Northern California has shaped the game beyond compare
by Jaime Diaz
The center of Northern California is a 30,000 square mile rectangle connecting Sonoma, Monterey, Fresno and Sacramento. It’s an area almost exactly the same size as Scotland. It also contains exactly the same-sized heart for the game.
Taking everything that makes up real golf tradition — iconic courses, great players, memorable major championships, important leaders, and a large and avid playing population – and Northern California has the richest tradition of any geographical pocket this side of the actual cradle of golf.
To start with, it contains Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill, The Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, to name only the most famous of Northern California’s courses.
It’s been the spawning ground of native professional and amateur major champions like Tony Lema, Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, Al Geiberger, Juli Inkster, Pat Hurst, Bob Rosburg and George Archer, as well as transplants like Lawson Little, Marion Hollins, Harvie Ward and Patty Sheehan. It’s been the base of operations for big time movers and shakers like Francis Ouimet, caddie and Bay Area golf benefactor Eddie Lowery, USGA presidents Sandy Tatum and Grant Spaeth, Bing Crosby, and current Pebble Beach owners Clint Eastwood and Peter Ueberroth, who grew up caddieing at the oldest course in California, Burlingame CC.
It’s the home of the most egalitarian golf tournament in history, the San Francisco City Championship, as well as the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where golf and pop culture first — and apparently forever — interlocked. Out of the eight U.S. Opens it has hosted, five have been genuinely momentous — at Olympic in 1955 and 1966, and at Pebble Beach in 1972, 1982 and 2000. And the biggest hometown miracles this side of Ouimet – Nathaniel Crosby’s 1981 U.S. Amateur victory at The Olympic Club, and Miller’s all-world valediction at the 1995 AT&T. And for a recent Cinderella story, consider the Cal Berkeley men’s golf team winning the 2004 NCAA championship.
Speaking of college golf, the school whose alumni have compiled the most professional major championships is Stanford, with Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, and Bob Rosburg combining for 22 (edging out the 19 by Ohio State’s Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf). And the high school with the most U.S. Open champions — two (Venturi and Miller) is San Francisco’s Abraham Lincoln.
Northern California has been blessed with some important golf teachers, like John Geertsen Sr. (who groomed Miller and Mark Lye), Ben Doyle (mentor to Bobby Clampett), Tommy LoPresti (Bob Lunn and Barbara Romack), Lucious Bateman, the pioneering Afro-American teacher who gave Lema his start, and Laird Small, the 2003 PGA of America Teacher of the Year.
It also gave us the only man to play pro football and the PGA Tour simultaneously – San Francisco native John Brodie, who played the PGA Tour in the 1960s while quarterbacking the 49ers, and who went on to win on the Senior Tour.
The raw facts are impressive. But what makes Northern California most special as a place to play golf is its ineffable but palpable connection to the game’s beginnings. Especially along its coastal areas, the heavy sea air, wind and irregular ground breed a wonderfully natural way of playing, and a true appreciation for the nuances of the game. NorCal’s best have always been artistic players – reflected in the iron mastery of Venturi and Miller and Ward, the short game wizardry of Rosburg, the putting of Archer. Although they haven’t yet come to full fruition in young Arron Oberholser, he’s most distinguished from his PGA Tour peers by a coastal NorCal toughness and creativity. Perhaps best evidence of the ties to elemental golf was Lema going to his first British Open in 1964, and winning handily at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“Man, we had some good players,” says San Francisco native and recent octogenarian Bob Rosburg, an ultra accurate player who in his heyday was known for “hitting the most froghair in regulation.”
“Guys who really had control of the ball, who could really improvise, who could really play. Hell, I thought the California State Amateur in the 40s and 50s was harder to win than the National Amateur. A lot of NorCal guys couldn’t afford to go back east for the big national tournaments, but they would be at Pebble. I could have picked 12 guys you never heard of from San Francisco and we would have had a hell of a Walker Cup team.”
Johnny Miller felt his made-in-San Francisco game always gave him an advantage. “At Olympic and San Francisco Club and Harding, the ball never really went anywhere because of the fog, you had to be able to turn the ball both ways, had to be able to play from slimy lies,” says Miller, who was known for winning by huge margins in Phoenix and Tucson. “Especially in the desert, it seemed like every shot was flat and the ball was teed up and the ball went forever. Compared to where I came from, the game was easy.”
