SB Nation

Rick Paulas | October 10, 2012

A Simple Game

Where golf is more than just a sport

There's a certain gait that's standard to the morning golfers at the Los Feliz Par-3. It's a half-waddle, zombie-esque lurch, body swaying to-and-fro like a rickety ship in the night towing a dinghy, in this case the towed object being a cart of clubs. For most, this peculiar walk is due to a combination of the inevitable knee issues that creep up after spending more than a few decades warding off Earth's gravitational pull and simply the carrying of a little extra baggage around the hips. Also, they smoke like crazy.

Likely, this isn't the first image that springs to mind when mentioning that this same course was used in the movie Swingers.

The cameo comes roughly a half-hour into the 1996 teenage cult classic. In between swings that would make Charles Barkley blush, Jon Favreau and Ron Livingston — playing a struggling comedian and recently-transplanted actor, respectively — discuss the moral implications of taking on a role at Disneyland. (“There's just something about Goofy,” Livingston's character says, “any other Disney character would be fine.”) Towards the end of the scene, their casual putting style causes “the natives” (labeled “a dozen of IRATE GOLFERS waiting to tee off” in the script) to get restless and they quickly move on to the next pin, a momentary respite before heading back into the dating cauldron that was/is L.A.

It's where people in the city whose main export is escapism come to escape.

Play one of the over 40,000 rounds the course sees on a yearly basis, however, and you'll notice a lack of gung-ho brah moving-the-game-along-fast attitude here. (It's one of the only “slices of life” the film doesn't get perfectly right about living in Hollywood, except maybe that swing music was ever that popular.) Instead, this six-decades-old course on the “eastside” of Los Angeles — quotation marks because, like most of L.A.'s named neighborhoods, the designation is fluid and possibly inaccurate; case in point, “eastside” is west of downtown — is for geriatrics whose doctor told them to stay active, for boyfriends to teach girlfriends the subtleties of a chip, and for struggling actors looking to pass a few hours before a nighttime audition or part-time wait gig. It's where people in the city whose main export is escapism come to escape.

Built in the 1940s as a driving range on land that's part of historic Griffith Park — which, legend has it, was donated to the city in 1896 because its awesomely-named owner Griffith J. Griffith was spooked by a ghost — it was converted into a pitch-and-putt course in the 1950s. (Not a true pitch-and-putt, that is; you need three clubs to play: A putter, a wedge, and whatever iron will get you from tee to green, an average length of 116 yards.) Ever since, it's been popular to the, let's say, less-skilled players. The peaceful drone of nearby Interstate-5, an aural twin to the gently rolling waves of the Pacific, is constantly being interrupted by shouts of “Fore!”

Standing at the “starter” — golf parlance for the ramshackle fee-collecting shack near the entrance, whose dripping air conditioning unit, full blast on a 90-degree pre-noon day, fills the air with a machine shop grind — is a man with a brimming smile, chatting up the morning attendant. He speaks from a distance that's a tad too far, almost inappropriate, like a hypochondriac nervous about catching the latest epidemic. Upon closer inspection, though, the real reason for his socially-awkward speaking range is revealed by a trail of smoke drifting from his cupped hand. He's merely being polite to the non-smokers around him.

“Golf is a meditation,” is one of them. “It makes me forget about my problems.”

This is Edward Jaan. And he has a lot to say about a lot of things.

“Golf is a meditation,” is one of them. “It makes me forget about my problems.”

Jaan's a member of the unofficially-named Morning Crowd, an ever-changing collection of men between the ages of 33 to 78 who meet at the course a tad before 9:30 every morning. Now mostly-retired, their jobs range/ed from hairdresser to acting teacher to maintenance worker at a local cemetery to track coach to, of course, independent movie producer. Sometimes, it's four that show up. Sometimes, 10. Jaan, himself one of the younger in the bunch at 60, shows up about two or three times a week to get his swings in. But many are there every morning, clubs in hand, cigarettes on lips, ready to play the course for $4 ($5.50 if you're not yet a senior), before forking $2 more to the L.A. Parks Department to play “the back nine,” a fancy way of saying they play the whole thing again.

"But over here, it's you, it's friends, it's nature!” But if the course is a daily ritual of relaxation, that isn't to say the Morning Crowd doesn't take their golf seriously. “Same pressure which we have here,” says Jaan through his well-groomed mustache, “Tiger Woods has.” His olive Iranian skin highlights the wrinkles next to his eyes, evidence of the amount of smiles he's formed in his life. “Tiger wants to win. We want to win. He's got money there, we got our money here,” he says, holding up a dollar bill. But Jaan is less here to make money so much as get entertainment without spending any. “You go to a movie, you pay more,” says Jaan. “You're bored, you're in the dark, you might not even like the movie. But over here, it's you, it's friends, it's nature!”

Maybe a bit too much nature for golf, actually. Looking at the hole layout found on the course's website, the design looks straightforward, true fairways without hazards, tightly-packed like the unsure steps of a toddler or drunk. The first hole is direct enough, trees on either side with an open pathway to the green. But holes two, three and four — jammed against the western fence which runs alongside a pedestrian pathway adjacent to the never-raging Los Angeles River — are the domain of squirrels. Golfers are their guests. They scamper across fairways, fearless of the rarely-accurate white projectiles. Now and then, they'll take cover in their holes if a golfer gets too close, but more often they just squat, chewing nuts they've scavenged, hairy spectators.

The squirrels and ball-collectors aren't the only scavengers in this surprisingly efficient ecosystem.

