Unbreakable Spirit: The Amazing Journey of Tracy Drake
For thousands of years, the Gabrielino-Tongva were the original inhabitants of this land, their lives and language spreading the indigenous tribe across more than 100 settlements that stretched from the L.A. basin to the South Channel Islands.
First contact with outsiders came in 1542, when explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, working for Spain, encountered bands of the native peoples, initially at San Diego Bay and, shortly thereafter, on what is now known as Santa Catalina Island.
A mere decade later, on the opposite side of the globe, Archbishop John Hamilton’s 1552 charter allowed the people of St Andrews to play golf on the eponymous links, serving as the world’s earliest known documentation of formalized public play and cementing St Andrews for time immemorial as the “Home of Golf.”
Nearly a half millennium later, these two seemingly unrelated and distant occurrences in the scope of human history would coalesce, finding synchrony both tumultuous and harmonious in the form of a little girl in South Pasadena who had been all but left for dead in what would be her own golf home, upon her own native land.
Her name is Tracy. Her Guatemalan – Mayan descendants live among the indigenous Tongva. Her inner-circle knows her as “Hawk.”
Tracy Drake was raised in chaos, her 1970s South Pasadena home life a residence of tumult. Attributing the turmoil to a host of factors both internal and tangible, she reflects on the upbringing with a metered remembrance.
“My mother, she was an alcoholic,” Drake recalls. “An incredible lady [who] couldn’t have been a worse mother. I guess the way I see it is that there’s a very fine line between madness and genius, and she lived on that line.”
Tracy and a sibling were left to fend for themselves.
“My sister and I, they’d lock us in a room with a box of Cheez-Its and that was our weekend,” she carefully continues. “We were basically starving. I eventually found a way to unlock the door, climb into the kitchen and steal food for us.”
Concurrent with the neglect, belt whippings from her father and incestual abuse from an older brother took her to the realization that survival was dependent on departure.
I put my things in a bag. My dad saw me carrying it out, and he grabbed me by the neck,” she says. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to die here.’ He dropped me. I took my stuff, and I walked out the door. And I came here.”
The “here” to which Drake refers is the Arroyo Seco Recreation Area, a rustic spread cutting through the canyons below the Pasadena Freeway; its watershed once an integral part of the Tongva culture and network, today’s 74 acres of public play features horse stables, tennis courts, batting cages and ample trail space.
A mile away from her childhood home, the vast venue further includes the Arroyo Seco GC, an 18-hole par 3 that dates to 1955.
A revisit to these grounds with Drake brings forth the essence of her character. The longtime park services manager for the City of Torrance — and counted among the most revered naturalists in the region — she speaks of her past.
“I followed the oak trees,” she remembers of her 12-year-old self.
She trekked along the hiking path adjacent to the course’s closing holes, a bag over her shoulder and no money in her pocket; she was, at that moment, a homeless runaway.
“Then I sat and cried for a long time and wondered what to do. I was tired, I was hungry, so I just slept over there,” she points, “on the hill, by the 16th hole.”
This primitive cover of brush and nestle cover would serve as her home for hundreds of nights over the next four years.
“To look at this little area now and know how important it was to me … I think that’s why I became a naturalist and an environmental educator,” she says. “To share this appreciation for the land.”
It took but a few ensuing dawns for young Tracy to further appreciate a crucial observation of those with whom she shared the Arroyo Seco, those playing a game with which she was wholly unfamiliar.
“I discovered that these golfers weren’t very good,” she laughs. “So, I’d walk along the trail and find their lost balls in the woods.”
Further observations of golfer habits soon took hold.
“If they didn’t hit it into the woods, some people would hit the palm trees and the balls would drop into the pond water,” she continues, referencing the stream running through the center of the golf grounds.
Intrepidity became a fast cousin of survival.
“I’d walk in the pond barefoot and I learned how to pick up the balls with my toes,” she says, “and I started getting a dime for the bad ones and a quarter for the good ones.”
Coupled with dumpster diving for food at a nearby liquor store, the little girl’s modest bounties from lost ball retrieval allowed her to at least feed herself.
One day in those early stages of living in the woods, the kid caught a break. Compliments of a hothead golfer, a fortuitous find would pave a new future.
“Between holes 15 and 16, I found a 7-iron; somebody clearly had a whirl with it and tossed it into the shrubs,” she recalls. “It was such a gift. I’d swing it through the tall grass and find balls, and I’d also use it to fish through the bottom of the pond for more balls.”
The club served as impetus for industry.
“I started becoming very productive; I could find 30 balls a day. And I’d line them all nice for the golfers at the far end of the property,” Tracy continues. “Some people were very kind; some of them were very dismissive of me, not wanting to talk to a homeless person.”
