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Rifle Shots

From finding the right wave to an evening’s meal, the Hunter legacy was always about more than golf
USA. Los Angeles. 1964. Photos by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

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Topanga Beach is not considered a top-tier surf spot, but over the years occasional world-class swells have generated lifetimes of memories for those fortunate enough to discover the glory of what otherwise might be disregarded in favor of what lies up the coast at Malibu. “Malibu” has cachet. Not so much Topanga Beach—its story is more notorious, its characters more suspect and its waves not as legendary. Nor is Topanga Beach often considered a golf location—pity to those not knowing. It was my first intersection with the game, and with the Hunter legacy.

As a boy I often awakened to Topanga’s pounding surf, hissing as it peeled toward shore outside my bedroom window. It created a rush of energy that pulled me from my slumber; soon I was dropping down the face of the waves, pulling back, stalling, rotating my hips, shoulders turning, blasting down the line as I trimmed. It may seem unlikely, but the experience was always an excellent prequel to golf. The crisp snap of the breaking waves, not unlike the launch of a golf ball, seems as audible today as it did more than 50 years ago.

USA. Los Angeles. 1966. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Willie Hunter lived at Topanga Beach in the 1950s and into the ’60s. In addition to being a fantastic golfer, he was a hunter, literally. Nature’s abundance in mid-century Malibu provided many of his meals. One of my earliest memories as his 12-year-old neighbor was him asking for my help: “Hey, kid, help me get this buck off my car.” Standing in the sand in front of the house, he turned with the expectation that I’d follow. Hesitating, I thought, “What does he mean?”

The answer was clear once we climbed the steps from the beach. There on the hood of his ’56 Ford station wagon was, indeed, a buck—a deer with antlers. Blood was smeared pretty much everywhere, but what I specifically remember were the animal’s eyes—the black, sightless, glossy marbles of its eyes. Willie undid the hitch knots holding it in place, grabbed its antlers and directed my attention to the rear legs. “Grab ’em, see if you can sorta glide it along and not have it drag too much.” Uh, OK.

The questions circled in my head: Where do I put my hands? What is that? What’s that smell? Is that shit? How am I gonna do this? My reverie was broken when I realized the buck was moving; Willie had grabbed it and he was pulling, so I grasped at the hind legs as they began to slide off the hood.

Alongside the house was the plunging stairway down to beach level. We grunted and groaned; I don’t recall being very successful in keeping the deer from dragging, first on the stairs and then on the sand, to the front of Willie’s place. I kept looking at myself, the blood and shit and everything else. “Come on, gawd dammit!” he spat. “I need your help!”

USA. Los Angeles. 1964. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos Surfers along Pacific Coast Highway.

Native Americans populated Malibu for centuries before it slowly became home to those seeking a more rural lifestyle both at the beach and in the country. It was never a civic community effort toward creating a counterculture; it just happened—a natural progression. The open spaces—combined with, at the time, surprisingly affordable real estate costs—resulted in a golden age for a decade or two. There were writers and actors and musicians living next to families and equestrians and farmers and Little League coaches, all sprinkled along the beaches and throughout the canyons and ravines known for occasional raging waters and floods. And fires, always the fires.

The artists and creative types consciously avoided the mainstream, and even though it was the mid-20th century, some of these folks lived like homesteaders from the 1800s. Plus, in 1960, there were only a handful of sheriffs for the entire 25-mile stretch of unincorporated coastline. The lone governmental figure was the Honorable John J. Merrick, Malibu’s presiding judge for nearly 30 years. Judge Merrick came to know Willie on a first-name basis.

Topanga Beach is only 3 miles from the L.A. city limits—at the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway with Topanga Canyon Boulevard. From the 1940s through the ’70s, our road, West Topanga Beach Road, was a “private” one leading down to nearly two dozen homes built earlier in the 20th century along the south-facing beach. Those houses are gone now, repossessed and eliminated by the state of California. The emptiness of today’s beach conceals some notorious stories of the past, including a major component of the Hunter legacy.

It was on that private road that Willie parked his Ford wagon next to my dad’s VW Bus. It’s not that Willie was breaking a law…well, he was, because it wasn’t deer season, and the discharge of weapons was illegal 3 miles from L.A. city limits. Officially there was no deer season in Malibu. Residents could shoot rattlesnakes, but not Bambi’s dad. And the whole gun-shooting policy/law thing was vague at best. There were coyotes, mountain lions, and rednecks hell-bent on protecting their rights. Judge Merrick was the man to settle everything in this version of the Wild West.

