Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Always I have found country clubs less hospitable than municipal courses.
In 1962, I was 17 and ferocious. My father had died a year before. After his death, my mom suffered migraines, and one day I found her on the floor. Months later, she was still in a hospital isolation ward, recovering from spinal meningitis.
San Diego Country Club. “I understand you mistreated one of our greens, so you won’t be playing here anymore.”
Hitting things felt good. I socked a dent in the fender of the 1955 Chevy I inherited from my dad. I blasted numerous holes in plaster. Every day I whacked golf balls.
My dad used to run a small golf course in La Mesa, where I halfheartedly learned to play. Golf isn’t the world's most macho game, and it can be the most frustrating. I lacked the patience to correct a slice or develop finesse on a chip shot. But my dad's heart attack stung me with a poison of the spirit, and the best antidotes were treks alongside the riverbed at Singing Hills and the ritual of pounding balls across the twilit driving range.
There were always members shooting pool and playing cards, and their faces would light up when the door opened and the golf balls came tumbling in.
A club pro took charge of my swing and invited me onto the club’s junior golf team. I got to play for free and to challenge local courses, including my nemesis, Chula Vista’s vicious yet beautiful San Diego Country Club.
On October 21, 1960, President Eisenhower came to call.
Match play sets one golfer against another. Whoever wins the most holes takes the game. At San Diego Country Club, as a junior golfer, I was matched against a kid a year younger than me. His swing was fluid, but it lacked authority and produced lazy hook shots. My swing was compact and fierce — the ball flashed away, low to the ground, almost out of sight before it tailed to the left and rolled. I outdrove the kid off every tee. But he knew the course and its treacherous greens. After number 16, he led me by two holes. I would need to win the final two for a tie and sudden-death playoff.
Billy Casper: "My dad and mother settled in the Castle Park area of Chula Vista in the early 1940s. We lived near enough to the club to attract me to work there as a caddie, but you couldn’t be a caddie until you were 12."
The 17th hole was uphill and straightaway with a sloping green. I socked a drive, then used a pitching wedge and dropped the ball six feet from the cup, from where I hoped to roll it in for a three. The kid had hooked his drive into a grove of assorted trees. He had played a five iron to keep the ball low under branches and left his approach a couple of yards short of the green. But he ran his next shot close to the hole and tapped it in for a four.
Bank president and club member Andy Borthwick: "A truck came by heading south on the road to Tijuana. The truck backfired, he blew the putt, then heaved his club at the driver. It landed in the truck bed, and no one ever saw it again.”
I choked, and when my putt for a three stopped on a slope and rolled backward toward me, I glimpsed a future where everything would proceed as my mother believed everything did, strictly according to Murphy’s Law—any girl I desired would desire someone else, and in all things success would hover just beyond reach, and God would appear like Lucy pulling the football just as Charlie Brown raced to kick it. Enraged by this vision, I took revenge on that wicked green and planted the blade of my Bullseye putter deep, a foot from the cup. The horror of this act might escape anyone unfamiliar with San Diego Country Club’s greens, plush and smooth as if trimmed by a master barber; so soft yet resilient, a sensualist might sneak on the course just to walk barefoot.
Tournament in 1920s. "The Marine Corps took over the land on the south side of what is now Barnett. So we went down to Chula Vista."
There were no adults to monitor our conduct. I excavated for the putter and smoothed the scar in the green, trying to disguise it as a ball mark, and proceeded to finish the round glumly.
In the parking lot, I was slamming my golf bag into the trunk of my Chevy when somebody whistled and called my name.
San Diego Country Club, 1920s. “God, you wear a shirt with a collar, they don’t allow jeans. I wonder if your socks need an alligator or something embroidered on them.”
It was the head greenskeeper, a slight fellow about 40 in khaki work clothes, and the kid who’d beat me. The kid introduced the man as his pop.
Pop said, “I understand you mistreated one of our greens, so you won’t be playing here anymore.” He spoke apologetically as though he were a sensitive man or worried that my parents might be big shots who could make him trouble.
