"Don't Lick Your Balls:
On Golf and Golf Clubs"
The following is excerpted from a conversation with Jean Stein, which took place in December 1994.
Grand Street 69
[also found HERE]
Dwight Yoakam gave me a putter from Tiffany this Christmas. It's sort of a classical putter, the kind that maybe was made a couple hundred years ago. It doesn't have any arrows on it or any kind of clues. And I think it's gold. I hope I can hawk it. But, no, it's a beautiful putter, maybe hanging on a wall in a bar somewhere. You've got to really know how to putt to use a putter like this; I don't think I'll ever play golf well enough.
I didn't start playing until relatively recently. My father took me out a couple of times as a teenager, but I thought it was a sissies' game and didn't want to be involved in it. A little white ball, a club, hitting it toward a hole . . . it all seemed sophomoric to me and I didn't have any real comprehension of how difficult it was. When I got sober, I started playing because it gave me something to do.
I first played with Willie Nelson and Coach Royal when I was down in Texas working on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. We played at Pedernales, Willie's nine-hole course, and he just said, "Keep hitting the ball straight toward the hole until you hear the turkey gobble." You know, he didn't really give lessons. The dress code there was like men could basically wear anything, but they'd prefer them to keep their pants on. Women, they didn't care, but they'd prefer them not to keep their pants on. And when you were out of bounds there, you were really out of bounds – you were in rocks and cactus.
Then there was a nine-hole executive course out in the Valley in Studio City. I'd see Jack Nicholson driving balls there. Jack probably started playing at about the same time as me and he's already shooting in the 70s. I'm just beginning to be able to play in the 90s. This is not great golf. Par on most courses is around 72, and the 70s are where the golf game really is. But the greatest thrill in the world is hitting a great golf shot. I know this sounds silly, but it's incredible. You're driving 250 yards on a normal shot – two and a half football fields – with precision. And to think that people do that shot after shot after shot. . . .
I took a couple of lessons with Chuck Cook in Austin when I was directing The Hot Spot – he's coached the great golfers, Tom Kite and so on. He asked me what club I belonged to and I said, "I don't belong to a club." And he said, "Well, I was going to play with you when I came to L.A. and see how you were doing, but if you don't belong to a club, you'll probably never play golf after you leave here." So I started looking for a club. I tried to join Sherwood. It cost $225,000, and they were only going to take 20 people. They sell the land around the course for houses, and whoever builds a house is guaranteed to get in. So they could renege on your membership any time if they got down to choosing between you and them. . . You know, any fool who would give them $225,000 just to belong is already crazy. I was one of those people. And they turned me down. I mean, that's ridiculous. That's really sick. Jack Nicholson got in and I didn't. He is charming in the locker room. So I hear. He's a charming guy. He just might be a bigger star, and he might have a better personality. I think both of those things may be true. Those guys still chew tobacco, you know.
Sherwood is where Warner Bros. shot the Sherwood Forest scenes for the original Robin Hood. It's in a beautiful area out in Thousand Oaks. By the way, it's the most beautiful clubhouse I've ever seen in my life. It's like some set for a movie, but they really built the real place. The locker rooms are immaculate, and the dining room! It's appointed so beautifully, like Tara in Gone With the Wind. It needs Selznick's logo on it. R.J. [Robert] Wagner and Tom Selleck are on the board of directors. They have ranches out there in the Hidden Valley area.
Then there's Hillcrest and the Los Angeles Country Club: one's Jewish and one's Wasp – no Jews, no blacks – but Wasp to the point where they don't take actors either. There's a great story about Victor Mature going to apply at the Los Angeles Country Club. They said, "We're sorry, Mr. Mature, but we don't accept actors here." And he said, "Actors? Nobody's ever accused me of being an actor before." It's right in the middle of Beverly Hills – in that area that goes across Wilshire – it's half of Beverly Hills. It's how Beverly Hills got its name: You don't see any hills in Beverly Hills, because they're all on the golf course.