Among the former was a gentleman whom Tracy refers to as her savior.
Henry Hoople was a radio actor from the medium’s heyday, with ample credits on The Judy Canova Show from the mid-to-late 1940s, and a series of appearances on the It Pays to Be Married program in the mid-50s.
Come the ‛70s, Hoople traded mic for fairway, working as an advertising manager for Confidence Golf and spending most days at Arroyo Seco, either playing or giving lessons.
When he first met Drake, Hoople observed a young person in desperate need of help.
What he ultimately found was a protégé.
“The first time we met, Henry gave me 50 cents for a quarter ball and a dime ball. I didn’t have change, so he said he’d come back tomorrow,” Tracy says. “He also noticed my 7-iron, and he asked if I played. I told him I didn’t, and he said, ‘Would you like to learn?’ I told him I would and he told me to meet him the next day.”
Between sleeping in the woods next to the course, collecting lost balls for food money and going to school with some regularity (where she’d wash up in the restroom), Drake found a pattern with Henry. She caddied for him, and he soon became her de facto coach.
“We would practice, or I’d watch him teach for three or four hours, every single day. Rain or shine,” Tracy recalls with pride. “I’d look for his Oldsmobile in the lot, and when he got here, I’d go grab his bag.”
In Henry, Drake found more than just a teacher. The mentor-student dynamic, with golf as its fulcrum, provided something the girl had never had in her troubled life — routine.
“It was a relief to be around somebody who provided me that level of consistency, who really cared about me,” she says of the relationship. “He never took me out to eat, never made any advances toward me; he was just there, and consistently caring. I knew when I got back to the course after school, there was this window of time with Henry where I was safe.”
The rest of the time, as a homeless youth in L.A., safety was never a given. “It was better than being at home, but it was still a day-to-day of not knowing if I’d be alive in the morning,” Tracy says.
Most nights found her sleeping next to the course. On occasion, she’d sneak back into her parent’s home through her old bedroom window; for a time, she stayed with a former nun in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of L.A., where the lone slumber space available was a little kid’s outdoor playhouse.
Now, more than four decades removed from her life on the streets, the instincts of daily survival remain.
“I like to think I’m very observant; if I [don’t pay] attention to the sounds around me, I could die,” she says. “That, and I never, ever go anywhere without my knife. There are predators out there.”
Today, revisiting the path adjacent to the 16th hole at Arroyo Seco, Drake offers pause for the life that was.
“It’s peaceful, but there are tears behind my eyes for the kid that was once here,” she says. “But at the same time, there’s gratitude. I’ve done the best that I can, every day, and that is something I do know for certain.”
And then, as proof that the skill for ball-hunting remains in her DNA, Tracy tilts her head with observation and purposefully tromps through the O.B. brush, navigating around a skunk hole.
“One practice ball and one really good one,” she smiles. “And it’s okay to stick your hand in a skunk hole; they’ll back out.”
Entering her teens, purpose led to productivity.
With her lost ball funds, Tracy treated herself to a mishmash set of clubs bought at an antique shop on nearby Mission Street.
“They came in a red golf bag,” she remembers. “The whole thing cost me $5, and it was like giving my whole life away.”
Hiding the clubs on her sleeping hill during school hours, Tracy would return to Arroyo Seco for what became golf boot camp. Armed with her own set of sticks, guided by Henry’s tutelage and spending ceaseless hours on Arroyo’s 18, driving range, practice green and mini golf course, the girl recognized for the first time in life that she had found something in which she had true ability.
“I wanted golf to become who I was,” she says.
As she found a purpose, Tracy also found a confidant.
Christopher Reyes, now a SoCal attorney and founder of the ABA Law Group, was a few years Tracy’s junior and dealing with his own home life discord in the 1970s. The pair became the golf rats of Arroyo Seco.
“Tracy and I, we both were pretty broke,” Reyes remembers. “So, yeah, we’d climb through the brush and the branches and tall grass looking for balls. She had guts; some of the places she’d go to get balls, I was too paranoid to do it.”
Recalling that they could make around $7 a day, Reyes remembers with clarity how Tracy would work the water for lost balls.
“She’d take off her shoes, climb in the pond and pull out 20, 30 balls,” he says. “And the money we’d make, we’d take that to the clubhouse and get the Super Deluxe Cheeseburger Combo for $1.99.”
Though the two were close pals, Reyes wasn’t aware that his good friend took shelter in the woods after they’d part ways at night.
“I didn’t know at the time that she was homeless; she didn’t really share details about her personal life,” he says. “I knew she was always at the course, always looked pretty tore-up and had a ton of bug bites on her legs.”
Though she digressed on her situation, Tracy was more forthcoming in a shared purview.
“Chris and I made a commitment that we weren’t going to let our situations define our lives,” she says. “We were going to make our own lives.”