Thirty-four years passed.
When my friend Gene first treated me to a round of golf at San Diego Country Club in exchange for advice about a novel he had written, I wondered if that greenskeeper might still be around and able to recognize a guy whose swing had stiffened, whose hair — what was left of it — had gone white.
I had other misgivings. Country clubs weren’t my style. Since I first broke from my parents’ political views, I’ve remained a democrat (notice the lower-case d), wary of affluent places and people, suspect that wealth implies moral decay. As a teenager at Singing Hills, I chose to hang out with boys from humble families who had learned the game as caddies; with a wild greenskeeper’s helper who made a habit of crashing cars; with the assistant pro who lived in a common El Cajon tract house; with the old black fellow who polished clubs and shined shoes.
Most of the country-club crowd — I delighted in watching their bloated egos deflate. I would slug my longest drives on the range while they peered through the picture window from the cafe and bar, distressed to witness a kid hitting shots they never would, no matter how many lessons or precision golf clubs or high-compression golf balls they bought. The odd times I played with members and had money to bet, I happily skinned them.
Not long after defacing San Diego (Country Club’s 17th green, I forsook my notions of becoming a pro, since I couldn’t imagine consorting with such a gang of smug and shallow characters as I saw the country club set to be. I decided I’d rather ride the rails and bellow populist songs like Woody Guthrie. I wasn’t yet disillusioned by commoners, idealists, artists, and derelicts. But I would be, and life has a way of calling us home.
On my way to meet Gene at San Diego Country Club, my heart fluttered with a mix of shame and nostalgia as I topped a rise on L Street and the clubhouse appeared.
Over the years since they’d expelled me from the club. I’d developed a fondness for history and tradition, so I gazed on the place with mild reverence, as if it were a civil war battleground or Wrigley Field.
Oscar Cotton, in a tract called “The Good Old Days,” tells of San Diego Country Club’s founding fathers.
- In 1898, a group of golf enthusiasts obtained permission from the City to lay out a nine-hole course in Balboa Park, on the high, nearly level land between laurel and Upas Streets, east of the present Cabrillo Freeway. The members cleared off brush and made sand ‘greens’ 25 feet in diameter. A clubhouse three hundred square feet in size was built near Park Boulevard and Upas Street, and the first recorded official meeting of the San Diego Country Club was held at the home of Charles P. Douglas, on March 5, 1898.
In “San Diego Golf Nostalgia,” Ralph Trembley explains,
- The SDCC organization...dates back to 1898, two years after a nine-hole, grassless course in the north of Balboa Park had been developed through the enthusiasm of President Taft’s sister and her husband. Dr. William A. Edwards. (The president had been a player...)
The club’s archives include a letter dated December 11, 1899:
My dear Mr. [Hugo] Klauber,
- At the December meeting of the Board of Directors of the Country Club, held this day, you were unanimously elected to active membership in the club. The initiation fee is $15, due $1 per month payable on the 15th of each month.
L.G. Bradley wrote, “The first golf course in San Diego was out in the park where the zoo is now. The clubhouse was a one-room building on the comer of what is now Upas and Park Boulevard. The golf course came about because three or four men while they were out walking had seen a lot of golf balls someone had been knocking around. No one had played golf around here before, and so they made an inquiry and there was a man here by the name of Robert Broom who had come out from New Brunswick, New Jersey, and he apparently knew a little about playing golf. So they decided they would like to start a golf course, and they went over to the old cable company power house at Fourth and Spruce and got some long pieces of cable, doubled it over a couple of times, and put four horses on each end and dragged the cable all over the countryside and got the sagebrush cleaned out.... The men all worked together and took shovels, hoes, and rakes and got it all cleaned up and then they made the greens — out of sand — and they started playing golf. It was the older group of men, and among others there were Mayor Mays, C.R. Dower, Charlie Williams.... The course had nine holes, and the caddies got 15 cents for a round. The last hole was up in that little canyon at Upas.
