San Francisco golf is different. Visually, the pervasive gray that shrouds the verdant landscape is peaceful as well as intimidating. The air is invigorating but thick with moisture, which reduces the distance a ball will carry. Because of the trees, accuracy is critical. The land seems rumpled and a level lie is rare, as is a ball that sits up in the damp grass. The greens tend toward the small side and, especially at the private clubs, are framed by artful bunkering. The putting surfaces are relatively flat, but the irregularities in the ground, and the poa annua grass, make a straight putt rare.
Such conditions produced an inordinate number of well-rounded players: straight hitters who could bend drives either way; imaginative iron players who could control both shape and trajectory; improvisational scramblers and deadly putters. Miller, Rosburg and Venturi had the added advantage of having learned, as junior members of Olympic, to deal with what Miller calls reverse banked fairways, which demand that the golfer fade approaches from sidehill hook lies, and vice versa.
The level of competition was also a plus. "Hell, I thought the California State Amateur in the '40s and '50s was harder to win than the National Amateur," says Rosburg. "A lot of the San Francisco 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."
Rosburg was no unknown. The son of a doctor, he was a prodigy of such renown that at two he was taken on the vaudeville circuit, on which he hit cotton balls into the audience. Rosburg first played at Lincoln Park, a few blocks from his home. At seven, in 1934, he had a hole in one from the ladies tee on the 8th hole at the Stanford course while shooting a 99. At 11 he shot 69 at Lincoln and a year later beat Ty Cobb 7 and 6 in the first flight of the Olympic Club championship. Despite his pudgy body and thick glasses, Rosburg was a good enough athlete to play second base for Stanford, but his real gift was uncanny hand-eye coordination. He could juggle, was a pinball wizard and could throw a playing card over the roof of a two-story building. "As kids we called Bob 'The King,' " says Magnaris, who went to Presidio Junior High and Washington High with Rosburg. "He could do things nobody else could do."
Still, in 1948 Rosburg almost quit golf when he lost the final of the State Amateur at Pebble Beach in sudden death. For the rest of his career, even when he won the '59 PGA, Rosburg battled his temper and burnout. "I might have suffered from starting too early," he says. "It can be a burden. That's why I look for signs of problems from Tiger Woods."
Venturi, who used to babysit Rosburg's children, grew up at Harding Park, where his father, Fred, was the pro. Venturi developed an iron game so accurate that by the time he won his second City, in 1953, at 22, he had eagled every par-4 on the course. Venturi stammered badly as a teenager and gravitated toward golf because he could play alone. While hitting shag balls in solitude at Harding Park, he talked to himself, experimenting with ways to correct his speech.
Venturi's early career was guided by Eddie Lowery, who had caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open and moved to San Francisco in the '40s as a Ford dealer. Lowery arranged for Nelson to work with him at the auto dealership.
Lowery did the same for Ward, whom he persuaded to move to San Francisco after Ward won the '52 British Amateur. Venturi and Ward made the Walker Cup team in '53 and stayed sharp by playing money games set up by Lowery.
Of all the San Franciscans who made it big, Archer was the most competitive; that made up for what he lacked in natural ability. "I wasn't very good for a long time," says Archer, who took up the game at 14, at San Mateo Muni. "The thing I had going for me was that I loved to play, and still do. I just kept playing."
Most of that playing was at Harding, where Archer perfected die short game that earned him the nickname Trashcan George. Archer once bet that he could play from the 18th tee to the 10th hole at Harding, a distance of more than 800 yards, in five strokes—and with a pitch and a putt pulled it off. Still, Archer didn't win many tournaments and sustained himself by fleecing a steady stream of pigeons. "I kept getting games because I looked like a guy you could beat," he says. In 1963 Archer's awkward tee-to-green game finally came around, and he won the Trans-Miss as well as the City. He joined the Tour in '64 and went on to win 12 events, including the '69 Masters.