Last month in the Feb. 8 edition of the Daily Press, I wrote about the Hesperia Inn sitting on the bluff overlooking Antelope Valley. The canyon's name, as related to Hesperia, is strange to most of us. We think of Palmdale and Lancaster — our neighbors to the west — when we hear Antelope Valley. But on the maps, that's the correct name. It makes a person wonder if the graceful, horned animals once bounded over rock, sand, and shrubs and called the entire area home.
In 1957, from the south edge of the Hesperia Inn grounds, visitors could look down into the Antelope Valley and see the challenging fairways and immaculate greens of the newly constructed Hesperia Golf Course.
Perched slightly above the course, near the bottom of the opposite wall, the quarter-million-dollar clubhouse was finished in 1958. According to some, the roof design was its "architectural highlight." The outstanding roofline jutted out on the north side of the building over the pro shop where two glass panes, nearly 20 feet each, formed a protruding "V". The starter's desk, positioned at the tip of the "V", overlooked the ninth green and the 10th tee.
Besides the pro shop, the stunning clubhouse included a cocktail lounge, dining room, offices, lavatories, men's and women's lockers, and men's card room. Outside were wading and swimming pools on a sundeck that overlooked the golf course.
Greens fees were $3 on weekdays, and $5 on weekends and holidays; a bucket of balls for the driving range ran 75 cents. In the spring of 1958, a nine-hole pitch and putt course was seeded.
Right from the start — 1957 — the Hesperia Golf Course was renowned. Famous PGA golfers came from far and wide to participate in the first Hesperia Invitational Open Tournament that offered a purse of $15,000, and again in 1958. In 1959, with the added attraction of a pro-am celebrity tournament, winnings increased to $20,000. Thousands of spectators and media personnel attended to watch the matches and get a glimpse of the golfers and celebrities.
William F. Bell Jr., designed the 18-hole, par-72 championship course at a length of 7,006 yards that included five water hazards. Upon completion, though technically beautiful, the majority of vegetation consisted of Joshua trees and a few scrawny junipers. As late as 1959, the visual oddity of the course, and the remote location, prompted Stan Wood, then the golf editor for the L.A. Mirror News, to write:
"When you think about the $20,000 Hesperia Open Golf Tournament, you realize several aspects of incongruity…all pleasant to be sure…connected with this popular event.
"Where else, for example, could you find the smallest community ever to hold a PGA tournament — Hesperia — to be located in the world's largest county — San Bernardino?
"And where else, in normally flat desert country, do you find a lush, green, gently rolling cucumber-shaped championship course as Hesperia?
"You might add the five artificial water hazards that swallow wayward balls as another highlight. And, of course, there is the grotesque-shaped sentinel of a Joshua tree which impersonally stares at startled trespassers that have strayed into the center of a sand trap on the 16th hole."
At the end of his article, Wood mentioned another unusual thing that took place at the Hesperia Inn. He quoted PGA tournament supervisor Harvey Raynor:
"'I have seen the boys have a little fun before a tournament and most frequently after one but, in all my experiences on the tour, I have never seen anything like this before. Frankly, I think it is wonderful,' said the head-shaking surprised Raynor."
Wood continued, "Harvey was referring to the most expensive talent ever to appear in the famous Hesperia Inn productions. This show was headlined by Ken Venturi, Dick Mayer, Don Whitt, Bo Wininger, Jay Hebert and Connie Venturi. Ken away on the drums; Mayer ably playing the piano, Whitt was pounding the bongo drums — atop the piano bar — Hebert and Wininger were doing a soft shoe routine with Connie."
But when it came time to compete, the clowning around was left behind and the golfers were all business. The annual event continued for five years with Billy Maxwell placing first in 1957; John McMullin, 1958; Eric Monti, 1959; Billy Casper, 1960; and Tony Lema, 1961. In 1959 Gene Littler shot a 62 to set the course record that held for 47 years until Mike Mayer topped it with a 59 in 2006.
Among many other famous golfers competing at the Hesperia course during those years were Arnold Palmer, Lloyd Mangrum, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Doug Sanders, Jerry Barber, Ken Venturi, and a tall, thin Al Geiberger — just turning pro. (Lists of all golfers who competed in the five PGA tournaments can be seen at the Hesperia Museum located at 16367 Main St.)
