The festivities began on the evening of April 22, with a welcome reception at the Beach & Tennis Club, which is perched on the edge of Stillwater Cove, adjacent to Pebble's 17th hole. Cruising along 17 Mile Drive to the reception put me in a nostalgic mood. I still know every bend in the road from my old summertime commute and always wince when I pass the unfortunate spot where, rushing to make a 5:30 a.m. opening shift, I swerved to avoid a deer and exploded my tire on the curb.
Arriving at the Beach Club, I was given my lovely Swallows tie, which had little white silhouettes of the birds against a red-and-blue background. I slipped it on, took a deep breath and stepped onto the terrace where my fellow attendees had gathered to sip cocktails and watch the setting sun. I immediately noticed all the different neckwear; it is a Swallows tradition to wear the tie from your first year. Scanning the crowd, I realized that I was the youngest guy there, and I readily recognized some silver-haired lions of the establishment, among them Charles Schwab, Peter Ueberroth, Dan Quayle and George Roberts—the R in KKR, the all-powerful private-equity firm. The younger set was no less intimidating, including Jerry Yang, the billionaire cofounder of Yahoo!, and Joe Lacob, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who owns maybe the biggest house on Pebble Beach Golf Links. But for all their credentials, this was an exceedingly jovial, chatty group. Turns out that the man who has everything really just wants to be invited back to the Swallows. In the field of 92 there were 11 other first-timers, reflective of the annual effort to infuse the event with fresh blood. "You block out the weekend on your calendar and then pray the invitation comes," said Neal ElAttrache, a Southern California surgeon who has repaired the knees, elbows and shoulders of many of the biggest stars in the sports world.
My tie marked me as a rookie, which was an easy conversation starter. I was quickly educated about the format: Each player keeps the same partner for all three rounds, posting a better-ball net score for each hole. Being passed around the reception were the pairings for the next morning, and I was delighted to discover that my partner was actor Chris O'Donnell. Just as we were called inside for dinner, O'Donnell blew into the room, radiating the boyish charm that has served him so well in Hollywood. "I can't believe I made it," he exclaimed, before we had even shaken hands. "I was literally on the set two hours ago."
That would be for the filming of his hit TV show, NCIS: Los Angeles. O'Donnell loves the Swallows so much that he was planning that night to fly commercial from L.A. to San Jose and then drive to Pebble, most likely arriving around midnight. Then he got a call from ElAttrache, who had chartered a jet and was offering a ride. (I was told a couple of times that parked at the Monterey airport was around a billion dollars' worth of private aircraft.)
As the salad course arrived, Perocchi gave a warm welcoming speech and offered a brief history of the Swallows, which dates to 1934. He identified in the room a handful of gents who have been playing in the event since the '70s. One by one we rookies were asked to stand and give our place of birth and alma mater. The room was bursting with bonhomie, as between courses the men—and it is an all-male gathering—floated from table to table to catch up with their pals. Afterward a group migrated to the Tap Room for a nightcap. I was so worn out from all the buildup that I drove home and collapsed into bed. (My stingy editor had not seen the need to pony up for an ocean-view room at the Lodge, at $895 a night.)
The golf commenced the next morning with a shotgun start at Cypress Point. The parking lot looked as if it were hosting a Mercedes convention, and I was suddenly self-conscious about my Toyota SUV, its windows smeared with kids' fingerprints. O'Donnell and I were going off the par-5 2nd hole. He sliced his drive out-of-bounds, but I responded with three basically perfect shots and rolled in a 12-footer for a birdie, net eagle that did wonders for my nerves.
O'Donnell turned out to be a fabulous partner—down to earth, inquisitive, an ace storyteller with a knack for doing impressions, particularly of his celebrated costars. We quickly got into the details of our lives, and he told me the charming story of how he met his wife, Caroline Fentress. She's the kid sister of his roommate at Boston College, and during one of her visits to campus the two stole away for a secret make-out session. "As soon as I kissed her, I knew," O'Donnell said. Yet three years went by without any contact between them, though he often thought of her. Postcollege, he was at a bar with his old roommate and finally worked up the courage to ask, "So, what is Caroline doing?" Probably sleeping was the reply, since it was 2 a.m. O'Donnell insisted on calling her that second, and they've now been married for 13 years and have five kids.
During our stroll around wondrous Cypress Point we compared notes on everything from our respective minivans to our favorite courses, and I quickly came to understand that O'Donnell is part of golf's ultimate in crowd, known at America's finest clubs by his nickname, C.O.D. His annual circuit includes playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Swallows and three celebrated club tournaments: the Swat at Oakmont, the Pine Valley member-guest (he's the member) and the Swinging Bridge tournament at his home club, Bel-Air. Chris's brother John is also an accomplished player, and the O'Donnell boys have won the Swinging Bridge three times, most recently in 2006.
"My wife understands that if it's Pine Valley, Cypress or Augusta, I have to go," Chris said. How good is that?
O'Donnell has a strong, athletic swing, and for the Swallows he was playing off a five. (I carry an 8.4 index but was bumped to an 11.) He struggled a little at Cypress, which he attributed to the difference between working in television and movies. (TV actors have much less downtime.) I made three natural birdies but had just as many X's, and our score of even par left us 32nd out of 46 teams.