Dennis Quaid, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Lovitz and Christian Slater have taken lessons from the pros there and some old timers whose faces pop up in commercials or old films can be seen on the putting green. Don Cornelius, the longtime host of "Soul Train", is a regular.
Those guys are usually left alone by the rest of the duffers who are there to pound golf balls. Celebrities are usually treated the way we treat grieving acquaintances, a quick gesture of recognition (just so they don’t feel forgotten) followed by averting eyes and giving plenty of space.
There is some solace in noticing that most of these famous and successful stars are lousy golfers, and I can usually outdrive them.
Then there are some visitors who inspire something more than curiosity. Pete Sampras recently took a series of lessons from one of the pros there, Ron Del Bario. Sampras was pretty serious about his golf after retiring from a tennis career that left him as one of the all time greats. He brought his own cameraman to record every lesson and said he was practicing hours every day. He sweated out his golf lessons, and you could see what made him a superior athlete. It was impressive.
But I was not still not in awe until a few years ago, when Ernie Banks frequented the range, visiting an old friend from Chicago. I had seen him play in Ebbetts Field when the Cubs visited the Dodgers in 1956. Along with Musial, Kiner, Spahn, Roberts, and the other stars of that era, Banks had been a superhero. He hit 512 career home runs when it meant something, and has ever since been called "Mister Cub".
At the range fifty years later, I was able to have several long talks with Mr. Banks.
I told him about seeing him when I was a kid, realizing that he has heard that story a million times. He was more interested in his work with ghetto kids in Chicago and getting his projects going.
I asked him about it today. He explained gruffly but patiently - having told it many times - that he did that so the other team would never know whether he was really hurt by a tackle. I joked that his injuries may have come from lacrosse. Brown chuckled at that. He was an all-American in lacrosse and football at Syracuse, remembered there as the best college lacrosse player ever. He also lettered in basketball.
He shared his opinion of modern players. "The difference is preparation. You can’t do it in a nightclub." About Tiger Woods? "He may have lost it when he got hurt. This young kid, McElroy is 19 and he looks good." Someone mentioned Anthony Kim, a young pro who used to attract crowds at the Studio City range when he was the best ball striker there at 8 years old.
I suggested that maybe Tiger got interested in other things during his 8 month layoff - he has a second child, all the money in the world, and his father wanted him to change the world. Brown laughed at that. "Earl got pushed aside by the corporate suits and it became about making money, that’s all." I asked about his foundation. Brown didn’t conceal his bitterness. "His foundation? He expects to change life in the ghetto by teaching golf?"
When I left, he was still hitting balls. I wished him well. He said, "See ya."