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By John Grossi 

Photos by Monique Kuhlman

For decades, Recreation Park 18-Hole Golf Course in Long Beach has been denoted as “one of the busiest golf courses in America,” meaning year-in and year-out, few golf courses book more tee times in the entire country. Surely the fair weather has something to do with that stat, not to mention “Big Rec” (as locals call it), is an interesting, yet friendly course design, with doglegs and elevation changes… but no water to hit and ruin one’s score. 

But there’s something else to the course that golfers can appreciate the more they play elsewhere and realize it’s a rarity. The atmosphere is friendly, the course is always in good condition, and the pace-of-play is predictable and relatively fast for a Southern California public course.

One man who deserves some credit for that “positive atmosphere” is Roger Gilliam, the guy who started the “Ambassador Program” at Big Rec in 2015. Golf Ambassadors belong to an official program run through the American Golf Foundation, whose mission is to “promote the game of golf through charity, education, and service to the community.” Golfers know them as the guys in green shirts who greet each golfer at the first tee, as well as the rovers who drive around the course helping with questions, encouraging pace of play, and usually cracking a few jokes along the way with course regulars.

The ambassador program existed at other courses but had no permanent structure until the general manager asked the recently retired Roger (a course regular) if he would help start it.

“The credit goes to my fellow volunteers,” says Roger. “They’re a couple dozen of the nicest, most hardworking, reliable guys you could ever meet. We’re like a fraternity out here. This golf course really is their ‘happy place’ and that’s why they take such good care of it. Most of these guys are scheduled to work just two days a week, but still come out five days a week to play, hit balls, or help with a charity tournament or contest we’re running.”

Charity is at the heart of the program and Big Rec was recently declared the 7th most charitable Ambassador Program in California by The American Golf Foundation.

“That’s Roger for you,” says Long Beach restaurateur John Morris of Boathouse on the Bay. “He’s always making things about other people, and he’s never about himself. That’s why everything he does is so successful.”

A Long Beach Legend

Local golfers will certainly recognize Roger from his golf cart and polo shirt, but many more in Long Beach know of his impact through the community staples he helped create. Roger was the right-hand man to Morris when the latter opened Legends in 1979. The two started so many events that have become either Long Beach tradition or lore… The Belmont Shore Christmas Parade, the Olympic Torch carried through Belmont Shore streets, the “Hands Across America” that ran through Belmont Shore to Downtown Long Beach, not to mention the “Legends Wall of Fame.”

Guess where the two met? At Big Rec Golf Course in 1979. “I just happened to get paired up with John for a round,” remembers Roger. “He told me about the bar he was going to open soon and after 9 holes I convinced him to hire me as his marketing director.”

“That sounds about right,” Morris said when asked about the story. “I’m a spontaneous guy, and Roger’s the type you can tell right when you meet him... that he’s a good guy. He’s hardworking and all he’s ever cared about is making sure other people are having a good time.”

When Morris started his restaurant, Mums, on Pine Avenue, Roger became the Downtown Long Beach Business Association Director of Marketing and helped to found a number of other successful events including New Year’s Eve on Pine. He brought professional beach volleyball to Pine, as well as many other monthly events that still exist to this day. 

Finding A Happy Place At Big Rec

At Big Rec, Roger’s co-captain of the ambassadors, Len Ganz, remembers how Roger started the program. “He would be out there working the greeter desk and he would see old guys like me and ask if they wanted to be ambassadors,” laughs Len. “For me, this program is adding years to my life. I truly believe that. The fresh air, the walking, and it’s really social. It’s so much fun talking to everyone on the course and joking around with them.”

When asked about his success at creating so many events in Long Beach and now with the charity work he does through the Ambassador program at Big Rec, Roger emphasized that the best thing he ever did was get the crew of guys he has with him. “I hope a bunch of people don’t call me after this article comes out and want to be an ambassador because I’m pretty sure they’d have to buy these guys out. The guys are absolute professionals and they love it.”

Next time you’re at the course, make sure to tip your hat to Roger, Len, and the other volunteers keeping Big Rec a local favorite course. And next time you enjoy one of Long Beach’s staple events, you can also think of Roger who has certainly made his mark on the city. As John Morris said in his dedication to the Wall of Fame at Legends many years ago, “As far as I’m concerned… that guy (Roger) is Mr. Legends.”

Did You Know?

Roger Gilliam is the only person to ever complete the Long Beach Marathon in all three divisions. That means he’s run it, walked it, and even completed the race in a wheelchair! Roger entered the wheelchair event as a favor to friend Jim Knaub (and local wheelchair racing legend), who wanted to grow the sport and needed “able-bodied” participants to give wheelchair racing a try!



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