The first time he stood on the sixth tee at Presidio Hills Golf Course, Tiger Woods stopped, turned to his father Earl, and said, “It’s wrong.”
The green on the 72-yard par three slants hard from left to right. The grass is thick right up to the putting surface.
“Bad design,” said Woods. “You should be able to run it up” — hit the equivalent of a ground ball to second base, instead of having to fly and stop a ball on the small surface. “It’s more like a recovery shot.” Woods, four-foot-seven and wearing glasses, was six years old.
When Phil Mickelson played the 18-hole pitch-and-putt course for the first time, he shot 144. Par is 54 (56, in those days, for juniors). In 1977, the seven-year-old lefty birdied #18 and broke 70 for the first time.
Until his father built a practice area in their back yard, Presidio Hills was Mickelson’s home away from home: “My parents would drop me off there every day around eight o’clock and pick me up around six or seven. I loved it, I just loved it!”
The golf course stands on what may be the most historic ground in San Diego. For at least 10,000 years, going back to the Ice Age, native tribes lived in this area: Paleo-Indians, Shoshoneans, Yumans. The Kumeyaay nation had a village on the flat plain: “Kosa’aay” (“the drying ground”). It lay beneath a brown, treeless hill, near a river to the north and a wide bay to the west.
In 1769, the Entrada brought missionaries and soldiers up from New Spain. Father Junípero Serra built the first mission on the hillside overlooking the village, and Lieutenant Pedro Fages built the first presidio — Spanish for “fort.” Although natives lived here for millennia, Presidio Hill and the plain below have been labeled the “Plymouth Rock of the West” and “Where California Began.”
Around 1810, Captain Francisco Ruíz built the first structure down the hill from the fort. The single-story building, with adobe walls over a foot thick, stood in the center of his garden-orchard: olive, fig, pomegranate, and 26 hand-watered pear trees planted in precise rows.
In 1821, Ruíz gave the house to his cousin, Joaquín Victor Carrillo, whose family had grown too large for their quarters on the hill. The Casa de Carrillo became famous only for being the first private dwelling in California; it was also where Josefa Carrillo and Captain Henry Fitch had their wedding stopped — in mid-ceremony. Some say the jealous governor, José María de Echeandia, disapproved of the marriage. The couple sailed south. After two-and-a-half celibate months aboard ship, a parish priest married them in Valparaiso.
Historical marker #74 commemorates the building at 4136 Wallace Street in Old Town. Today, the Casa de Carrillo serves as the pro shop for a golf course as historic (in its own way) as its predecessors. At one time or another, every great local golfer honed his or her game at Presidio Hills. Junior golf began here; Junior World Championships were contested. Many call Presidio Hills the “cradle of golf in San Diego.”
In 1870, 20-year-old George Marston came to town. He became a successful merchant and a preservationist long before others saw the need. He was an early supporter for Balboa Park, and in 1907, he and some partners bought Presidio Hill to save the site from development. In 1929, a year after he founded the San Diego Historical Society, Marston commissioned William Templeton Johnson to build the Serra Museum, the gleaming white tower at the southern entrance to Mission Valley.
In 1921, while vacationing at the Red Lion Inn near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Marston and his daughter Mary took their first golf lessons at an 11-hole pitch-and-putt course. He was 71 and became an avid golfer. In 1928, he shot his best round, a 93 at San Diego Country Club.
In the late 1920s, Marston owned a driving range, the Presidio Fairway, just down the hill on Taylor Street. San Diego had only seven or eight full-length courses in those days, and Marston wanted a practice course like the one in Massachusetts: short par threes where newcomers could learn the game, and more advanced players — himself included — could keep theirs fine-tuned.
The first all-par-three course opened in Portsmouth, England, in 1914. “Presidio Hills Golf Club, Ltd.,” which opened in 1932, was among the first of its kind in the United States, yet was different from the start. Marston told architect Billy Bell he didn’t want 18 straightforward holes. He wanted trouble: recovery shots 100 yards and in — from the tee — as if golfers had already mangled a drive, or an approach, and had to extricate themselves from grief. He wanted challenging greens, sloping or two-tiered, to see, as Tribune sports columnist Tom Gwynne wrote in 1941, if “your putter contains magic as well as steel.”
Bell responded. Sycamore and pepper trees hood some fairways, demanding low, knock-down shots to reach the green; other holes require precise, stately floaters. A scramble from the start, the sixth calls for an uphill tree- and cyclone-fence-lined punch to a blind green that slants down and away, as if turning its back on the tee.
Tiger Woods was right about the 15th. It was badly designed, by design. It’s meant to test a player’s ability to stop a short lob dead on a tiny green, tilted sideways like the “Redan” at North Berwick in Scotland.
Except for a road — called Juan Street — that ran from the clubhouse down the fifth fairway and up to the hill, the course hasn’t changed much. The nines have been reversed several times, but most of the holes are where they were when the course opened, 80 years ago, on January 3, 1932.
At 10:00 a.m., a large group gathered for the dedication ceremony. Before them lay a green, 1426-yard expanse punctuated by white splotches — bunkers, at least two per hole, that looked like patches of dogwood. The course was one of the first all-grass layouts in San Diego. And since Gene Sarazen would “invent” the sand wedge later in 1932, players used a niblick (today’s nine iron) to flee entrapment.