When the club I eventually got into was hosting the L.A. Open, the other golf courses in L.A. had to be open to its members. So I played at the L.A. Country Club and they couldn't not let me. They were cool. Once a year, what the hell. But I heard some funny stories: Hugh Hefner's place borders on it and he wanted to have a gate opening right onto the golf course from the Playboy Mansion. But they nixed that idea real quick. He said, "But I'm going to have bunnies out there on golf carts," and they said, "Like hell you are."
They wouldn't let me into Hillcrest. They wouldn't let me into Brentwood either. I was trying to get into the Riviera Country Club for years. I was almost accepted, and then it was sold. When I first started applying, it was $28,000 a year for a membership, then it went up to $40,000, then they sold it to the Japanese for $100 million and the Japanese canceled all new memberships. That lasted a couple of years, and everybody kept saying, "Just wait, we'll get through this." Then they started asking me to meetings and I was finally accepted. It took me five years to get in. They made a mistake, I know they did.
On my first day there, the Malibu fire started, and the guy I was playing golf with said, "Oh my God, look at that fire! I have to leave immediately." He left to go save his house in the Palisades. So I played with another guy who couldn't care less whether his house burned down or not. The fire actually started near the Sherwood golf course and it almost burned down too. It was probably a golfer who started it – the last hole went badly for him, and he rubbed a couple of clubs together. . . .
The Riviera is about $75,000, and $426 a month, whether you play or not. And there's no swimming pool, no tennis privileges. There's a locker room where you change your shoes. . . . But it's a George C. Thomas course. It's always in the top fifty courses in the world. It used to be known as Hogan's Alley, after Ben Hogan who won the L.A. Open there in 1948 and '49. When I went up there for my last interview, they said, "Well, watch where you step today, and don't jump around corners because there are a lot of Secret Service men out there. Charlton Heston and Nancy and Ronald are having a, a, uh, a little thing out on one of the tennis courts." And Clinton, my favorite guy in the world, was out there. So, you know, that is the group that's involved. The Riviera is a difficult course, the grass is strange and it's hard to hit out of. But it has a history that's hard to compete with and it can't discriminate because it's a course that hosts the P.G.A. tournament.
Before the Riviera, I used to play at Mountain Gate – I call it Mountain Air – up near the new Getty Museum on 405. It's built on a landfill full of Beverly Hills' and Bel Air's trash. You can actually smell the garbage when you're playing golf, and the greens sort of fluctuate, you know. And you'd see things coming up, like, a plastic bag. . . . Mountain Air is a very intriguing course; the layout is so strange. It's narrow, there are angles and downhills. You get some very strange "lies" there – that's what you call it when you hit a ball and it lies at a strange angle. There were signs that said, "Don't lick your balls." I'm exaggerating, but on certain days the stench was really bad, it was really crowded, and it cost a lot of money – $25,000 – to join. I don't know why. It must be very high maintenance keeping that grass green and cut. But they just join like rabbits over there. I don't get it.
I play with Neil Young and Bob Dylan sometimes, above Malibu, on a Japanese-owned public course up in the canyon there. Neil is pretty good. His brother was a professional golf player in Canada and his father is a sports writer for the Toronto Sun. If you learn to play as a child, it comes naturally to you, and Neil obviously played a lot. Bob Dylan plays well too. He's sort of taken it up. And Joe Pesci is incredible. I played with him in Venice at the Venice Film Festival when I was President of the Jury and he was there selling The Public Eye. But we used to play out in the Valley too. Joe would take me to all these weird courses. I think he is a member of the Bel Air Country Club now. I play sometimes with Dean Stockwell. He perfected his golf game at Lakeside when he was doing Quantum Leap for Universal. He had a gig that allowed him a lot of time, so he got a beeper and they just beeped him off the golf course. Nicholson says he's thinking about building a golf course during the making of a film. Those are the kind of gigs one looks for these days.