For the 1959 celebrity pro-am, my boss at the Hesperia Inn pulled me from my regular job at the switchboard and assigned me to the golf course to help with the tournament pairings.
"Pairings? What's that," I asked.
"You know. For the tournament," was the answer.
"Do I have to? I don't know anything about golf."
He laughed at me and sent me to the golf course. When the PGA tour manager found that I knew nothing about his livelihood game, the teasing got worse. Grinning, he said, "You mean you don't know about birdies and bogeys?"
I shook my head.
"How about divots, slices, and hooks?"
Again my head shook.
"Well, you do know what par is."
"Uh, uh." I knew he was thinking "country bumpkin" and, if his eyes hadn't been twinkling, I think I would have quit right then.
After laughing at my naivety, he finally dropped that line of joking. In a serious vein, he talked about Arnold Palmer and said he regretted he wouldn't be playing in this tournament.
I said, "Who?"
He shook his head in disbelief. Then he pointed to a tall, lanky, young golfer flanked by an older man and woman as they approached the pro shop. "That's Al Geiberger," he said. "Those are his parents with him. He's just starting out and he's one to watch. He's going places."
I looked at the golf manager with a big knot in my stomach. He was speaking to me in a foreign language.
Just then, the tall, dark-haired, handsome star of the "Maverick" TV series walked up to my table, golf clubs slung over his back, and asked for his pairing. I guess he felt no need to state his name. (By this time, it had been explained to me that pairings were cards that showed who would play together.) I began searching the long box of 3x5 cards. All I could think of was Maverick. No matter how I racked my brain, the name James Garner refused to surface.
I faked a smile and said, "Your card doesn't seem to be here, but as soon as I find it, I'll bring it to you."
He didn't smile, real or otherwise, and said, "I'll be at the driving range." I delivered his pairing as soon as I came down to earth and my brain engaged.
Another day I was assigned to a remote entry point to the tournament and told not to let anyone through unless they had a pass. The word anyone was stressed several times. I'm not positive, but the dirt road I was posted to was probably today's Peach Avenue that dips into the Antelope Canyon and cuts through the eastern end of the golf course.
The first vehicle to approach — dirt and dust flying — was a long, black limousine, something rarely seen in Hesperia. I held up my hand and signaled the driver to stop. The chauffeur lowered his window and I asked for his pass.
"We don't need a pass," he responded in a bored voice and jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the backseat.
The sun was bright and the limo windows were dark. I glanced in the direction the driver pointed, but I couldn't see anything. I looked back at him and said, "Everyone has to have a pass. No exceptions."
The rear door of the limo opened and out climbed a short, chunky man chewing on a long cigar. He looked at me. I looked at him.
"Go ahead," I told the driver as M. Penn Phillips got back in the limousine.
I got a lot of teasing in the following days about denying passage to the developer and owner of the golf course and purchaser of 20,000+ acres of Hesperia.
TV publicity came in a grand way in 1963. "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf" filmed an episode of Challenge Golf at the Hesperia course. The event was a major compliment considering the program produced the weekly series from all over the world —Switzerland, Scotland, India, Brazil, Australia, etc. The Hesperia Challenge Golf featured Gary Player, nicknamed "The Black Knight," Arnold Palmer, known as "The King," Ted Kroll, who had been awarded three purple hearts, and Sam Snead, called "Slammin' Sammy."
During the town's heydays, visitors flew into the Hesperia Airport for a game of golf or a golf package, and the Hesperia Inn sent a car to pick them up. Corporations held conventions at the hotel and took advantage of the three-day, two-night golf specials. Individuals came by car after reading the many ads that offered land and homes for sale and publicized the Inn and golf course.
Hesperia was known. Hesperia was booming. New businesses opened, schools were built, and new construction offered jobs and supported satellite companies. It was a town on its way, growth appreciated by some but resented by others — feelings that are as familiar to residents today as they were yesterday.
Hazel Stearns is the author of "Shaping Kate," a novel set in Hesperia and available on barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, and at the library.