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Celebrity Makeover

The process took years, but Hillcrest Country Club has finally made it from fusty to family
Celebrity Makeover

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I just wanted a glimpse. “Go ahead,” my host told me. “It’s all right.” I grasped the knob to the Men’s Card Room door and pulled. There he was, sitting at a four-top right in front of me. It was God. He was grinning, clutching an El Producto cigar and plotting his next bid in the bridge game. Quickly, softly, I closed the door and thanked my host. I should have known he would be here.

He was George Burns, the legendary actor who portrayed the Almighty in the 1977 film Oh, God! and its two sequels. It was my first visit to Hillcrest Country Club, in the spring of 1994, and my host was happy to indulge me in an A-list celebrity sighting. I was there as a golf writer, and while the course was fine and had some tremendous history, at that point the club was far better known for its star-studded membership and as one of the most exclusive lunch spots in Los Angeles. 

As we continued the tour, I learned that Burns, then 98, had been a Hillcrest member for nearly 60 years. Even more striking to me: He appeared to be nowhere near the oldest member in the room.

On that visit and a few others over the next 18 months while working in LA, I didn’t recall encountering many kids; there were next to none on the golf course or driving range. Hillcrest impressed me as yet another moneyed, old-school club from the Roaring ’20s, one loaded with Hollywood legends, but where the flag flew at half-mast far too often.  

Twenty-five years later, I returned to Hillcrest for the club’s July Fourth festivities. Children of every age darted and dashed to an array of amusements. A giant inflatable jungle gym called the Adrenaline Rush produced a stream of happy faces. A row of tented booths featured carnival-style games and exhibits. Some sought out the Rock-O-Plane, a small Ferris wheel with cage-like enclosures that gently rocked them back and forth. At dinnertime, families congregated to feast on a buffet supper while awaiting the fireworks. The Nashville Band belted out live music in a classic Fourth of July mix of rock and pop covers, country hits and patriotic holiday songs. Parents and children flooded the dance floor. Plenty of octogenarians flitted about, but they meshed seamlessly with fellow members a generation or two younger. Mere yards from this spectacle, a massive reinvention of the golf facilities was nearly complete. Hillcrest had changed. It wasn’t by accident.

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Groucho Marx once famously proclaimed, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as one of its members.” Hillcrest Country Club was the exception: Marx joined in 1934. Even back then, the club’s roster was liberally sprinkled with the most prominent names in the entertainment industry.

Hillcrest launched in 1920, the way most clubs then did: by four men who were rejected at other clubs. After a search of several weeks’ duration, they found their dream tract, a 142-acre parcel of rolling hills on Pico Boulevard, at that time a half-day’s drive from downtown Los Angeles. Hillcrest Country Club would be an apt name, because of its dramatic elevations—the eastern section of the property was the highest point on Pico between the city and the beaches—and because at that time it was truly situated out in the country. Its surrounds were verdant if treeless, dotted with crops and oil derricks and little else. Across a dirt path (today’s Motor Avenue) sat the Ambassador Golf Club, owned and operated by the new Ambassador Hotel. Its golf course would soon be known as Rancho Park Golf Club.

As LA grew exponentially in the coming decades, Hillcrest’s location soon became its most important asset. The club went from the outskirts of town to occupying prime real estate on the southern edge of Beverly Hills next to the southwestern reaches of Hollywood, across Pico from the movie studio known for most of its existence as 20th Century Fox. It is 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles to the east and seven and a half miles from the Pacific Ocean to the west. 

Nick Elowitt, whose father joined Hillcrest in 1939 for $300, started playing the course as a 14-year-old in 1957. He remembers the club amid the transition from rural to urban. “The city was growing, but Hillcrest was still really out in the country,” he says. “I grew up here, and there was a neighborhood called Beverlywood on the east side of the club. Our fourth hole was a long par 5 and it was adjacent to a mega-sized lima bean field. Wild lima beans were growing out there. My grandmother would take me and a lot of the neighborhood kids down there and pick lima beans—which, to this day, I don’t eat.”

Circling back to the club’s infancy in the 1920s, Hillcrest trumpeted itself as a haven of Jewish social life, embodying the vision of successful, influential, civic-minded men who were denied the opportunity to join clubs elsewhere. But it wasn’t harmonious for all Jews. Initially, conservative German-Jewish businessmen formed the club’s foundation. As the ultimate expression of outsiders-turned-insiders, early Hillcrest distanced itself from Eastern European Jews. In other words, Hollywood types need not apply. It wasn’t until the onset of the Depression confronted the club in the early 1930s that it eased these restrictions and welcomed the elite of the motion picture industry. While the club’s core values remained, the demeanor at Hillcrest changed significantly.