“In those days there wasn’t a house in sight anywhere, and our clubhouse was just a little one-room shack. With the assurance that they weren’t going to use the land that we were using for our golf course, we went to work and put up a new clubhouse, which is just a little east of the comer of Upas and Park— right where the streetcar used to run. Then, when we got our clubhouse done and had a big mortgage on it, they decided they were going to use part of our land. So we went over to where the Marine Base is now and put in a golf course and clubhouse.
“Finally, by selling off lots one at a time we paid off the mortgage and the street assessment, and I think eventually we paid back all the people who were still alive the $58 apiece they had given as a stake, and we closed up the affairs of the first golf club in the park."
Oscar Cotton adds, “Soon after they were comfortably installed in the new clubhouse, the City notified the club that the golf course land was needed for the coming 1915 Exposition.
“In the meantime, A.G. Spalding (the sporting goods tycoon), who was promoting Point Loma, and particularly Loma Portal, through the San Diego Securities Company, had built a most pretentious clubhouse north and east of Chatsworth Boulevard and Rosecrans Street and had laid out an 18-hole golf course with dirt fairways and sand greens extending from a portion of the present Marine base east to the present Highway 101. When the San Diego Country Club had to give up its course to the city, Mr. Spalding’s offer to consolidate with the Point Loma Golf Club was quickly accepted... However, as World War I developed, the government purchased the Marine base site for training Marines, and that, with other encroachments, new streets, and other improvements, soon reduced the course to 9 holes.” L.G. Bradley wrote about the Loma Portal era. “We built a pretty good size clubhouse out there, and then along came the Marine Corps, and it took over the land on the south side of what is now Barnett. So we went down to Chula Vista.
“At Loma Portal our golf course is now covered by Lindbergh Field on the north side, and a little west to the Naval Training Station and the Marine Base covers the rest of it—there was just a little bit of it up on the comer of Rosecrans and Barnett. The course had some of the old San Diego River delta, but we had bridges where you could play across the slough — it wasn’t too bad down in there, and we kept to the highlands. We had 18 holes on the course...five or six acres.”
Oscar Cotton witnessed the move to Chula Vista.
“On April 7, 1920, the San Diego Country Club was incorporated with the intention of developing a permanent 18-hole golf course, with grass greens and fairways, and an adequate clubhouse, all to be developed and owned by the members. This was a big order.... The present Chula Vista site was chosen; a beautiful golf course was developed, and a most comfortable clubhouse was built.... The membership of the club embraced most of the active younger and middle-aged social set of San Diego. Socially, and from the standpoint of the golfers, the club was an outstanding success — a wonderful and congenial crowd...."
A list of the members appears like a catalog of San Diego bigshots:
G. Bancroft, of the family of Hubert Howe Bancroft, called “The monumental historian of the West,” compiler of 39 volumes of western history. His ranch house in Spring Valley remains a designated historical site.
Beatrice Cowles, whose forefather George A. Cowles had been among the earliest European settlers of the El Cajon Valley.
U.S. Grant, Jr. Eldest son of the general and president, he served as secretary to the president for 18 months, took degrees from Harvard and Columbia Law school, and was for a time assistant U.S. attorney in New York, before health concerns sent him to San Diego in 1893. Here he became interested in real estate and persevered through financial hardships to complete the U.S. Grant Hotel.
Roscoe Hazard, a contractor and business partner of Grant and Jay Gould, so respected that famous mystery writer Earl Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason) called him “a maker of men.”
William Kettner, who mined in Julian, labored in wheat fields near Hemet, and drove a horse car in San Diego, all before finding his success in the insurance business. In 1912, he became our congressman from the 11th Congressional District, which then included San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono Counties. As a member of the Rivers and Harbors Committee and later of the Naval Affairs Committee, he was instrumental in dredging the harbor, bringing the Expositions of 1915 and 1916, establishing the Marine base and Naval Training Center, the Army and Navy Air Fields on North Island, and the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park.
