Attendees toured the refurbished Casa de Carrillo: on walls festooned with red peppers, golf clubs crossed like swords. Following remarks by master of ceremonies George Burnham and music by a mariachi band, Marston and Ralph Jenny played H.H. Jones and Hugh Strong in a mixed foursome “dedication match.” All were officials of the new club. They teed off on today’s tenth hole with wooden-shafted mashies (five irons) and hit hard, rubber-cored gutta-percha balls. According to the San Diego Union, Marston “sent a perfect tee shot to the green; the ball rolled straight for the cup, but came to rest just an inch short.” Marston made the first official birdie at Presidio Hills. In a foursome playing behind him, Fred Dana hit an identical low-roller that made a beeline for the cup and vanished: the first hole-in-one on the chalkboard in the clubhouse.
Marston and Jenny won their match: Jenny shot 57, three over par; Marston and Jones had 65s; Strong, a 67.
Also in Dana’s foursome was a professional golfer Marston had hired to run the driving range in 1931: Al Abrego. The choice is too remarkable for fiction. His grandfather, Don José Abrego, was one of the founding fathers of California (he was treasurer of the province from 1839 to 1846). In 1880, Al was born, and he was raised in Don José’s adobe house on Abrego Street, now a historical landmark in Monterey. Leo Carrillo, the actor who played Pancho in The Cisco Kid, was Al’s second cousin. Their ancestors form a direct line back to the original Carrillo family on Presidio Hill.
Like his cousins, Olin Dutra (who won the U.S. Open) and Al Espinosa (who lost the Open in a playoff to Bobby Jones), Abrego took up golf at an early age. At five-foot-five and, at most, 135 pounds, he wasn’t a long hitter. But he became a scoring demon. At a two-day tournament in San Jose, he played 36 holes in 126 strokes: an average of 63 per 18. For years, he held several course records in San Diego, including a 68 at the La Jolla Country Club.
Marston was impressed with how Abrego ran the driving range, and when the Presidio Hills course opened, made him head pro. Abrego taught at the course by day and at the range (moved to today’s Juan Street) by night. He rented both for $150 a month.
His first task was unexpected. A teenaged gang terrorized the course daily and, wrote Jack Murphy, “made [Abrego] fear for his safety.”
“When there’s a behavior problem,” Abrego told a reporter, “the parents are usually at fault. The child is rebellious because he has been rejected, neglected, or treated harshly. I try to become the child’s friend by treating him with respect, by making him feel important. Children respond to kindness.”
Abrego slowly won the gang over, often with nickels and dimes or a patient ear. “I had to make friends with them, or they would have torn the place apart.” Abrego encouraged the boys to take up golf. “The only place a kid can get into trouble on a golf course,” he told them, “is a sand trap.” Some became his students, along with Adelia Wilcox (who lived next to #2 green and was his first official student).
Teaching — and teaching anyone eager to learn — became Abrego’s trademark. “Golf was considered a wealthy man’s sport,” says Donna Abrego, who also ran the course for many years, “but my grandfather wanted to show people that it was important to teach all people how to play.”
From the start, Abrego went against the grain: he taught anyone willing to learn, and, contrary to most instruction at the time, he didn’t advocate a single, “one size fits all” swing. “Every man and woman,” he told a reporter, “has his or her physical and nervous peculiarities. These must determine…how certain things are done.”
Teaching juniors was almost unheard of in the 1930s. Abrego’s first students were his four children: Emmy Lou, Marcie, Alfonso, Jr., and Don. “I started them in the game in 1921, and got the idea that other kids could learn to play, too.”
In the 1930s, he established a Tiny Tots junior program at Presidio Hills. He was the first local pro to give group lessons. “Four years old isn’t too young to begin — youngsters learn fundamentals easily and remember them better.” From his classes, he encouraged students to move on to larger courses and other teaching pros.
Billy Casper began at Presidio Hills, then moved to the San Diego Country Club. Ben Hogan said Mary Kathryn “Mickey” Wright had the best swing he ever saw. She went from Presidio Hills to La Jolla Country Club. Another youngster was so shy he wouldn’t take lessons: Gene Littler. His mother would ask Abrego for tips about the boy’s swing. Abrego taught feel: swing the club as naturally as “a dog wagging its tail.” No golfer achieved this goal better than Littler, who won the U.S. Open in 1955.
In 1952, kids from Presidio Hills played tournaments in Los Angeles. John Brown, chief of the local restaurant workers’ union, usually did the driving. Almost as an aside, Abrego told Brown to start his own program in San Diego. Later that year, the San Diego Junior Golf Association was born. From the start, said Mrs. A.S. “Lou” Smith, who ran the day-to-day operation for years, Brown didn’t envision turning out champions. “He simply wanted children of all races, religions, and financial means to be exposed to an honorable game from which life’s lessons could be learned.”
Brown instituted rules: no smoking; no parents following their children during a tournament (they had to stay on the sidelines); and, the first rule of golf — leave the course better than you found it.
Forty juniors joined in 1952. The number has escalated since and led, in 1968, to staging the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego. Founded by Norrie West, the JWs are among the most prestigious international events in the world. Kids in the youngest age brackets compete at Presidio Hills: “the week,” wrote Dave Distel, “when the players use their allowances to mark their balls.”