Celebrity Makeover
Although the club’s historic Hollywood roots run deep, it needed a modern overhaul to attract the next generation.

The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Burns, Milton Berle and many other leading lights from movies and music brought Hillcrest international renown before and after World War II. Hillcrest’s “Round Table,” in the Men’s Grill, was for comedians only and became the most storied lunch spot on the West Coast for decades. 

Club events turned wild and wacky. The 1935 Pow Wow tourney featured members playing the course accompanied by roaring lions, tigers and rhesus monkeys, and “included rented costumes, dinner, golf, mucho booze, broads and animal feed,” according to the chairman of the event.

In 1941, management slapped Burns and Harpo Marx with a reprimand for playing golf shirtless on a hot day in late July. For Harpo’s next round, he appeared on the tee wearing a shirt—but no pants. When approached, Harpo told the club manager that he’d checked the bylaws and there was no rule prohibiting members from removing their pants on the course. 

This was the Hillcrest of legend. No fewer than a dozen members have been portrayed on United States commemorative postage stamps. Member Ron Rosen told me with pride that the first talking motion picture ever made was The Jazz Singer, in 1927, starring Al Jolson. The first remake, in 1952, featured Danny Thomas. The final version, in 1980, found Neil Diamond in the leading role. All three men are past or current members of Hillcrest.

While the irreverence and high jinks of Hillcrest’s midcentury merrymakers have long subsided, they did usher in the eventual integration of non-Jewish and female candidates to the membership. Today, there is a member or two who conjures up the old celebrity, if not the behavior—Adam Sandler, for one. But these days Sandler is usually there with his family for a holiday meal.  

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“There was a joke about Hillcrest back [in the 1990s],” longtime member Arnold Rosenstein told me. “The membership was a bunch of old men and their fathers.” By the closing years of the 20th century, Rosenstein and others looked at the club’s membership roster and its facilities and realized Hillcrest’s future was in jeopardy. “That image had to change,” he said. “And it did.”

In 1995, the club’s Long Range Planning Committee produced a report in response to the question, “How can Hillcrest keep young family members involved?” That began a series of upgrades to the club’s facilities. In 2013, 92 years after it was first announced in the Los Angeles Times as a club amenity to come, a swimming pool opened at Hillcrest. Then came a modern fitness facility. Locker rooms were updated. The men-only grillroom was abandoned as a relic from a different era. The club’s grand vision was taking shape.

John Goldsmith, club president from 2014 to 2016, explains the philosophical change: “By the end of the last century, we had a choice to make: Are we going to keep this as an old person’s eating club or actually get it ready for the next generation?”

Although it wasn’t on the initial list, Goldsmith and the club’s hierarchy knew the golf facility had to be next. The membership was mostly happy with the old track. It was what they knew, and it had tradition. But it had clearly stagnated.

William Watson, the most prominent West Coast architect from 1900 to 1925, created the course. In 1924, it played host to the World Championship, a colossal exhibition event that saw Gene Sarazen, who by then had already won two of his seven career majors, defeat England’s Arthur Havers, the 1923 Open champion. Five years later, Hillcrest hosted the best field in golf at the 1929 PGA Championship. Leo Diegel repeated as champion, knocking off five-time champion Walter Hagen in the semifinal and trouncing 1928 U.S. Open winner Johnny Farrell in the final. It also played host to the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles Open in 1932 and again in 1942, when Ben Hogan triumphed in a playoff. Yet, as time went on and the golf spotlight stayed on other LA gems like Riviera, Los Angeles Country Club and Bel-Air, Hillcrest’s rich heritage seemed confined to a trophy case in a hallway next to the locker room.

By 2014, the club had settled on a proposed golf renovation—a master plan created by a design firm following the passing of the previous architect of record, John Harbottle. The board was ready to proceed with the plan, but Goldsmith and COO and general manager Miles Tucker suggested it wasn’t ambitious enough; Hillcrest not only possessed an underutilized, world-class piece of property for golf, but to forge ahead and serve this generation of members and the coming younger one, a state-of-the-art practice facility had to be part of the equation.

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Eight architects studied the Hillcrest dilemma. Quality practice ranges were afterthoughts at most 1920s-era private clubs, and while few in Los Angeles had sufficiently updated theirs to meet modern preferences, Hillcrest’s was a particular eyesore. The unsightly old range sat awkwardly just to the left of the old 10th hole. Large, wooden, telegraph-like poles served as support, and the entire space was only 200 yards or so to a downhill landing area where the ball often disappeared. All eight architects’ reviews came back the same: The club couldn’t build a world-class practice range without a full reimagining of the golf course.