Ben Hogan surrounded by fans, Los Angeles Open, Riviera Country Club. (Photo By Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Premium Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Ben Hogan, who won the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera, tees off before a massive gallery at the 1960 Los Angeles Open. Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Premium Collection via Getty Images

In an effort to hold back rising tides, Willie’s simple abode, under the main house at 18658 West Topanga Beach Road, had a bulkhead to protect his bay window. Within that bulkhead was a eucalyptus tree struggling to stay alive as it reached skyward. It was from that eucalyptus that Willie dressed the buck we carried from the road. It took both of us to lift it, piñata-like, upward to a branch beefy enough to hold the buck vertical. He tied it off with the rear legs stretched wide. He got busy, beginning with the sharpening of his knife, a skinner’s blade pulled across a pumice stone. Our dog, Pat, approached curiously, and then whimpered as she backed away.

He cleaned and butchered that buck with an efficiency that demonstrated he was familiar with what he was doing. The steaming entrails that fell into a galvanized basin meant the buck hadn’t been dead long. Hoisting the basin, Willie said, “Kid, grab the handle,” and we both staggered across the sand toward the incoming tide. He glanced at me once, maybe to check if I was going to say or do something, but I was silently stunned. I was the spectator pulled from the sidelines, suddenly involved in plays I’d never anticipated. He smiled as we waded into a knee-high wave and flipped the load.

His thoroughness was impressive. Within minutes, the buck was dressed. “You want the hide?” he asked. He’d cut slices around the legs and along the rear shins, and after cutting carefully around the anus he’d managed to pull the skin from the torso entirely down to the head. Uh, no. “The head? You could make a trophy!” Uh, no. I’m good. I wasn’t physically ill, just seriously confused, and surprised at how quickly the whole experience happened. “Here’s the tenderloins; they’re staying with me.” He paid particular attention to the blade and its point, inserting it just so and then sliding it along the anterior of the spine to release the meat, wrapping it quickly in waxed paper and dropping it into a cooler on the sand. 

I learned a lot that day. Over time I got pulled into more of Willie’s various exploits as he cleaned fish, sharks, quail, chickens, more deer, ducks and rabbits. Despite that education, it was Willie’s lessons with mid-irons that I have found most helpful over time. More than 50 years later, the 4-iron has become my club of choice. Because, despite his skills as an outdoorsman, it was Willie’s fulfillment of the Hunter golfing legacy that has meant the most to me.

USA. Los Angeles. 1964.Photos by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

My earliest lessons began with the grip, right there in the sand, a few feet from the same eucalyptus tree used for dressings. Holding the club head, he said, “Here,” and extended the 4-iron’s grip toward me. I reached for it. “Not like that. Take it like you’re shaking a hand.” I reached for it again. “There you go.” Welcome to golf. I was never comfortable killing things anyway.

I had no idea at the time, but there had been Willie Hunters involved with golf for more than 150 years, perhaps beyond that. There was a William Hunter playing golf and making golf clubs in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the mid-19th century, and he was the son of another William Hunter, who worked in his father’s cabinet shop in Edinburgh in the early 1800s; that shop’s owner was a William too, of course. The mid-19th-century Willie Hunter fathered another golf-playing William Hunter, who fathered Henry and his brother, William, and it was Henry who was the father of “Wee Willie” Hunter, who became the golf pro at Riviera Country Club in 1936.

Wee Willie was known for his length off the tee. Before he began his 30-year gig at Riviera, he had won the British Amateur, and later the California State Amateur, eventually winning six times on the PGA Tour. As Riviera’s pro, Wee Willie and the entire Hunter clan became instrumental in developing the course and clubhouse as it eventually became the home of the L.A. Open.

During World War II it took a hardy player to ride a bus from the city, or use up their gas coupons, to play Riviera’s eucalyptus-lined course. Golfers were greeted by the entire Hunter family: Wee Willie was the club and course manager; his wife, Jo, the cashier; their older son, Mac, busied himself in the kitchen; and Willie, if not teasing Mac and others, might have been found roving the course or out on the practice range.

