A Place of Champions
Jack Nicklaus had won every major championship at Pebble Beach until a fateful Sunday in August of 1977, when he came up just short at the PGA Championship. The following Monday, August 15, virtually unannounced, Nicklaus was seen walking the fairways at Almaden Country Club in San Jose.
“This is a very good golf course,” said Nicklaus, talking casually with his fans while he followed his son, Jackie, who was qualifying for the U.S. Amateur Championship. Nicklaus would point out the use of bunkers on the third and fifth holes, and the split fairway and tight approach to the par-5 seventh hole, elements he would use in his own architecture later in his life. Brian Pini will never forget that day. There was a backup on top of the hill, on the 15th hole, a par-3. Nicklaus, in the gallery behind, sat on the bench and watched Pini tee off.
“How often do you get Jack Nicklaus gallerying you?” said Pini. For the record, Pini hit the green. He also went on that year to win NCGA Player of the Year.
Almaden is full of such surprises.
The view from the porch outside the clubhouse epitomizes the spirit of this place – verdant, rolling hills, dense with oak and fir, spread up to the summit of Mt. Umunum, evoking a sense of calm, tranquility and peace. New Age seekers might call it a gravitational vortex. Native American Indians would call it a place of power. A zen monastery would fit right in.
But while the spiritual side of the game of golf may well be enhanced at Almaden CC, do not let this sense deceive you. The game has been played at the highest level on this course, by some of the most famous names. This unassuming, tranquil place has held more tour events than any course in the immediate Bay Area – 22 of them. That was the intention when the golf course opened on April 7th, 1955. Jack Fleming, a San Francisco golf course architect who learned his craft under Alister MacKenzie, was told by developer Del Webb to create a monster¾a course that would challenge the best players in the world. In that day a 7,000-yard course was deemed a monster, much like an 8,000-yard course is today. Almaden measured 7,080 on the card.
Webb, who once shot a 67 in the Phoenix Open against Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, also wanted to integrate a housing tract on the course. He did so with such success that the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Almaden. The concern in the story was about wayward golf balls damaging the homes, which Fleming answered.
“A good course is designed so that shots angle away from the residences, which are on the hook side,” he was quoted in the article. “It’s a known fact that 80 percent of all golfers slice the ball.”
Indeed, the course was designed in two clockwise loops for the front and back nine. In that way, a sliced shot would simply land in the adjoining fairway, or the woods between, not a residence. But the real focus of Almaden was always championship golf, at the highest level. Validation of this approach comes from a close look at the history of the development, which reveals a name that jumps off the page to anyone closely familiar with the history of the PGA Tour.
Howard Capps was involved with Almaden from the beginning. And it is no accident that the first head professional, George Bruno, was an apprentice to Capps at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. His name may not be familiar to many, but Capps is very much admired by tour pros old enough to know. Capps ran the Tournament of Champions, an event which elevated purses on tour to an unprecedented level, giving direction to the future of the tour – and the chance for eternally grateful golf pros to actually make a living. Capps was also known for his benevolent sponsorship of tour pros who found themselves short on cash.
Capps eventually retired to a course he built in Napa, Chimney Rock GC, just up the road from Silverado CC. When the Senior PGA Tour played at Silverado in the 1990s, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer often were found at Chimney Rock, along with many other name pros, paying tribute to the man who helped them so much in the tour’s formative years. With Capps involved, it was not long before Almaden landed a stop on the PGA Tour. He wanted Almaden to be his legacy.
The Almaden Open began in 1958, mostly with local pros. The following year, Ken Venturi held off Bob Rosburg to win the $1,500 first-place prize.”This Almaden is a real golf course and a rugged test,” an exhausted Venturi said. Charlie Sifford won in 1960. And The Almaden Open became a fixture on the PGA Tour in 1961. Jim Ferrier, Al Geiberger, Billy Casper and Bob Verwey (Gary Player’s brother-in-law) followed as champions in San Jose.
The course was re-routed with new fifth, sixth and seventh holes after the 1965 event, and the cast-iron pipes used to irrigate the course had to be replaced. The considerable renovation took time, and in 1968 the members purchased the course from Webb. The Almaden Open was not continued.
But the LPGA Tour, with Shelley Hamlin of Stanford as its president, came calling in 1980. The lady pros played Almaden for 10 years in a very successful run. Galleries were large, the atmosphere festive. On Oct. 12, 1980, Amy Alcott won the $22,500 first-place check in the first Inamori Golf Classic at Almaden. Alcott, a wizard with the irons, loved the Almaden course. She won again in 1984, in a fierce battle with Kathy Whitworth and Betsy King, perhaps the most memorable championship in that LPGA series. Hollis Stacy beat Alcott in 1981. The next year, 1982, was Sheehan’s first on tour and she won in her home town for her third victory. Sheehan would win again at Almaden in 1986. Beth Daniel beat Pat Bradley to win $48,700 in 1989. The sponsor, Konica, announced that it would be moving the event east, which ended the LPGA stay in Silicon Valley. It is noteworthy that the names mentioned above are all now in the Hall of Fame.
Again, Almaden slumbered … until 1995, when the Nike Tour came calling for a four-year run. Almaden was scheduled as the first event of the year in February on that tour, a time when all the manufacturer’s reps equipped their players for the season. The driving range was a wonderland of new equipment, a candy store for the new pros who had just made it through Q-School. And a delight for the spectators, who were allowed to inspect these new toys. John Maginnes beat out Larry Silveira and Stewart Cink for the first title. Local hero Silveira came back to beat Cink the next year, 1996, in a playoff. In 1997 the event was re-scheduled to September, and R.W. Eaks beat Chris DiMarco and Mark Carnevale for the title. Robin Freeman won the final Nike Tour stop at Almaden, beating Tom Scherrer and Sean Murphy in a playoff.
Today Almaden again sits unassuming and quiet, simply a restive, tranquil place that centers on golf. Nicklaus and Whitworth have walked these fairways. Nancy Lopez brought out huge galleries. Stewart Cink and Chris DiMarco battled here. But now there is calm. That is the nature of a place of power. None other than Notah Begay, a full-blood Navajo who wore war paint on his face in his first Nike Tour event at Almaden noticed this power. “Almaden is such a place,” Begay said. “A beautiful, tranquil place, unassuming on the surface. But a place where fierce, memorable battles are fought.”