“That was a very important realization,” says Rosenstein, who chaired the committee for the golf project. “The main impetus behind redoing the golf course was to provide a great practice facility as a breeding ground for young golfers to learn and practice.”

Considerable soul-searching accompanied the decision to cast aside the once-approved master plan and open up the bidding for an architect to perform an extreme makeover of Hillcrest’s golf facilities. A sizable group of members needed convincing, Rosenstein included. He was one of many doubters who cherished their old golf course. But the desire to change the club for the future won out.

The club connected with consultant David V. Smith of Golf Projects International in 2016 to assist with the golf decisions. Eventually, among bids from design firms including Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Jackson Kahn, the club selected Kyle Phillips. A former lead architect for Robert Trent Jones Jr., Phillips had quietly stamped his mark in the industry via original creations such as Kingsbarns, near St. Andrews, Scotland, and on massive renovation projects such as the California Golf Club of San Francisco. 

“What especially appealed about Kyle Phillips was that his work varied so much from property to property in every element, including bunker style,” says Rosenstein. “The common thread with Kyle Phillips courses is that they fit the ground.”

Phillips, his associate Mark Thawley, their top shaper Dave Smith and a crew from Landscapes Unlimited set out in October 2018 to transform Hillcrest. Phillips immediately yanked out select trees to open up dazzling long-lost vistas; suddenly, the skyline and the Hollywood sign returned to view. He renovated some holes, and created entirely new ones using steeper portions of the property that were unusable a century ago. Bunkers were re-etched and repositioned, taking on a golden-age appearance with strategic values to match. Refreshed grasses and a modern irrigation system lent the course better playability and aesthetics as well as improved water-management benefits.

Among the new holes, a front-nine standout is the 210-yard, par-3 fourth. Its reverse Redan-style green, elevated front left and falling away to the back right, affords a stellar city view. On the back nine, Nos. 15 and 16 are superb par 4s, the former a 445-yard test with a drive into and over a saddle-shaped hill, the latter a 495-yarder over terrain that slopes right to left in the landing area, then slaloms left to right as you approach the green. Mountains and cityscape form a compelling backdrop. 

Instant hits from the renovated holes include Nos. 11 and 12. Formerly the second hole, the current 11th morphed from a long, uphill, snooze-worthy par 3 into a drivable, tempting, 285-yard par 4 dotted with strategically placed bunkers. No. 12 was once a funky, doglegging short par 4 with its green edging a boundary fence. It now plays as a 260-yard downhill par 3. Its target is a 12,500-square-foot Biarritz green.  

How does the new course compare with its predecessor? “I was skeptical about the changes,” Tony Behrstock, 15-time club champion, told me. “I loved the old course. It was sporty and tight, and no hole was like any other. Now we have a longer and better golf course with great practice facilities. There’s more risk/reward and greater emphasis on ball striking. I’m really pumped up about the new course.”

Behrstock acknowledged that guests from LA’s other premier clubs often accepted his invitation to play—as long as the trip also included lunch. Since the new course opened in 2020, his friends are clamoring just to see the new facility.

And that includes the sparkling new practice areas. Hillcrest now sports an expansive new driving range, a five-hole short course, practice putting and chipping greens and fully staffed teaching buildings outfitted with the most modern technology. And people—especially younger ones—are flocking.

“Credit [director of golf] John McMullen and his team, who took a moribund youth program and created a big deal out of it,” Goldsmith says. “It had fossilized. Bringing in John and Chris [Miller, head professional]—they started by making the tournaments fun. The team they built is all about getting the kids involved in the program. The whole youth league that I was watching yesterday, it made me happy to see such a great number of kids.…That’s what we wanted. That’s what these new facilities are for.” 

To Thawley, the task was clear, if complex: “Being able to have a full-length driving range and some short holes and not having to have safety netting—that was the priority,” he says. “Our task was how to achieve that and still have a great golf course.”

Taking ground that once housed parts of the old 10th and 13th holes, Phillips and his team carved out a wide expanse of practice ground, complete with target greens and bunkers, framed handsomely by Canary Island pines on the left that provide separation between the range and the new first hole. 

“They wanted to get as many players on the range as they could,” says Phillips. “This is a very active, growing club, so the width of the range was a big deal. We needed enough depth to be able to move forwards and backwards and be able to hit off grass all year long. We built a two-level tee. Each tee is 20 yards deep with slightly more than 80 yards of width.…I don’t know in LA where you’re going to find better.”

