California nostalgia on a voyage to rediscover the lost golf course on Catalina Island
Words by Nico BolliniPhotos by Brett Lyons, David Lyons
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Midway through the crossing, we lost Brett.
He had battled gamely against the rising chop in the afternoon sea and the breeze whipping across the water, but eventually, in a series of ghoulish howls, he “pitched all his sweetmeats overboard,” to borrow the words of Richard Henry Dana Jr.
It was a harbinger of things to come: Over the next few hours, our voyage descended into chaos. Our plan to sail to Catalina Island and dig up some little-known golf history completely unraveled as naïveté, bickering and seasickness threatened to capsize our entire trip.
I knew this quiet island off the coast of California had played host to a remarkable mix of America’s biggest sporting and Hollywood stars through the decades: Walter Hagen, Johnny Weissmuller (who played the titular Ape Man in the famed string of Tarzan movies in the 1930s and ’40s), Mickey Rourke, Horton Smith (winner of the first Masters, in 1934), too many Chicago Cubs to count, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones.
But I wanted to know more. Research turned up frustratingly, tantalizingly spare: From 1931 to 1955, none other than Mr. Jones himself hosted an event on the island. It was possible that the skeleton of nine lost holes from the 1930s was up in the canyons. And there was a reclusive barber named Lolo who supposedly knew many of Catalina’s secrets.
That was all Brett and Dave Lyons, my usual traveling companions, needed to hear. The only way to properly dig deeper was to see it for ourselves. But from the moment Brett stumbled to the side of the boat, we questioned our means of getting there.
In my competitive junior-golf days growing up in Southern California, my family and I would regularly take the comfortable 90-minute ride on the massive Catalina Express across the channel so I could play in the Catalina Island Junior Golf Tournament. Packed into the hills just beyond the coast, I remembered the Catalina Island Country Club as a quirky nine-holer fitting into little corners of the property like Tetris pieces. Despite the trek and a layout no one would confuse for Riviera, Catalina always had a special pull. The tournament, which began in 1967 and continues today, has drawn some of the best juniors in the region: Woods, Craig Stadler and Corey Pavin all were regulars.
My fondest memories of the event came from wandering the clubhouse and seeing its menagerie of black-and-white photos highlighting the island’s curious history as a crossroads for the stars. In recent months, during my quiet moments, I found myself returning to those clubhouse walks. As a 10-year-old, those images fired my imagination. As an adult, I became captivated with retracing not only my steps, but those of the legends.
And we really could do it. Those on Catalina have worked hard to preserve the look and feel of its halcyon days. Much of it looks the same today as it did in 1919 when chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought a controlling interest. On the east end of the 22-mile-long, 8-mile-wide island is Avalon—still its only incorporated town—and on the west end is the unincorporated village of Two Harbors. Deer, foxes, myriad species of birds and even a semi-famous herd of non-native bison populate miles of rugged, gorgeous, now-protected land sitting in between.
For most visitors, getting there is easy: Several large-scale shuttle boats like the Catalina Express depart from ports all over Southern California.
That did not appeal to us. Dave, Brett and I elected to sail across the channel. As we planned the trip, we fell for the romance of traveling the same way Jones and Hagen did. Beyond that, it’s difficult in the modern world to find a sense of adventure—true adventure, where getting to the destination causes real hesitation—and since none of us had ever sailed before, getting out in the open ocean seemed like a monumental task.
“I purchased her for $4,200 a couple of years ago from someone who had just lost the spirit to sail,” said Matt Cole, our close friend and captain of the Talisman, a 27-foot, 37-year-old sailboat. From this Long Beach marina we could see Catalina, just 22 miles off the coast. Whatever resolve the previous owner lacked, we had in spades.
Stocked with the essentials—bread, water, coffee, fruit, turkey, chips, Modelos—the four of us spent a beautiful July night on the boat in the marina before setting sail. We reviewed the itinerary and got comfortable with the sleeping arrangements. Another benefit of boat life: With our tiny budget and Avalon in its high tourist season, sleeping in the harbor each night would save us from expensive lodging on land. Captain Matt and Brett were deemed the hardiest sailors, and therefore bunked in the hull of the boat where there is the most movement at sea; Dave and I slept on deck in sleeping bags beneath a tarp to protect us from dew.