In 1945 the Hunter family joined in the annual hosting of the L.A. Open at Riviera, with Ben Hogan winning in ’47 and again in ’48 with a course-record 6-under 275. That same year, Hogan returned to Riviera to play in the U.S. Open, winning with a record-setting score of 276. It was that collection of victories that created the new nickname for Riviera: “Hogan’s Alley.” 

By the 1950s Riviera was becoming the “Club of the Stars,” with Wee Willie providing guidance and lessons for television celebrities and icons of the big screen. Mac had moved from the kitchen into the pro shop, Jo helped manage the ever-expanding clubhouse and Willie, perhaps in an effort by Wee Willie and Mac to keep him at arm’s length, took over the practice range. Buckets of balls. Bags of balls parceled into buckets of balls.

So, my shaking hands with that 4-iron led to what is recognized today as an environmental issue: How many golf balls does it take to pollute an ocean? Willie’s Ford wagon was part of the problem. Aside from the OG camo paint job, his wagon had several distinguishing characteristics: The back seat was collapsed flat to allow more storage area for game, rifles, bags of balls, golf clubs, shovels, random lengths of lumber… It’s not that Willie scavenged throughout Malibu, but if it wasn’t nailed down or set in stone, it likely ended up in the back of that wagon. 

Also, feathers—flight and tail feathers stuck into the visors, and downy feathers always floating within. Golf balls always rolling around beneath the seats, tumbling to the ground when he opened the door. My mom, Dody, was amazed the first time I told her: “You went with Willie?” I don’t know if anyone else ever traveled with him, but he would drive me up to Riviera and I’d help him load the gunnysacks of balls into the wagon. The seats had a patina of blood and dried liquids, fish scales and sawdust—and a smell that wrapped around me as I sat shotgun. You’ve seen vehicles with dashboards filled with objects of life? Layers of paperwork and other assorted wonders? Shells. Driftwood pieces. Receipts? Decades of receipts. Matches. Matchbooks from every dive bar from West Hollywood to Malibu. The Malibu Cottage. Chez Jay’s. Everything of value was on that dashboard. 

Willie would come out from his door saying, “Hey, kid, I need more balls.” Which meant I’d head up to his wagon and muscle down the gunnysacks of golf balls out of the back. It was his way to save on labor, and it served as an invitation for another golf lesson.

Each ball needed a single red stripe around its equator, and Willie was the man for the job—until I saw how it was accomplished. In a testament to Tom Sawyer, the allure Willie created was enough for me to spend hours applying the red nail polish to each ball. His Rube Goldberg contraption was amazingly efficient: one stripe on one ball at a time. The trick was to not have them roll away after being striped. The gaps between the planks of the sun-bleached deck close to the eucalyptus tree provided the necessary dimension to hold hundreds of balls while their red stripe dried.

“That’s enough for now. Let’s hit some,” was how most striping sessions came to a halt. The 4-iron would appear, sometimes a 7. If he brought out more than one club, he’d hit the other. If it were later in the afternoon, he wouldn’t bother; I was the one hitting. But morning lessons could find him hitting 3- and 4-irons that sounded like rifle shots. Fades. Draws. His takeaway was slower than slow; with his hands not too high and not directly overhead, he generated power from the pivot point of his wrist cock just as his hips rotated through contact. His club head exploded through the ball. WHACK. WHACK. Rifle shots. POW!

“Here!” he’d say as he brought his hands down toward the ball. I didn’t know what he meant. Where was “here”? What was “here”? And there were always more questions from Willie. “What are you looking at?” Huh? “What do you see?” What? Willie would gaze across the water, then turn his head back to the ball and focus. Intensive focus. His trigger seemed to be a phantom move of his hips. It didn’t look like they moved, but it seemed like they did. His head was always still. As his hands moved, pulling back from the ball, his hips and shoulders began to rotate. I never could figure out where to look, what my focus should be. I scanned everything he was doing, but didn’t see enough.

Years before, an enormous log had floated up on a high tide during a storm. Willie tied off both ends, which by default became the equivalent of a white picket fence defining the limit of the house’s front yard. That log was a great perch, especially if the tide was out and Willie was standing on the ocean side of it.

