Clarence Traywick backs his SUV next to a few storage sheds in the golf course parking lot, opens his trunk, and begins unloading containers of donated golf balls and office supplies.
It’s been two weeks since a kitchen fire ravaged the clubhouse at Lake Chabot Golf Course, the city’s oldest municipal links at 100 years of play in the Oakland hills. One mostly empty shed is what Traywick said remains of his junior golf academy, one of three junior golf programs at Lake Chabot, after its facilities were incinerated.
Mostly hand-me-down clubs. A few golf bags. Some golf balls.
“We lost all of our stuff,” said Traywick, who calls the free-of-charge academy a “melting pot” of East Bay kids, ages 7-17, who otherwise might never be exposed to the golf course. “When kids come through those gates, they never knew this existed. They never knew this was back here.”
Steve Harker, the CEO of Touchstone Golf Management, which has operated the golf course since 2007 through a service agreement with the city of Oakland, said firefighters saved a portion of the clubhouse in the early morning hours of June 6 and kept the two-alarm fire from spreading to the surrounding canyon. Harker is working with the city on an insurance claim. There were no injuries reported.
“On a windier night those embers could have made their way into vegetation and created a significant wildfire event,” said Michael Hunt, chief of staff for Oakland Fire Department. Firefighters cut through the Lake Chabot entrance gate on Golf Links Road and called for additional engines upon discovering the structure fire, said Hunt. Arson was not suspected, he added.
A temporary pro shop near the first tee now collects green fees, the driving range and practice greens remain open, and golfers can still purchase a Carlotta Burger from Carlotta Brown, who fires up the grill at the snack shack behind the 11th hole.
Harker, who has overseen clubhouse renovation projects at other of Touchstone’s 40-plus courses, said Lake Chabot will likely build a temporary outdoor patio for junior golfers to eat lunch and groups to convene after rounds. He estimated it will take two-to-four years to renovate or build a new clubhouse.
“A working man’s gem,” is how David Penney describes Lake Chabot Golf Course where, in 1943, a 16-year-old Bob Rosburg lost to a police officer in the Oakland City Championship title match, years before Rosburg won the 1959 PGA Championship; and in 1953, Oakland native Tony Lema played conservatively on the par-4 16th hole to win the City Championship, then went on to win the 1964 British Open; and Gloria Armstrong, an original LPGA Tour player, took her first swings as a youth and later solidified her status as an LPGA Hall of Fame instructor.
Penney, instead of heading to the clubhouse after playing 27 holes on a recent Tuesday, slowly drives his golf cart to the trunk of his car after flubbing a chip for eagle on the storied 18th hole, a 667-yard behemoth billed as the only par-6 west of the Mississippi River.
The clubhouse restaurant and bar, where good shots turn into folklore and bad ones are quickly forgotten, is now rubble.
“The people I know around here were really down in the dumps,” Penney said. “People lost gear because they were storing stuff here. What I would just hope is they keep the bones of the building, because it’s such a classic heirloom to golf and this area with the architecture.”
Lake Chabot, designed by Willie Lock, opened on Labor Day of 1923 at a reported cost of $45,000, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Early-century golfing great MacDonald Smith, a runner-up at the U.S. Open and British Open, hit a ceremonial tee shot with Oakland Mayor John L. Davie on hand. A streetcar brought sportsmen and sportswomen to the property.
“Play and grow thin,” was the mantra of then-Oakland parks and recreation director Jay B. Nash, who guaranteed a five-pound weight loss for each round played on the undulating course (most players today use golf carts to traverse the nearly 6,000-yard, par-71 layout).
The original clubhouse, completed shortly after the 1923 opening ceremony, had 500 lockers for men and 150 for women. It too burned down, in 1937, with longtime Lake Chabot professional Dick Fry first reporting the blaze, according to The Chronicle. A Spanish-style clubhouse was built in the spring of 1940 as part of the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It remained intact for 83 years.
Lema is the most decorated golfer to call Lake Chabot a home course. He befriended Fry’s son, Johnny, and the teenage boys worked together in the clubhouse in the late 1940s and played against each other before an estimated 1,000 fans for the 1953 City Championship.
“The only thing that could keep him out of trouble was golf,” wrote author Larry Baush in his biography of Lema, “Uncorked: The Life and Times of Champagne Tony Lema.”
It was during the City Championships at Lake Chabot where Lema, who was caddying, met Lucious Bateman, a Black man barred from playing in PGA tournaments because of his race. Bateman molded Lema and several other East Bay kids into PGA players. Two years after winning the British Open at age 30, his lone major victory, Lema died in a plane crash.
The clubhouse was a meeting place for Bateman and other pioneering Black golfers, as well.
In 1975, the Golden Gate Par Chasers, founded in 1971, became the first African American club recognized by the Northern California Golf Association. When retired Oakland Raiders tight end Raymond Chester managed the course from 1987-2006, it was common to see Oakland sports legends Joe Morgan and Bill Russell on the links. Charlie Hardy, another former Oakland Raider who co-owned the famed Bird Kage nightclub on Telegraph Avenue, hosted weekly Tuesday games at Lake Chabot and traveled the country with friends playing in Black golf tournaments.
“The fact that people played here close to 100 years ago is a testament to the game,” said Penney, who learned golf from his uncle in Ireland and became hooked after seeing PGA legends Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros milling around the clubhouse during the Irish Open. “That we’re doing the same thing that they did kind of aligns us to our past and I love that feeling. The views are beautiful. You can hear nature. You don’t hear a lot of cars or airplanes.”
Standing on the practice green just feet from the fenced-off clubhouse remains, Frank Hummel works on his putting stroke Tuesday afternoon. “I got a text the night of the fire,” said the Lake Chabot regular. “(The clubhouse) was nice to have. Go in and have a cold beer and a snack.”
Kenny Brown, working to straighten out his driver on the range Tuesday, plays weekly with friends, family, and fellow retirees. The clubhouse was a place to share stories.
“Come on, man, that’s the 19th hole!” exclaims Brown, who began playing golf in the 1970s. “That’s where you start collecting the money. Seeing who’s going to buy drinks.”
Green fees for the 18-hole course at Lake Chabot start at $35 for Oakland residents; the nine-hole course is $12 for residents; and disc golf on the nine-hole course is $10.
Standing by the storage shed, Traywick said the fire destroyed golf gear, computers and office supplies, along with photographs and memorabilia from junior events. The Lake Chabot Junior Golf Academy, launched in 1993 by Chester, has created a Go Fund Me and Traywick has already received donations of golf balls and supplies from friends.
The Chicago native first played golf on a business trip to the Bay Area. “I don’t play golf,” he recalls thinking, not wanting to miss a Bulls playoff game during the Michael Jordan dynasty. Traywick shot 120 that day with rented clubs and shoes. He hasn’t put the clubs down since.
Upon returning home to Chicago, he purchased a set of Spalding clubs and has since played courses in Australia, Spain, Mexico, and Hong Kong. Today, the Lake Chabot Junior Golf Academy he operates as board president introduces Oakland kids to the sport at no cost.
“It’s really lovely to see everyone rallying around after the disaster,” said Penney, noting that a course golf instructor donated an extra set of left-handed clubs to a food manager whose own set melted in the blaze. “That’s what’s beautiful about the game. It’s a true test of kindness.”