Sunnylands golf course inspired by flared tempers

June 4th, 2013 | by Bruce Fessier | Comments

I was a little surprised that Larry Bohannan didn’t report the genesis of Walter Annenberg’s private golf course in his story on the Sunnylands estate where presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet this weekend.

It’s a legendary story and I’d think it was apocryphal if I hadn’t heard it directly from the man who inspired Annenberg to build the nine-hole course, the late, colorful, sometimes profane Scorpy Doyle.

Doyle was a caddy for celebrities like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and the starter at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage for 34 years, starting in the early 1950s when the great Ben Hogan was the club pro and Annenberg, Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers and nearly every significant Jewish show biz figure belonged to the club.

Phil Harris, who was Jack Benny’s musical sidekick, and Howie Richmond, who started the Songwriters Hall of Fame, took me to lunch with Doyle in 1995 because he was in an early phase of dementia and they wanted me to hear some of his legendary tales first hand.

SUNNYLANDS SUMMIT: See where Obama and Xi will stay and may play

The word irascible was invented for Doyle. He was the living incarnation of William Demarest as Uncle Charlie in “My Three Sons.” Nobody intimidated him and that made the upper echelon of older celebrities love him. Crosby was a virtual recluse in this desert, but he hung out with Doyle because he not only provided good tips on the fairways, he cracked him up. When Crosby died, Sinatra wanted one of Bing’s trademark pipes for a keepsake, so he asked Doyle to get one for him.

A golfer tees off on the fifth hole at the Sunnylands golf course on May 6. (Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)

A golfer tees off on the fifth hole at the Sunnylands golf course on May 6. (Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)

Annenberg was one of the most powerful men in show biz and politics by the 1960s as the publisher of TV Guide, Seventeen magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and as a financial backer of movies. His wife Leonore, was raised by her uncle, Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn.

When Annenberg was building, or perhaps planning Sunnylands just east of Tamarisk Country Club, he used to play golf at Tamarisk. One day, he was waiting for a tee time and he began to get impatient as Doyle didn’t seem to be paying attention to his desire to get on the course.

Finally, Annenberg snapped, “What do you have to do to get a tee time around here?” Doyle didn’t take kindly to the remark and snapped right back, “Why don’t you build your own (bleeping) golf course.”

So Annenberg did.

And that’s how Sunnylands got the most exclusive golf course in the desert.

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