The Valencia Lions: Over 60 Years of Brogues and Birdies
FROM A FAIRWAY’S DISTANCE, the Valencia Lions may well appear like a host of motivated SCGA member clubs: pairings of avid adult gents on the wrong side of 50; a few beers; a few beer-bellies; and a pleasing plume of cigar smoke. Yet, closer up, one only need hear the inflections, dialects and brogues to grasp that this is no ordinary group:
“Geed one, mate!”
“Ohhhh, thas’ slappy . . .”
“Roon’ up they ya’ bugga’.”
With their golf yesteryear dating back to the late 1950s, the Valencia Lions undoubtedly track among the most historic of SCGA member clubs, if not one of the most unique groupings on the entire West Coast.
Founded upon the post-WWII fairways of SoCal as the Plymouth Argyles, the club’s original members were comprised of British expats, along with a few Irishmen, who’d gather for golf one Sunday a month.
“They all played soccer back in the day, and then they all came over to the States and played soccer for different teams, but played golf as well,” says Scotsman Robert O’Neill, current president of the Valencia Lions, who joined the Argyles in 1985. “And from what I’m told, the ‘Argyle’ name was based on the fact that one of the golf club members, who was Irish, played (soccer) for the Plymouth Argyles back in the day.”
Come the late ’80s, with the Argyles aging and the club starting to disassemble, O’Neill transitioned the group into its era as the Santa Monica Golf Club, which he shepherded into a new and burgeoning crew.
“It was a big, mixed pot (of backgrounds) with English and Scottish guys, a few Irish and a few Americans; but predominantly from the British Isles,” recalls O’Neill of the Santa Monica club. “And in those years, the late ’80s into the early ’90s, there were about 100 members. For our Sunday events there’d be 60 guys on a waiting list.”
Come the new millennium, the club again segued, this time into its modern-day incarnation as the Valencia Lions (founded in 2004-05), which gathers for a monthly Saturday event. Denoted by a Lions’ crest — hued by a meshing of the Union Jack and the Stars & Stripes — the club’s current count is a 30-plus man combo of diverse backdrops and varied accents.
“You go from a bunch of English guys we had with the Argyles, to a bunch of Scottish guys with Santa Monica, to today’s Lions, which is basically 50-50,” says O’Neill, “an even mix of Brits and Americans.”
Putts Not Politics
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Lions is not their accents but, rather, the things that club members opt not to say.
Considering the members’ respective countries of origin, these fellas have a half-millennium of reasons to not like each other. With 500 years of battles over religion, politics and land, the Lions of both antiquity and today could spend their five monthly hours together butting heads over anything and everything from the English Reformation to the British Civil Wars to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms to, hell, the American Revolution.
And yet, the Lions, past or present, have never roared into such matters.
“There was none of that, really. We’re out there playing golf, never really bring up any of that history,” says O’Neill. “That’s the way it’s been. It’s always been something of an unwritten rule — we’re here to play golf, and we’re not gonna have people bringing up stuff that will upset each other. There’s always been good banter, but the line is drawn there.”
“You know when you can say something and when you shouldn’t,” says Paul Ure, a current and original member of the Lions. “It’s a sign of respect for the other club members. We don’t see that sort of friction, and if we ever do, it’s, ‘Take a step back.’”
Like O’Neill, Ure is a native of Glasgow, Scotland. In the Lions, he gains amid his playing mates a comforting reminder of the homeland.
“We’ve got another group who goes to the pub to watch soccer matches, and I met Robert through that,” Ure says. “And, of course, being around these guys is a reminder of home. You’re from the same place, you went to the same games and you’ve got history together — there’s that connection of coming from the same place. Your heart is always back home.” He continued, “I’ve been here in the U.S. for over 30 years, and this is my home, but it’s not my home.”
Echoes O’Neill: “We’re from 6,000 miles away. But our conversations out here are mostly all about back home; and that’s where the banter, the wind-ups and the fun comes from. And it’s funny, because we’ll say some things and start laughing and the American lads are wondering what we’re talking about.”
Not that the domestic members feel like outsiders.
“I’m kind of a shy guy, but after playing with these guys a couple of times it was an easy decision to join,” says Brian Crowley, an American member. “They’ve had the group for so long and Robert has been running it for a such a long time, that they really know what they’re doing. And having been on some trips together, I’ve learned some good lessons, one of them certainly being that I can’t keep up drinking with the Scottish guys!”
An Homage to Members Past
Good-natured gaming and gathering amid glassware has long flowed through the club.
“Back then, I was one of two Mexicans in the group, and we always make fun of that,” remembers Dave Aspeitia, a current Lion who was a member of Argyles in the early 1980s. “In those days, there were a few Americans, but mostly English, Scottish guys and a couple of Welshmen. And it seems like they all gel together; it’s just like if you put a pub in the middle of somewhere, they’re all going to come. And it’s the same with the golf club.”
“It’s a lot of word-of-mouth,” says O’Neill. “When you come from the Old Country, you look for people like yourself. And there’s a whole bunch of British in Santa Monica, in Santa Clarita, and they find those British bars where you can watch your soccer team play.”
The club has long taken pride in bringing together differing backdrops as much as different countries of origin.
“The guys come from different [professional] worlds, from entertainment, engineering, working and retired police officers; but when they come together, they’re all golfers,” smiles O’Neill. “And if we never had this club, these guys may never have even met, never even talked to one another.”
Kept at a taut headcount with intention, the Lions don’t actively seek more players — they seek the right players.
“So many different personalities and so many different backgrounds, as far as what the guys do in their everyday lives,” adds Ure. “Today, this group, while a bit different than it once was in its beginnings, remains a very close-knit group. And it seems like when guys join, they stick with this club for a while.”
With the scorecards of over 60 years come and gone, O’Neill sees the club’s continuation as an homage to lands far away, and members now departed.
“I take pride in running a good club, having good people and treating everybody the same,” he concludes. “And that’s a credit to all the old guys from the past, because I saw how they ran it and respected each other and respected the rules of golf.”