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Nature's Trophy
William Oscar Johnson
June 22, 1992
Pebble Beach, the glorious site of this week's U.S. Open, has always been an object of desire for the rich and powerful. Sadly, their greed has often taken precedence over golf
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June 22, 1992

Nature's Trophy

Pebble Beach, the glorious site of this week's U.S. Open, has always been an object of desire for the rich and powerful. Sadly, their greed has often taken precedence over golf

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I bought the property with 50 percent of my business mind and 50 percent of my golf mind because that was my dream.... I learned a very severe lesson from this transaction.
MINORU ISUTANI, deposed owner of the Pebble Beach Co.

The Pebble Beach Golf links on California's Monterey Peninsula is the kind of god-blessed terrain that real estate mavens refer to as a "trophy property." And who could argue? It is known among the game's connoisseurs as "the Sistine Chapel of golf," and a painter who lived in the area during the early part of the century referred to it as "the most beautiful meeting of land and sea on the planet."

A trophy indeed, but, alas, one marred by dents and dulled by a bit of tarnish and the fingerprints of many men. For Pebble Beach has been won, lost, bought and sold pretty often, particularly in recent years. Certainly, there can be no ignoring the legendary spike marks left at Pebble Beach by the likes of Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson since the course was carved out of the earth more than 70 years ago. But as a prime piece of real estate, the area's tumultuous history—filled as it is with heartless millionaires, high-minded environmentalists and piratical opportunists—makes for a lurid saga that is even more fascinating than its golf lore. Indeed, Pebble Beach's gallery of real estate entrepreneurs has left more than a few footprints on the place, too. Without the money, the visions and, of course, the profit motives of these moguls, the Sistine Chapel of American golf might now be a working sheep ranch.

Interestingly enough, the first owners of Pebble Beach, as well as its current owners, reflect vividly the global rearrangement of economic power that has occurred over the past century. In the beginning the land was owned by a consortium of California railroad barons; today, it is owned by the Japanese. In between, the trophy was held by an odd variety of people and companies, including: 1) Samuel F.B. Morse, an ex-Yale football captain, class of '07, who was the grandnephew and namesake of the inventor of the telegraph and who for 50 years ran the place as an arrogant but enlightened environmental emperor; 2) a Chicago sand-mining firm, which absolutely devastated a particularly gorgeous section of the peninsula and left it stripped to bedrock and rubble; 3) Twentieth Century Fox, which had no idea what to do with the place but bought it because it was wallowing in hundreds of millions of dollars from Star Wars and needed a place to park some of the cash; 4) Marvin Davis, the wily oil billionaire from Denver who treated the course as merely another property from which to wring profit; and 5) the above-quoted Isutani, the most pathetic of Pebble Beach's proprietors, a shadowy Japanese operator who began as a door-to-door salesman of frozen potatoes and encyclopedias, got into golf courses in his homeland and wound up losing his kimono in America—and nearly losing the 1992 U.S. Open for Pebble Beach.

Now, before we go further, let's describe exactly what the trophy consists of. In all, there are four golf courses (Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay and Del Monte, the first course in the West, built in 1897); two hotels (The Lodge at Pebble Beach and The Inn at Spanish Bay); the famed 17-Mile Drive toll road ($6 per car); and the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest, part of which can still be developed with new homes.

The original owners—railroad barons Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis P. Huntington—formed a corporation, the Pacific Improvement Co., and paid about $5 an acre in 1880 for the undeveloped land ($35,000 total). They built the Hotel Del Monte and the Del Monte course, which had sand greens and more dirt than grass on its fairways. But the owners used the natural beauty of the place to lure San Francisco high society to the area by train. In 1915, Morse was hired by the railroad barons to run their resort, which was "something of an old ladies' home," as he saw it. But he spruced things up, emphasized dancing, smoking and drinking at the hotel, and he planted grass on the golf course, adding a new sprinkler system to keep it green. Morse also began to think about building a new course along the stunning Pebble Beach coast above Carmel Bay.

Now, Morse was no golfer, according to Frank D. (Sandy) Tatum, a San Francisco lawyer and former USGA president who once played a round with him. "His understanding of the game was minimal," says Tatum. "His occasional efforts to play were abysmal. Once, he hit a ball off the toe of his club on a right angle into the woods. After several strokes, some rebounding off trees, he hit an appalling shot that stuck in the bark of a tree, 20 feet off the ground. He was truly enraged, and he began cursing and pounding the tree trunk as if his club were an ax. He swore he would have the tree cut down the next day, but of course he didn't. However bad his golf was, Morse was an environmentalist years and years ahead of his time, and he had a very clear vision of how the aesthetic values of a golf course could work to save the land and preserve the natural beauty of a wonderful coastline."

Much of the land along the ocean cliffs, which would become the trademark terrain for Pebble Beach, had already been laid out for subdivision development by Jack Neville, a real estate salesman for Morse's company. In 1916, Morse summarily dumped the plan to build houses on the cliffs and assigned Neville to design the golf course instead. Neville was a great golfer, ultimately a five-time California State Amateur champion, but he had no experience in golf course architecture. He brought in Douglas Grant, another superb golfer who was a student of course architecture. The two of them walked the land for weeks and finally came up with a figure-eight design that followed the land's natural contours with a maximum number of holes laid out along the water.

At about the time Morse began seeing his golfing monument emerge from the rugged coastal terrain, the owners of Pacific Improvement decided it was time to sell everything. To Morse's chagrin, they refused to lend him the money to buy it. Morse had little wealth of his own, so he found a partner—a San Francisco banker and philanthropist named Herbert Fleishhacker. In 1919 they purchased it all for a little more than $1.3 million and renamed their acquisition the Del Monte Properties Co.

That same year the Pebble Beach Golf Links was officially opened. It was a heartbreaker in its natural beauty, but it still required some tinkering. The most spectacular improvement was made by H. Chandler Egan, a two-time National Amateur champion, who lengthened the glorious number 18 from a merely brilliant 379-yard par-4 to a 542-yard par-5 that was simply the best finishing hole on earth. Egan began his correction in 1927 in preparation for what was to be Pebble Beach's debut as a major league golf course—the 1929 National Amateur Championship. "The course was well known among the rich and literate who came West from the East as well as among San Francisco sophisticates," says Robert Trent Jones Jr., the golf architect. "But Pebble Beach was still a secret to the rest of the world. Morse wanted the National Amateur in the worst way, but the USGA had never gone west of St. Louis."

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