Sixty years and six miles away from this weekend’s Genesis Invitational, golf’s very best gathered to play the Los Angeles Open. Unlike today’s $9.3 million Riviera Country Club extravaganza, the tournament had no title sponsor, and pros played for the $45,000 purse at Rancho Park, a beloved L.A. muni.
Arnold Palmer, 31, entered the tournament as the natural favorite; he’d won the U.S. Open and the Masters in 1960 and was reigning Player of the Year. He got off to a reasonably strong start on Thursday, too, teeing off No. 10 and navigating his first 17 holes in one under par. That’s where he stood as he reached the 508-yard par-5 9th.
“I knew that I needed a birdie for a 68, and an eagle would put me close to the lead,” he told the L.A. Times some decades later (we’ll forgive him for being a stroke off in that calculus). After striping his drive some 275 down the center of the fairway, Palmer pulled 3-wood.
He sliced it out to the right, caught the top of the boundary fence and bounced into the driving range. Out of bounds.
“There was a gasp as the first approach shot toward the green sailed to the right,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recounted the following day.
After dropping another ball, Palmer pulled 3-wood again.
“I still had a chance to make par,” he would say later.
Instead, he overcorrected for his previous miss. This time he hooked one onto adjacent Patricia Avenue. O.B. again.
Palmer dropped another ball — and hooked it onto Patricia Avenue again. Now he was hitting eight from the fairway. He produced another block-slice into the driving range.
After that, Palmer finished the hole off quite nicely. He finally got that same 3-wood to cooperate, busting one onto the green and then two-putting for what amounted to a 12 (would have been a birdie on his fifth ball, for those of you keeping count at home).
“It took Palmer and his partners, Billy Casper and Bo WIninger, several minutes to agree on the figure,” the Post-Gazette recounted. Palmer signed for a six-over 77 and wound up missing the cut.
Interestingly, had the tournament taken place a week earlier Palmer’s score would have registered as just an 8. At the time, a debate about the stroke-and-distance penalty was raging across the golf world, and in 1960 the USGA treated a shot O.B. as just a rehit rather than charging an additional penalty stroke. But the rule hadn’t stuck.
Palmer’s tournament ended unexpectedly quickly that year. But two years later, the same year Rancho Park installed a plaque commemorating those dozen shots, Palmer created some fonder memories with his first L.A. Open victory. In 1966 he set a course record with a 62 and won again. In 1967 he finished five strokes clear of the field for a third title.
“The 12 I made doesn’t come close to wiping out all the pleasant memories,” Palmer said later.
The L.A. Open moved to Riviera in 1973, exchanging one of the country’s busiest public courses for one of its most high-profile country clubs. But with Riv set to host the 1983 PGA Championship, the L.A. Open moved to Rancho Park once again. Arnold Palmer, now 53, channeled his positive memories and entered Sunday’s finale just one shot out of the lead.
A massive crowd turned out to root on the King, and he rallied early, even joining the lead with a lengthy birdie putt on No. 5. But he battled a balky putter and faded from contention down the stretch. It was the last time he challenged for a PGA Tour victory.
Rancho Park, designed in 1947 by William P. Bell and William H. Johnson, was a meaningful tournament for plenty more pros than just Palmer. Jack Nicklaus made his professional debut there in 1961, earning a check for $33. Charlie Sifford won his second and final PGA Tour event at Rancho Park in 1969. A 21-year-old Nancy Lopez won two of the three LPGA Sunstar Classics stage at Ranch from 1978-80.
Pro events or not, Rancho Park remained a hub of activity. In 1984 the course reported 125,894 rounds played, a number unmatched by any other muni in the country. It still regularly cracks six-figure annual round totals. There’s a new plaque commemorating the 12, too, put in by the parks department in 2017, entitled “HOW PALMER MADE HIS 12.”
And there’s a matter-of-fact quote from the L.A. Times that week that has lived on through the decades. Asked how it was that he made a 12, Palmer delivered a simple, memorable one-liner:
“I missed a short putt for an 11,” he said.
This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.