Miller was the beneficiary of a noble tradition when he was given the first junior membership at the Olympic Club, and youth has generally been well served in NorCal. “I think golfers up this way appreciate young talent, rather than resent it,” says renowned golf writer and historian Al Barkow, who moved to the Bay Area with his teenage playing son after spending most of his life in Chicago and New York. “They enjoy being around and encouraging kids who have potential. And take pride in having helped those who go places in the game. On the whole there is a nice democratic easiness about Bay Area golfers – a relaxed, not-so-strata-conscious California-style of golf being.”
Two former PGA Tour players who developed their games in Northern California in the 60s and 70s felt that encouragement.
“I’m so thankful for where I grew up,” says Pat McGowan, a native of Colusa. “The competition was so keen; the conditions, especially on the San Francisco courses, were so tough. If you were one of the better players in Northern California you could get a golf scholarship anywhere in the country.”
“You had every kind of course and every kind of climate in Northern California, and you could play year round,” says San Francisco native John Abendroth. “You developed versatility and became a well-rounded player. But the thing I remember most was the real sense of tradition. You knew a lot of great players had come before you, and you wanted to follow them. Some of my favorite times were hanging around the pro shop at Harding or Olympic and listening to the head pros – John Fry and Kyle Burton – tell these great stories.”
It further builds the case for Northern California as a golf Camelot. As Bernard Darwin wrote of St. Andrews, “It may be immoral, but it is delightful to see a whole town given up to golf; to see the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker shouldering his clubs as soon as his day’s work is done and making a dash for the links.” It was thus in San Francisco, where seemingly every fireman, skycap and truck driver carried his bag on the city’s courses, and where the finest players were revered.
“San Francisco was probably the best city ever in which to be a good player,” the late Harvie Ward remembered in 1998. “It seemed like everybody liked golf, especially all the restaurant owners, and they treated us like we were big time. When we walked into one of their places, we were on par with Joe DiMaggio and Hugh McElhenny.”
Such an appreciation breeds knowingness about the game. It’s beyond coincidence that a disproportionate number of native Northern Californians – Rosburg, Venturi, Brodie, Miller, Roger Maltbie, Clampett and Lye all had or are having successful second careers as television golf announcers. They have all come from a culture that has been collectively open minded, the place that fostered the Beat Poets, the Summer of Love and a general diversity and tolerance. Salinas’ Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute, wrote “Golf in the Kingdom,” which opened golf to the concepts of the human potential movement, the foundation for sports psychology’s ever-expanding influence of the game.
Not that it takes a New Age sensibility to appreciate the elemental attraction of NorCal golf. Consider Byron Nelson, who after winning the San Francisco Open three times in the 40s came back regularly in the 50s to play exhibitions and tutor the young Ken Venturi. “In my experience,” Nelson said in 1998, “it’s the best area in the country to play golf if you want to be a good player. I really loved playing there.”
Or Sam Snead, who won his first professional event at the 1937 Oakland Open at Sequoyah, and when asked his favorite course, said the Sonoma Golf Course. Or Ben Hogan, who always maintained the most important check of his career, was for his third place finish at the 1939 Oakland Open at Sequoyah, saving him from quitting the tour. The finest U.S. Open player in history, Hogan called The Olympic Club his favorite of all the courses that held that championship.
The people with the most knowledge simply knew. Upon coming to Northern California for the first time in the 1920s, architect Alister MacKenzie wrote, “The sand dune country owned by The Olympic Club, although not so spectacular as that on the Monterey Peninsula, is the finest golfing territory I have seen in America.” MacKenzie went on to greatly enrich NorCal, building Pasatiempo, where he spent his last days, the Meadow Club, Sharp Park, Haggin Oaks, and a wonderful nine holes in Pittsburg. And it was experiencing MacKenzie’s masterpiece at Cypress Point that convinced Bob Jones he should hire the architect to help him with Augusta National, and the course is the most common answer to the question, “If you had only one round left to play, where would it be?”
Admittedly, I’m biased. I grew up in the Bay Area and learned to play in the fog on those San Francisco courses. And I lived in Sacramento, as easy a place to play golf as there is. Moving around has given me a chance to compare. First in the New York area, then in Southern California, and now in my current home near Pinehurst, NC. All wonderful strongholds of the game in their own right. But for me, NorCal remains special.
In retrospect, the validation really took place the first time I played in Scotland. Whereas some of my American friends didn’t take to the sea air and the wind and the uneven ground, I immediately loved it. I realized it was because of where I’m from. I’m guessing Lema felt the same way.
Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf Digest and formerly with The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.