Bel-Air you just can't turn your back on."