Photo by Taku Miyamoto
Photo by Taku Miyamoto

Sitting on the log put me at waist level; his swing plane reminded me of the rings of Saturn, but tilted on the axis, rotating evenly all the way up and all the way down. Not vertical and not horizontal, his axial tilt. Twenty-three degrees, like the Earth’s? I never measured. Focus. Up. Down. WHACK! Up. Down. POW! Rifle shots.

Mesmerized, I stared as the balls arched over the water. I’d hit one. He’d watch. Silence, no comment other than the occasional “OK.” I’d hit another. Snap hook. And another, sliced so far to the right it’d land on the sand rather than in the water, sadly rolling along toward the rocks rimming the ocean. I was embarrassed to turn around. “That’s OK; hit another one. You might want to take some more time as you pull the club back.” More time? “Slow down; you’ve got plenty of time. The ball’s not going anywhere until you hit it.”

Time. There was a period when I figured I’d surfed every day for more than 200 consecutive days. Interrupted for a day, maybe two, by family travels. Back to the beach, another 200 consecutive days in the water. Even if there weren’t necessarily waves to ride. With Willie living next door, however, there were always golf balls to be hit. No waves? Go shoot free throws, pitch nine innings against the garage door or hit some golf balls!

I think it was intentional on his part—he never said—but most days Willie left a 4-iron or a 7-iron, or both, outside the door that led into his place. Next to the clubs would be a half-full gunnysack of un-striped balls. The unspoken message: “These are here for you to hit.” And hit them I did. Ball after ball, splash…splash…splash. There were days that I would paddle out to surf, sit on my surfboard, paddle toward the point, paddle toward the cove, decide there were no waves and hustle back to hit some balls.

Golf, of course, has so many lessons folded within the game. One took me weeks to work through. I came out of the water ready to hit some balls, only to discover the bag of stripe-less balls was missing and no golf clubs were leaning on Willie’s door. A few days later, I found Willie on the deck, drink in hand, smoking a cigarette. He gazed out over the ocean and said, “Ya know, kid, you should probably get your own clubs.” Oh, OK. “I mean, if you’re not gonna put mine away, you can just do this all by yourself.” Ah. Suddenly I remembered my last session, which ended abruptly with me leaving the 4-iron on the log as Annette walked by. “Oh, shit. Willie, I got distracted.” The art and science of an authentic apology.

At one point Willie commented, “You’re hitting these, and where are they going?” Uh, in the water? “Right, so maybe begin to think about a target. On a golf course you hit to a target, to a place. You don’t just hit the ball.” Oh. Yeah. Which, of course, is somewhat of a challenge when you’re hitting balls into a landmark-less ocean. Sitting on the log, he’d say, “See that? See where the light is reflecting? Hit that reflection.” OK. Sometimes I did—I think. “That was alright. Do it again.”

While the legacy of Willie Hunter (pictured) tracks directly from the hallowed fairways and mahogany lockers of Riviera Country Club west to the more blue-collar Topanga Beach, its impact reverberates far beyond Southern California. Photo courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick
While the legacy of Willie Hunter (pictured) tracks directly from the hallowed fairways and mahogany lockers of Riviera Country Club west to the more blue-collar Topanga Beach, its impact reverberates far beyond Southern California. Photo courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick

Eventually my time at the beach with Willie began to decrease. By circumstance I found myself more often at Riviera. My mother had been hired by Max Hunter to manage the pro shop, as Wee Willie had retired and Mac had become head pro, where he remained for more than 20 years. There I’d see Willie around the range, tracking down his red-striped balls, avoiding interactions with Mac. Unlike the ocean, Riviera’s range had targets, and while hitting those striped balls, I attempted to focus on them. 

One afternoon, I’d positioned myself on the side of the range toward the 18th green when Mac arrived with a client. He took a moment, then came over to where I had my bucket and 4-iron. “How you hittin’ ’em, kid?” Uh, erratically, as usual. “You’ll get there. Pick your target and hit ’em, the ball and the target!” Mac smiled. He dressed well in that plaid-pants-and-big-collared-shirt style. He looked sharp. Like a pro. Color coordinated. Down below on the range was Willie, watching, focused on both of us. Willie dressed like a fisherman. Like a hunter. Mac stared at Willie and Willie stared back.

Years later, decades later, after my wife, Frances, and I had married and moved here and there and had children, I returned from surfing at Rincon one day and she suggested, “I’ve been thinking we could take golf lessons so when we get older we can play with our grandchildren and travel with them and be able to do something together with them.” It was a prophetic description of what our future held. 