The two, mostly out of necessity, became a palpable pair of game artists, sharing a trench in genuine need of funds.
“In looking back, as a family law attorney now, it was pretty rough; I’m surprised children’s services weren’t called. Seriously,” recalls Reyes. “But we built a camaraderie that was like what I later learned when going through Marine Corps boot camp; developing bonds while going through the crap with somebody.”
On Arroyo’s night-lit mini golf course and practice green, money games became the norm past sundown.
“We started playing people for a quarter a game,” Tracy remembers. “Sometimes, we’d play with no money in our pockets.”
With a half-laugh only afforded by the passage of time, Reyes agrees. “We’d play putting games. And there were times when the games got real close and she’d say, ‘Chris, you better pray we sink this because we don’t have enough to cover the bet.’”
After nearly three years under Henry’s wing and constant time at Arroyo Seco — all while homeless — Tracy had developed a game that was good enough to graduate from just putting for quarters.
“As I got into high school, there were really great male college players who would come out here for a $20 skins game,” she says. “I won that a couple of times, and it was like $80, or even if I came in third, it was still around $15; this was my food money and later, my rent money.”
While she learned how to compete in the cauldron of competitive golf, what Tracy enjoyed more was the game’s etiquette.
“This is where I really started to fall in love with the game; the people, the culture, the integrity, the gentlemanly nature,” she says. “For me, it was always an honor to play with these guys.”
By the time she had turned 16, having survived four years of homelessness, she was able to claim a residence. Enrolled at South Pasadena High School, she got a job working the counter at the nearby Taco Treat, and the restaurant’s manager let her stay at her apartment.
As her life found some semblance of normalcy, her game became stronger. “I needed to become good enough at something to get into college,” she says. “I was so committed to getting really good at golf.”
Having graduated from South Pasadena despite life’s encumbrances, her drive to play college golf was relentless. Through the ladies’ club at Arroyo Seco, a representative started taking her to small club events around L.A., and it didn’t take long before Drake began to pile up wins.
She reached out to myriad SoCal college programs seeking an opportunity, but was consistently turned down.
“The woman from USC, she came and watched me play, laughed at me and told me I’d never have the chance to do anything,” Tracy remembers. “From UCLA, they told me to give up, that given where I came from, I wasn’t going to accomplish anything.”
Amid the rejection came loss. In 1984, Henry Hoople passed, though not before a final gesture: obtaining for Drake a new set of PING clubs.
But with the departure of her mentor, a new coach soon entered her life and opened a door to her future.
“Millie Stanley came out and watched me play at Montebello GC,” Drake says of the head women’s golf coach at Cal State University, Long Beach from 1982-85. “She met me on the 16th, saw me hit my drive and said, ‘Tuition, books and fees for next year.’”
While a solid foray into Division I golf resulted in a T-28 individual finish at the WCAA Conference Championships in 1984, the segue to college life was more than just swings.
“There are many challenges that come with getting off the streets and back into the world,” she says. “You’re not used to walls, to certain noises; the hum of a dorm isn’t the same as the hum of a freeway. And interacting socially with people is something that was a shortcoming for me in college.”
Social challenges were met with monetary hurdles. Despite the opportunity from Coach Stanley, Drake knew the only thing that would keep her on path and moving forward was a full ride.
“I needed to win a golf tournament to get on full scholarship. So I worked out and ran constantly, played 36 holes and hit about a thousand balls every day,” she says. “I couldn’t be working full-time, going to school full-time and playing golf full-time. The only way I was going to get any relief was to win a tournament.”
Having come up short in that summer of ’84 at an event in Santa Barbara, Drake eyed the next important playing opportunity: the Women’s Public Links Golf Association Championship, an historic event held by a time-honored association dating back to 1933.
Arriving at the tournament as an un-touted entrant, she was undaunted. “I wasn’t known, wasn’t in the golf circles,” she says. “And they didn’t want me to win that tournament. But I didn’t care; I knew I needed to win.”
Played on a trio of courses (Skylinks, El Dorado and Recreation Park) over three days, the final 18 found her in the last group, and the championship came down to the last green.
“It was a downhill 18-footer, breaking right to left,” Drake remembers of her final putt. “I knew it was makeable, though I still backed off it twice. But I knew when I hit it that the putt was going in; one of those classic putts that trickles in at the front edge and has a little bounce on the bottom of the cup and that perfect little ‘plink.’”
With the make, she would capture the 1984 WPLGA by 1 shot. The girl who had come from nothing, the player with no golf pedigree or country club credentials, had just won one of the most treasured prizes in all of SoCal women’s golf.
“When you win a golf tournament, it changes you forever,” she says. “You’re different than a lot of people; you start holding yourself differently, have a different level of confidence about your place in the world.”
