Goofy bets after a few beers are pretty common, but in October 1954, two golf buddies came up with a doozy of a wager that turned into a three-day, 42-mile putting challenge over the San Gabriel Mountains that ended in the biggest sand trap of them all — the Mojave Desert.
The marathon putting challenge began when James Rogers, 29, and Leonard Nash, 26, were trading friendly jabs in a bar after a hot, smoggy golf game in Pasadena. After being beaten on the course earlier, Rogers declared, “It was luck.” Nash quickly fired back, “It wasn’t.” “I could beat you any time, any course,” said Rogers. “I could even beat you playing over the mountain,” replied Nash. “It’s a bet. One buck,” said Rogers, and it was on.
Newspaper accounts vary on how the bet originated, but it was a silly wager that quickly evolved into a spectacle. Newspapers across the country would cover the event nearly stroke by stroke.
Rogers was an engineer from Altadena, and Nash a plumbing contractor from Pasadena. Both were relatively good golfers who shot in the high 80s.
The fairway was to be the climbing, twisting asphalt lanes of the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways, between La Cañada and Palmdale. Both men drove the route to get to work in Palmdale, so they were quite familiar with all the hazards, such as cliffs, deep ravines, sharp turns and, of course, mountain traffic.
A few impromptu rules were agreed upon, and a date of Thursday, Oct. 28, 1954, was set after newspapers got wind of the wager and pressed the issue. Both men would be equipped with only a 1 iron, and a putter, and as many balls as they felt necessary. Balls that were hit off the road, and were not retrievable (into canyons, etc.) resulted in a penalty stroke.
The marathon putting match started at noon at the intersection of Angeles Crest Highway and Foothill Boulevard in La Cañada. Unsuspecting drivers passing through the busy intersection must have been surprised to see a small crowd of onlookers and support vehicles gathered around two men hitting golf balls up the street.
Steady progress was made throughout the day, even with stray golf balls hitting cars, or careening hundreds of yards off the road into deep canyons below. Lost balls and penalty strokes began mounting as the men climbed further up the mountain, but refreshments in the form of cold beers and snacks were never further than one of the support cars.
Day 1 ended at the intersection of Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways, or the Palmdale cutoff, with the score Rogers 177 and Nash 184. Considering the conditions on the 9.4-mile course, the score was rather impressive, with the men averaging about 93 yards per stroke.
The golfers and their support crews spent the night outdoors at the cutoff, and they enjoyed a hot meal and an outdoor beer party before retiring to their sleeping bags.
Day 2 began at 5:50 a.m., and the men and their loyal crews continued to grind their way through the San Gabriels.
Pasadena physician John Krauss was driving his convertible as a support vehicle, and thus far, he had reportedly made seven trips to Pasadena to restock the cooler with beer and buttermilk.
Rogers’ wife, Harriet, was also providing support in their family vehicle, and their 5-month-old son Steven was a passenger in the slow-moving parade of golfers and cars.
When interviewed for this article, Steven Rogers’ wife, Ilean, said, “It was a wacky thing that Steve loved, and the tournament held a special place in his heart, knowing that his dad did something so special.”
By the end of Day 2, the parade reached a camping spot about 16 miles from Palmdale, and there was some gratification knowing Day 3 would be nearly all downhill. James Rogers was still in the lead at 332, but Nash was close behind at 337.
Despite being behind on the scorecard, Nash was playing well, and he made what could have been a world-record drive of more than 1,600 yards, if only it hadn’t sliced off into a mile-deep canyon.
Day 3 and the final leg of the challenge began on Saturday, Oct. 30, 1954. Both men had blistered feet from walking 25 miles on hot asphalt and chasing golf balls down ditches, and canyons, and neither had slept particularly well in their makeshift roadside camps.
At this point, stubborn perseverance and drinking beer seemed to be what kept the golfers moving forward on their slow journey over the mountains.
The men made good progress toward Palmdale, and by late afternoon, they were putting their way down Sierra Highway, toward the final hole at the Royal Palms Inn.
The tournament took a melodramatic turn when Nash was served with a subpoena between strokes that Saturday afternoon. Apparently, he hadn’t been paying his child support, and the soon-to-be former Mrs. Nash took advantage of knowing exactly where he would be at a specific time.
Just before the finish, the day was further marred by a minor accident where Harriet Rogers fell out of the car she was riding in, and needed medical attention. Apparently the injuries weren’t serious, and the match continued.
A caravan of 50 cars, and more than 2,000 spectators lined the main road into Palmdale to witness the grand finale at the 18th hole, which fittingly was a mop bucket turned on its side at the entrance to the Royal Palms Inn.
By the time the exhausted duo reached the inn, it was dark, and Rogers was leading by only 6 strokes.
Rogers took his first shot at the bucket, and missed. The drama and tension mounted, and on his fifth attempt, Rogers holed the ball in the bucket with a loud clank, winning the match by a meager 2 strokes.
The final score was Rogers 676, Nash 678, and the lost ball total was 128. The golfers were dog-tired, but they somehow found the energy to enjoy the huge celebration that ensued at the inn. The men rested their weary feet in a tub of ice while Nash formally paid off the $1 bet.
After a bit of celebrating and rejuvenation, Rogers said, “It’ll be an annual affair.” Nash added, “Maybe next year, we’ll try another course. L.A. to Las Vegas or something.” The duo never set up another match, and the great La Cañada to Palmdale Putting Tournament turned out to be a one-of-a-kind event in the history of golf and beer drinking.
Mark Landis is a freelance writer for Fontana News Room. He can be reached at Historyinca@yahoo.com.