We awoke to a layer of fog and a low-visibility warning from the Harbor Patrol. Since this was also a functioning port for large tankers, there was an increased threat of collision. After the marine layer lifted, we were off. With winds out of the west picking up in the afternoon, the best route was to sail northwest until we hit the San Pedro peninsula, tack and set the line for Avalon. To an experienced crew, it was a straightforward four- to five-hour trip. At about 11 a.m., we were past the breakwater walls and into the Pacific Ocean.
With Captain Matt’s expert guidance, we made it through the first half of the trip without incident. We stayed aware of our boom and rudder to manage our roughly 12 to 18 degrees of heel. We avoided the swells that can suddenly turn the boat back into the wind, knocking it wildly off course.
Catalina’s cliffs rose higher as we approached; our adrenaline surged. But the sea is relentless for even the saltiest sailors, and it showed no mercy to us first-timers. Brett was the first to lose it, but none of us were immune to the constant swirl. The only way out, of course, was forward. We feebly pressed on.
Our stomachs sank somehow further when we were met by an armada of moored boats outside of Avalon; apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought sailing was a great idea. Harbor Patrol was soon boat-side, informing us that this marina was full and we would have to anchor in Hamilton Cove, two coves down. The logistics of distance and the inexorable seasickness made it clear we could no longer sleep on the boat.
Already hours past our initial estimated arrival time, a wild scene ensued as we tried to get golf clubs, cameras, clothing and whatever else we could safely grab from the Talisman to the smaller boat that brought us to shore. Tempers flared as we wobbled into Avalon, knowing that our lodging options were slim.
Avalon is every bit a quaint resort community: Centered on Avalon Bay, it’s only 1 square mile in size, and roughly 4,000 permanent residents play host to nearly one million visitors a year. During the summer months, cruise ships dot the bay, and the hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts are reliably full. Our early-evening arrival couldn’t have been timed worse, and frustrations mounted as searches on our phones turned up either empty or with options obscenely expensive. Imagine the scene for contented tourists strolling Crescent Street: Three grown men, gear in hand, screaming about no room at the inn.
The trip was in real jeopardy. I feared sleeping on the beach or simply finding a shuttle boat home were more likely than sticking with our original plan. But Sean McAlpin wouldn’t let things get that far.
McAlpin was our contact for the trip, and when we finally reached his phone, we breathlessly told him our sad story. As an employee of the Santa Catalina Island Company (which manages the island and is still owned in part by the Wrigley family), he was able to move fast once we reached him. He somehow produced a rental apartment with beds for each of us.
We didn’t rest our weary legs there long. Buoyed by the feeling of dry land beneath our feet, we rushed to the Santa Catalina Country Club for nine holes in the dusk.
The course launched in 1892 as a three-holer with oil and sand greens built by the island’s previous owners. (Its current ones proclaim it’s the oldest operating course west of the Mississippi River.) They hoped this exciting new game would draw more tourists from the hordes of people moving to Southern California. It did, and soon they expanded to nine holes farther up the canyon.
In 1927, Wrigley added grass to the course for the first time; in 1929, he commissioned an expansion to 18 holes. Initially he enlisted architect John Duncan Dunn. But Dunn’s dramatic plans called for up to a 90-man landscaping crew—an incredible expense even now, and especially so back then. Wrigley soon dispatched Dunn and tapped William P. Bell, a prolific California-based designer known most famously for his contributions to George Thomas’ legendary trio of Bel-Air Country Club, Riviera Country Club and Los Angeles Country Club. Along with the course, the club renovated its clubhouse to act as a home for Wrigley’s true passion: baseball’s Chicago Cubs. Wrigley owned the Cubs and held their spring training on the island from 1920 to 1952 on a field with the exact dimensions of Wrigley Field in Chicago. During World War II, the island was commandeered by the U.S. military for strategic purposes, and after the war’s conclusion in 1945, only the initial nine holes remained in use.