Holes five, six, and seven are reigned from nature above. A canopy of sycamore trees makes tee shots particularly challenging, as players can't utilize their normal stance; they must either hit “worm-burners” close to the ground, or pitch it up over the trees with such a trajectory that would have the variously-colored pig representations of “Angry Birds” chuckling at their misguided trigger fingers. Holes eight and nine, meanwhile, are relatively obstacle free.

The trees — at least, their dramatic overhang — aren't there by choice. When it was proposed a few years ago that the course remove a few limbs to make the pathways to the greens easier, local birdwatchers halted the action after noticing the trees are nesting areas. Hence: the existence of the tree tunnels. Hence: tee shots that go up, hit a branch, and ricochet off into places unknown. Hence: plenty of lost balls. Hence: regularly bringing three balls and leaving with half-a-dozen.

On a crowded day, the course can resemble an ant farm, every group performing their duty in perfect cohesion. The squirrels and ball-collectors aren't the only scavengers in this surprisingly efficient ecosystem. Afternoon groups — some who come after the course “closes” at 6 p.m. in order to race the sunset for a free round — come sporting their own kind of waddle, slightly different from the morning geriatrics. Theirs are not caused by health-related issues but by jeans two sizes too tight. Fashionable sunglasses, homemade-printed ill-fitting T-shirts, and tattoos are the normal attire in the p.m. And, of course, with them they bring an additional golf essential, in six-pack or Tall Boy form. Which means that throughout the day, human foragers armed with plastic bags scamper between shots and chips, sifting through garbage bins for nickel recyclables. On a crowded day, the course can resemble an ant farm, every group performing their duty in perfect cohesion.

Along with the sounds of brews being crushed and the occasional guttural burp, the late-risers bring an additional cacophony you don't hear in the morning hours: clubs clinking against each other as they hit the ground, discarded without care whenever they're not being used. It's not so much disrespect for the equipment, as much as simply seeing the game as something to do, not something to master. It's playing to pass the time and not, as Jaan puts it when referring to the older morning crowd, waiting for their time to pass. In fact, the always-smiling Jaan would probably fit in with their group more easily than the a.m. ancients.

“All the old guys always talk politics,” complains Jaan over the non-threatening music wafting from the adjacent cafe, a converted Quonset hut from World War II, owned by the city and renovated to the point that the only way you'd realize it's historic is if you were told so. “There's no conversation about fashion, about music, about movies. It's all negative about politics. It's just too fanatic for me,” he says with a smile. See, for Jaan, issues like politics are wastes of time after the things he's seen.

Before coming to America, via Germany, in 1989, Jaan had been living in Iran during their revolution in 1979 and subsequent eight-year war with Iraq. “It got to the point where you'd get used to [the bombings],” he says. “We'd go to the roof to watch.” During the revolution, Iran had been conducting its own paranoiac campaign inside its own borders after raiding the American Embassy. They'd discovered Jaan had been helping Americans who fled the country, retrieving dogs and photographs they left behind and shipping them back home. “They found these letters from American captains saying 'thank you for saving my dogs,’” Jaan says, never breaking his smile, “so they called me 'American dog,' put me in prison, and tortured me.”

Eventually, he was released and settled down — or, as much as one can settle down in the midst of an ongoing war — with his wife and two sons. Missile alarms raged nightly. When the attacks got really bad, he took his family out of the city and formed a small tent community with a handful of neighbors, boiling water in the river and making weekly food runs. Once, he was going to a friend's housewarming party when Jaan and his wife heard incoming-missile sirens and pulled over to wait it out. “Then we heard boom-boom-boom, the missiles dropped, now we can go.” When they got to their destination, they realized one of the missiles had dropped on their friend's newly-built home. “Over 70 people dead.” In the hospital he found his friend still breathing but paralyzed from the neck down. His friend's wife was covered in hundreds of glass shards. Both of them died, in Jaan's eyes mercifully, a few days later. “It's good, because their family is gone. Uncles, cousins, children, everything,” he says. “That's one of the things I've lost.”

But the true value of a game of golf at Los Feliz can't be expressed simply through numbers. While Jaan still sees his two sons, the rest of his family is scattered across the globe. His marriage is over, his parents are still in Iran, his sister lives in France, his brother in London, and his second brother is recently deceased. “That's what the revolution does,” says Jaan, “it splits the family.” Luckily, he found a new one.

Nearly 20 years after moving to Los Angeles, Jaan was invited by Richard Smith, the 78-year-old unofficial leader of the Morning Group, to give golf a try. “He gave me his putter, a few balls, and I went from there.” His best score on the course thus far, which he'll mention within five minutes of first meeting nearly anyone, is three-under, a 24 on the par-27 nine hole course. But the true value of a game of golf at Los Feliz — which, if you have your Spanish-to-English translator handy, seems appropriate — can't be expressed simply through numbers.

“When I'm laughing, and smiling, and talking, and happy. Why?” he asks. “People don't appreciate it. If they've seen the things that I've seen, then, they will know ...” He trails off and stares for a moment, stone-faced for the only time during the conversation, before breaking back into a smile, always a smile. “When you get the good shot, and your ball lands on the green close to the flag, you feel like a million dollars.” Pretty good return for four bucks a round.

About the Author


Rick Paulas has written many things, some of them serious, some of them not, for The Awl, Vice, Wired, and McSweeney's. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.

About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Berkeley and is a White Sox fan. He is working on his first novel.