To the immediate left of the driving range tee is a 7,500-square-foot putting green that abuts the first tee. To the right is a new teaching facility called the Range House, and a practice fairway bunker. In the farthest northwest corner of the property is “The Five,” the five-hole short course. Behind the Range House and driving range tee is a chipping green, accompanied by bunkers. To the east, between the 10th tee and the 18th green, is a 10,000-square-foot putting lawn. 

McMullen says that The Five and the Range House have become Hillcrest’s new hubs for families on the weekends and weekday afternoons. “They play The Five, work on their short games, enjoy snacks and go back and do it all again,” he says. “This has really created another place for members to work on their games, gather and get to know one another. The Range House acts like a multi-family living room.…The vibe is incredible.”

The Five features holes ranging from 70 yards to 120 yards, encompassing variety in direction, terrain, shot value and green complexes. And, as Phillips explains, you don’t necessarily have to play it from the tees set up that day. 

“The idea is that there will be markers out there and you can play from specific distances,” he says, “but you can also go out and find a spot and play from there. Like a game of H-O-R-S-E in basketball, you pick a spot off, say, a downhill or sidehill lie, and say, ‘Let’s play to that spot over there.’ You can have some fun and really work on your short game.”

The Five isn’t the first par-3 course at Hillcrest. In 1950, renowned architects William P. Bell and his son William F. Bell created a kids’ course on the east side of the property, near the main entrance gate. Elowitt spent plenty of time there.

“When I started playing golf, it was on the nine-hole, par-3 pitch-and-putt course,” he says. “That’s where the juniors had to stay until, like, three o’clock, 3:30 in the afternoon, because they were not to be seen or heard. Things have changed a lot since then.” 

Have they ever. Access to the big course is now available to players with a high enough skill level, with no age limits, says McMullen. “We encourage most of the families to utilize The Five and take their kids on the championship course when it’s less crowded,” he says. “We actually created a junior card with a 3,000- and 4,000-yard golf course marked with special sprinkler tags. The card has a map on it to even make finding the appropriate teeing ground fun. These tees allow an individual to play a golf course that is scaled to their skill level, thus building confidence.”

From an era not long ago when parents were sternly reminded about the dress code if their child playfully turned a hat backward, the about-face is startling. Tucker also says The Five is pulling in adult beginners who are seeing the fun in the game and want to take it up. 

McMullen credits the new range and the other practice areas for boosting participation for kids and their families: “Due to the size of the old practice range, we did some private lessons, but with limited space, juniors were frowned upon taking up a spot. It’s totally different now. Throw in Rock ’N’ Roll Range on the weekends, and families come out in droves to use the facilities.”

I paused our interview. In 1994, you could scrape the stuffiness off of Hillcrest with a gold-plated dinner knife. Now they’re rocking out? Like Al Czervik at Bushwood?

“During construction, we installed eight speakers and subwoofers into the landscape at the back of the practice range,” says McMullen. “At 1 p.m. until close on Saturdays and Sundays, we pump classic rock out of the speakers. From day one it was amazing to watch the people flock to the range at 1 p.m. All ages, all skill levels, hitting balls, snapping their fingers—even a couple of crooners—all while partaking in the game we love.”

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In 2019, Benny Nelson captured third place in the 9-year-old division of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National. The cheers could be heard all the way from Hillcrest, where Nelson grew up honing his game. He is part of the first wave of children who have been fully welcomed into the club’s family-oriented culture.

Now 11, Nelson can’t get enough of the new facilities. He loves The Five, which he plays about three times a month, where he says he can have fun with his friends and that it doesn’t take very long to play. 

Celebrity Makeover

Even practice is a good time. “The putting green has so many wicked slopes now! It’s really fun,” he told me. “You can hit a ball on the hill and it will end up rolling off the other side. Last week, I played The Five with my friends and I needed to make a 5-footer for birdie, and I ended up making it to go to a playoff. We went up to the putting green for the playoff. They have a putting course set up with boxes and flags.” Nelson didn’t win that one, but he can’t wait to avenge his loss.

Nelson’s father, Matt, might be enjoying the experience even more. “A few months ago, we had just dropped Benny off by himself to use the range and play The Five,” he says. “I got a text from a friend who was on the course. He said that Benny, his son and two other friends created an impromptu foursome and started playing. We came back to the club later and the adults were standing next to the 18th green, watching them play in. It was a really emotional moment for all the dads to see that next generation. We all hang out together, and to see our sons walking down the fairway, smiling and laughing and playing—it was an amazing moment.”

Nelson’s mother, Lisa, chimed in that Benny’s little brother, 8-year-old Theo, is also getting in on the action. She smiled as the kids swirled about: “Now we’re all playing golf.”