Much of the course’s original footprint remains, and while it’s changed over the years, it confirmed my memories of a fun, sporty track featuring five par 4s and four par 3s.
Invigorated, we woke up the next morning ready to track down Lolo and a lost golf course. We began our pursuit in town. Like our sloshy boat ride in, this would be no normal day of travel: Avalon tightly regulates the number of cars on the island, which has turned its pavered streets into a jumble of taxis, bicycles and golf carts politely dodging everyone who chooses to walk instead. We packed our golf clubs, cameras and notebooks as expertly as we could and made for downtown the old-fashioned way: on foot.
McAlpin informed us that Lolo Saldana had been operating his Avalon barbershop there since the 1960s and had firsthand knowledge of both the Jones tournament and the Cubs’ heyday. One catch: Lolo wanted no part of us. He wasn’t fond of his portrayal by an ESPN documentary about the Cubs and their wild time on the island, and no longer had any interest in opening up to strangers with cameras. Never afraid of a challenge, we went to the shop anyway.
Barely a foot of paint is visible on the walls of Lolo’s Barber Shop. We gawked at the photographs, from the island’s inception to an 8-year-old Tiger Woods playing the junior event to Ken Venturi, who used to vacation on Catalina. Tucked away in the corner was a faded photo of Bobby Jones giving the trophy to a winner of his tournament.
Lolo wouldn’t let us take pictures of his joint or record our conversation, but he did allow Brett to sit for a haircut. Eventually he relaxed and gave us a small window into the island’s gauzy glory days. He talked of his time watching the Cubs play games by day and hitting the town with them at night. He spoke lovingly about the Bobby Jones Invitational Tournament, how much it meant to the locals, the tourism it brought, the prestige it gave them. I pressed a little and asked if he had ever competed in the event, knowing from my brief research that he was a bit of a player.
“Did I ever play?” he shouted back. “I won the event!”
He didn’t offer many details about his victory, but on our visit to the course’s clubhouse later that day, we confirmed his story.
The striking, fully restored Spanish Colonial–style clubhouse has distressed cream-colored walls, green trim and Catalina tile inside and on the roof. What used to be the locker room and showers for the Cubbies is now a private bar built to host high-end outings and company functions. Images of Catalina’s star-studded history grace the walls, along with the massive Bobby Jones Invitational trophy. At more than 5 feet tall and north of 150 pounds with its marble base, it was the work of a true artisan. We slowly rotated it and raised our eyebrows at the players who had passed through here—Hagen, Smith, Tommy Armour, Joe Kirkwood, Harry “Lighthouse” Cooper, the Dutra brothers, Al Espinosa—when, sure enough, “1951—Lolo Saldana” came into view.
With one piece of living history found, it was time to hunt for what remained of another that was lost long ago: the nine additional Bell-designed holes.
Looking out from the current first tee, high atop the property, the player can get an idea of the old lady and where she once spread her fingers. As we approached the flats above the first green, we entered the upper plain, where a majority of vintage photos with majestic ocean views were taken. This expanse and terrain, with deep caverns cutting into the hillside, was the topography that Bell utilized in creating what we could easily see were dramatic golf holes. Old photos in hand, we traversed the property for hours, looking for grown-in bunkers, old tee boxes, any remnants of the original. At minimum, we were thrilled by what we suspected could have been original locations for greens, bunkers and fairways—and then we found it. At one of the more scenic viewpoints of our hike, where we believed a tee box would have been, we saw old pilings for handrails and carved-out steps for golfers to descend onto the fairway—the golf-obsessive’s equivalent of an archeologist finding a fossil.
That night we toasted to a far more successful day than the previous one, to finding stories and artifacts no online search could ever produce. As one turned to a few more, we recognized that, despite the uproar on our way in, there is always something to be gained in the journey.
Halfway home on our return voyage, with calmer seas and the raging confidence of explorers made good, we reached a place where the depth of the ocean went beyond our boat’s measuring equipment. We strapped on our goggles, dove off the bow and took two big strokes straight down.