Michael Yamaki is unofficial mayor of Riviera Country Club who kept paradise on course


PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 18, 2021: For the past 30 years, Michael Yamaki, 73, a retired corporate officer, has been responsible for making Riviera Country Club into a world class golf course on February 18, 2021 in Pacific Palisades, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

For the past 30 years, Michael Yamaki, 73, a retired corporate officer, has been responsible for making Riviera Country Club into a world class golf course in Pacific Palisades. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

His name is Michael Yamaki, but he answers to Mr. Lucky. That’s the nickname stitched on his golf bag and it fits Yamaki, who recognizes his astounding fortune in going from a troubled kid, to blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, to celebrated criminal attorney, to unofficial mayor of a golfer’s paradise.

“I guess my life sounds a little bit like Forrest Gump,” said Yamaki, 73, who recently retired after nearly three decades as managing corporate officer of Riviera Country Club.

Yamaki, thin as a flagstick and as energetic as someone half his age, stood Thursday on a Pacific-facing balcony and surveyed the pristine course below as the annual Genesis Invitational got underway.

For the last 30 years, he has routinely walked the holes in the early morning, running his hands along the Kikuyu fairways and Poa annua greens, making sure the grass is just so.

“You’ve got to walk it,” he said. “If you drive, you miss stuff that’s down there. You get to see where the gopher holes are, where the coyotes gather. It’s really interesting because you don’t care for the gophers and coyotes, but on the other hand, the reason they’re here is because it’s so good. The course is in healthy condition. You don’t see them in scraggly areas or anything. So there’s a little bit of a balance on that.”

Yamaki, who is quick to credit the club’s world-class grounds crew, learned about golf course agronomy only in the latest chapter of his life. As a kid growing up in the Crenshaw district, he didn’t know a five-iron from a five of clubs. But in his diverse adult life, he would learn about both.

He was an unfocused student who got in enough trouble that he bounced to three high schools, finally winding up at Dorsey, and even spent some time in juvenile detention at Camp Kilpatrick for an attitude adjustment.

That seemed to take, enough so that he got into UCLA and later attended law school at University of West L.A. He’d spend four days a week working at the Silver Slipper on the Las Vegas Strip, and the other three learning the law in night classes.

“I was a 21 and craps dealer,” he said. “I could deal every game. There was a guy named Jimmy Grippo who was the resident magician at Caesars Palace. He and I at night would sit down and do card tricks and stuff like that.”

It was then when Yamaki got to know two of the biggest stars in sports.

“Muhammad Ali before his fights, and also Jimmy Connors, because Las Vegas used to hold big tennis matches, they would come to get hypnotized by Jimmy Grippo,” he said.

“Ali, he was sharp, he was quick, and he really was a people person. He was the kind of guy who brought people together.”

Michael Yamaki walks back towards the clubhouse.

Michael Yamaki, 73, a retired corporate officer, walks back towards the clubhouse at the end of Round 1 of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on Thursday in Pacific Palisades. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Yamaki has a similar quality. No one fields more greetings than he does, walking briskly around the Riviera clubhouse. It’s as if he has spent his entire life there. Actually, he had an entirely separate life in the L.A. legal community, where he held more titles than a championship boxer.

He was a criminal lawyer. Ran a narcotics rehab program for the city. Sat on both the fire and police commissions, and reviewed all officer-involved shootings. Was appointments secretary to Gov. Gray Davis, and was a member of the task force on judicial selection and retention for the California Supreme Court. And on and on …

Basically, Yamaki did everything. Except play golf. He had no real interest, other than being friends with Karen Hathaway, whose family founded and owned Riviera.

“My father was a golfer,” Yamaki said. “And one day he’s watching the L.A. Open. And he’s telling his friends, ‘We should go try to get on at Riviera.’ I told him I thought I could help him because of my relationship with the Hathaway family. He didn’t know about it. He thought I was an idiot because I hadn’t taken them up already on an offer to play. So for about two or three months, my father doesn’t talk to me other than saying, ‘What an idiot. You didn’t take them up on that?’ ”

When the Hathaways sold the club to Noboru Watanabe in the late 1980s, Yamaki earned a reputation among that Japanese business titan’s people as someone who could get things done in L.A. That paved the way for Yamaki’s position as a top executive at Riviera, where he eventually took up the game. He now belongs to 15 clubs.

“There were a lot of issues here at the time,” Yamaki recalled. “People were not happy with the Japanese having bought this place. And they really treated Mr. Watanabe rudely. There were all talking about how this place was going to be sold, and it was really hurting Mr. Watanabe’s chance of doing tournaments and stuff like that. So that’s when he asked me to get more involved, I got more involved, from there that the rest was history.”

There are fewer than 300 Riviera members, among them an awards show full of celebrities, four NFL team owners (Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Las Vegas Raiders, Indianapolis Colts), and a certain quarterback who just won his seventh Super Bowl ring.

“I love Michael,” texted Tom Brady, whose signed New England Patriots jersey is under glass in the grill, and is inscribed with: “To Riviera, My Golf Heaven.”

Yamaki has long played a pivotal role when it comes to approving new members, and that affords him a different kind of respect. In another lifetime, he sat at the defense table. At Riviera, he gets the “Your Honor” treatment.

“When Adam Sandler was in the process of joining the club, I said, ‘Adam, I only know two of your works, ‘Happy Gilmore’ and `Mr. Deeds,’ ” Yamaki said, referring to the movies about the rough-edged hockey player-turned pro golfer, and the loveable and unassuming overnight billionaire.

“I told him, ‘I can categorically tell you I don’t want Happy Gilmore here. I want Mr. Deeds.’ ”

Two months later, after Sandler had joined, he was at a table in the Riviera dining room with his wife when Yamaki approached.

“Michael,” Sandler said, “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Deeds.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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