The unlikely victory came with reflections of where she had lived a mere six years prior.
“There was an undercurrent, a foundation of Arroyo Seco; knowing I could be a winner, knowing I was a survivor,” she says.
Come her sophomore campaign, having earned the full scholarship she so longed for, the Long Beach Union student newspaper previewed the Long Beach team: “The squad is led by Traci (sic) Drake, who won the California Public Links Championship in August and has been the number-one qualifier in every tournament thus far.”
Heading into the 1986 season at Long Beach, a local legend took over the 49ers women’s golf program. Marty Walker — whose husband Del coached the men’s team — came to the collegiate level from nearby Wilson High, where, among other accomplishments, she fine-tuned the game of a young Paul Goydos.
As Tracy continued to polish her game — enhanced by her summer work as an instructor at the Billy Casper Golf Camps in La Jolla — her life beyond the fairways presented further challenges.
After her time in the Long Beach dorms, she had to revert to living in her car. Marty Walker was having none of that for her star player.
“When Coach Walker came on board, she said I could sleep on her couch for a while,” Drake says.
After staying with the Walkers for four months, she was able to get a job as a restaurant server at Virginia CC, where the team played and practiced. Soon in her own apartment, the mentorship from Coach Walker proved, for Drake, a set of maternal angel wings, balanced with those of Henry Hoople.
In a later letter of recommendation penned by Mrs. Walker, she would write: “Tracy worked harder than anyone else whom I ever had in my fifty-year career as a teacher and a coach.”
Finishing her college career tied for 10th at the Big West Championships of ’87, Tracy’s senior season saw her ranked among the top 30 players in the country and found the Long Beach mantle graced by her accolades as a two-time Academic All-American, earning the distinction in both 1986 and ’87.
While golf instructor job opportunities and a segue to the LPGA beckoned — along with interested sponsorship backing from the likes of Confidence Golf and noted West L.A. instructor Walter Keller — her love of the land took her to academia.
Invited to attend graduate school at Indiana University, an endeavor fueled by $10,000 in funding from the SoCal-based Gloria Fecht Golf Scholarship, a master’s degree ensued, followed in 2002 by her work as manager of the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center in Torrance.
Playing on occasion in the 1990s amid her studies, Drake could still amaze those around her.
We went to the driving range and Tracy was working on my swing,” remembers Heather Williamson, a professional horticulturist in Hollywood who met Tracy while the two were studying at Indiana. “And then Tracy grabbed a driver and put a ball on one of those rubber mat tees. And rarely in my life have I ever seen anything more beautiful. The way the ball came off her club, it was like a cannon; it went forever with a slight draw. My mouth hung open, and I thought to myself, ‘That is what perfection looks like.’”
Drake’s environmental career path has been fueled by a never-ending connection to golf’s natural bounty.
“She’s told me how she felt pulled close to nature when she was on the golf course,” says Dave Wallace, formerly hired by Drake as park services supervisor for the City of Torrance. “And golf turned her career toward the fields of the outdoors and naturism.”
Tracy’s friends in her post-golf years describe a naturalist savant with supernatural skills.
“She has excellent vision and excellent hearing, more than anybody I’ve ever known,” says close friend Henrietta Morales, with whom Drake often goes birding. “I think because of the time she was homeless, these are her survival instincts; either you have those, or you don’t make it.”
To be outdoors with Tracy Drake is to truly know Tracy Drake.
“When she does a naturalist walk, it’s almost like a spiritual journey, an immersion,” Williamson says. “And her powers of observation, they’re unparalleled.”
At Madrona, where Drake spent 15 years before being promoted to her current post overseeing all of the city’s parks, she’s credited with ushering the preserve into the future, while educating thousands of area kids on the importance of species and habitat.
The last vernal marsh in L.A. County, Madrona’s 50-acre spread is an oasis amid the city din, a home to more than 200 species. A one-time land of Tongva resource, it’s also a place where Drake pays homage to the tribal word hiiken, a belief that spirit, land and breath connect all living things.
Drake’s inner circle recognizes in her the optimism of such connection.
“She sees the potential in people,” Williamson says. “And I think that perspective is what allows her to have a vision.”
Those who know her life arc believe in that vision.
“Tracy’s story is one of triumph, resolve,” says Wallace. “She’s a conqueror. It is a story of redemption.”
It’s also a story of a little girl in the woods, on a literal home course, her clubs the only tools to take her to a better place, and it’s also the story of an unbreakable spirit and a spiritual connection to the land of her ancestors.
The story of Tracy Drake.
“As far as what I’ve done here … I’ve done the best I can,” Drake says, staring over the Madrona Marsh. “I really just see myself as one of the beads on the strand; I’m only a breath.”