Living in Santa Barbara at the time, there were no Hunters around for us to lean on. Wee Willie had long before retired to Palm Springs, and after he died, Willie followed along to the desert, where we visited him a few times at his home along one of the golf courses. Mac’s 20-year tenure at Riviera came to an end. His retirement included developing a line of golf clubs while also writing a book, Golf for Beginners, with a foreword by Gene Littler in which he wrote, “It’s a very peculiar game: to the onlooker, there’s no question that it must appear to be one of the simplest, if not silliest, games ever conceived. But those who learn to play and learn to appreciate it, will in turn reap everlasting pleasures.”

Frances and I have played golf together now for nearly 40 years. We’ve played with our children and grandchildren throughout California (Pacific Grove! Balboa Park!), and in Texas around Austin, where we now live, and in Scotland (Fort Augustus! Dunaverty!), and in Ireland (Waterville! Carne!) too, where we all wear flat caps to keep our spirits aligned.

A few summers ago, a longtime friend offered us her second home in downtown Bozeman, Montana, as a vacation spot. She mentioned, “I think there’s a golf course somewhere close to my house.” We accepted her invite; an affordable vacation is always welcome, especially when it includes golf. We piled two of our grandsons and both of our dachshunds into our 15-passenger van, then added a cooler of food and four bags of golf clubs and headed north by northeast. Midsummer three-digit heat made us appreciate the van’s AC until it blew fuses going over the Continental Divide near Billings.

The following morning, we oriented to Bozeman and I claimed, “The golf course is supposed to be close by. Let’s check it out.” The grandsons looked at their iPhones: “Yeah, it’s right here, we just go out and take a right and…” They’re good with those devices, but one of the goals of the Montana experience was to have them put those things down and play some golf.

Bozeman’s Bridger Creek course swoops above and below the clubhouse. It’s expansive. There isn’t a eucalyptus tree in sight. The “Big Sky” thing was definitely happening when we arrived; clouds of epic proportions and shades of gray were gathering above the Rockies. After dropping Frances off at the house, we went into the clubhouse to book a time for the next morning. The young man behind the counter explained about fees and gestured toward the scorecards.

Photo by Taku Miyamoto

There it was, just beneath the scoring grid with its indications of par and handicap: “Course designed by Mac Hunter.” Turned out Mac had moved to Bozeman years before with his wife, Simone, whom we knew from our days in Malibu. Mac and Simone had been occasional visitors at Al Kaufman’s home on the beach at the Malibu Colony. Al and Nancy Kaufman hosted incredible weekend potluck barbeques with guests like Paul Newman (who always seemed to bring salad dressing). 

The Kaufman kids—John, David, Jeff and Laurie—were on hand to surf, serve food and occasionally hit some golf balls with me and Craig Angell. In fact, as a family project, the Kaufmans at one point purchased and managed the Tubac Golf Course in Arizona—Tubac being famous as the location for Kevin Costner’s experience in Tin Cup. Playing once at Tubac with Craig and David, approaching the tee box fronting Costner’s body of water, I had Willie in my ear: “So, kid, what’s your target?”

There, inside the Bridger Creek pro shop, I said out loud to our grandsons, “Hey, look, this course was designed by Mac Hunter!” Who is Mac Hunter? “Well, he’s the brother of Willie Hunter, my first golf coach.” The young guy behind the counter asked, “Willie Hunter? He was your golf coach? When was that?” The early ’60s. “Amazing! Look, here he is.” There on his computer’s screen was the result of his Google search, a photo of Willie Hunter at Riviera’s first tee. I had to correct him: “Yeah, that’s Wee Willie. He was Willie and Mac’s dad.” 

I spent enough time explaining about all of the Willie Hunters that when we got back to the house Frances asked, “Did you play? Where have you been?” The boys let her know that Grandpa Jim was blathering to the guy in the pro shop about Willie Hunter, his brother Mac and something about a legacy. Frances shook her head knowingly. “Well, dinner’s ready.”

Teeing off the next morning, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the greens in Mac’s design were blind to the tee box, and several were even difficult to find from the fairways. Grandson No. 2, Liam, asked, “Where am I hitting it? I can’t see the flag. What’s my target?”

Photo by Taku Miyamoto
Photo by Taku Miyamoto