Arthur Marston, son of George Marston, who began his career as a clerk in the Horton House, and after saving and investing opened Marston son the corner of what is now Fifth and Broadway. The business grew into San Diego’s major department store. Marston helped organize the San Diego and Eastern Railway Company and, according to the Saturday Evening Post (April 11, 1936), had Balboa Park laid out by an expert at his own expense. As chairman of the San Diego Parks and Beaches Association, he secured and developed many of the area’s recreation areas, from the coast to the desert. He also developed Presidio Hills and the Junipero Serra Museum and was an original member of the board of trustees of Pomona College. He lived well into his 80s, took up golf at 70-plus, and soon played well.
Two members from the Scripps family, probably nephews of Ellen Browning Scripps, since she had no children of her own. Ellen and her brothers founded a chain of newspapers that grew so prosperous they allowed her extraordinary philanthropy: she donated millions to civic, educational, recreational, and Christian institutions. She helped found the Scripps Memorial Hospital, the Bishop’s School, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
From Oscar Cotton’s angle, “The opening day of this San Diego Country Club marked the beginning of many Good Old Days. Golf in the daytime and parties at night. The club had a good chef; and we always had good dance music — the new tunes of the day made just about everybody want to dance — which we did, week after week, for many years.”
Some of the parties featured black ties, the fox-trot, and caviar. Others involved bootleggers and floozies snuck in the back way, after the staff had gone home.
Cotton recalls, “The club decided to publish a monthly magazine. It was called Golf Partner. One day ‘a member’ wrote a letter to the editor of the Golf Partner, complaining-because some golfers (so she claimed) used profane language near the clubhouse. I then wrote the following letter.
“ ‘The suggestion expressed, namely the prohibition of profanity at or near the Clubhouse, or in fact anywhere upon the course, is most excellent.
“ ‘Swearing is not good. It befouls the air, increases the bad temper of the swearer, teaches an unwholesome vocabulary to the caddies, grates on the sensitive ears of the fair sex, and I have always suspicioned that, indulged in to excess, it causes brown spots to appear on some of the more unprotected greens.
“ ‘I recommend that every member should report for publication the name of each offending member, the exact words used, the particular green or tee at which the specific offense is alleged to have taken place, and the name or names of those whose sensibilities seemed to have suffered most from the shock.
“ ‘As an example, I shall start this great forward movement by specifically naming Jay Gould as the first offender. Jay, with three others, was on the 8th green; I was in a foursome on the 9th tee. Jay evidently made a bad shot, because suddenly, and frankly, to my great surprise, I heard him vehemently exclaim, “Rats!”
“ ‘Why would it not be a good idea to name a committee which might make up lists of permissible expressions to be used to fit each type of shot, slice, hook, etc., selecting such gentlemanly terms as “Pickles,” “Fudge,” “Well, well,” “I do declare,” “Gracious me,” etc.’ ” The club’s proximity to Tijuana was a bonus, since Prohibition ruled on this side of the border and Tijuana featured saloons, spas, casinos, and classy resorts. Top pros such as Walter Hagen and Jimmy Demeret preferred SDCC over other courses, as they could drive south after the game and in a few minutes continue their gambling on the tables at Agua Caliente casino while drinking their fill. According to Andy Borthwick, “They built the course there on the main road to Mexico because you could putt out on the 18th and be sitting at the bar in Tijuana a few minutes later.”
Big-time golfers regularly gave exhibitions, unmatched in our time, since today no club could offer the loot a top-pro can win in PGA events. Exhibitions during the ’20s starred Walter Hagen (known as the first golf pro to be invited into the front door of a country club), Tommy Armour, golf s fashion plate Jimmy Demeret, and trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood. Ben Hogan and Dai Rees headlined “The 36-hole International $5000 Winner-Take-All Golf Championship.” The sponsors intended to profit from admission receipts, but most of the crowd stole in by climbing the short fence.
Since its beginnings in 15th-century Scotland, golf has been a gambler’s sport. According to members, from San Diego Country Club’s beginnings through the 1960s, the stakes were often high. There are stories of thousand-dollar Nassaus. In a Nassau, the bet is a thousand on each nine holes, plus a thousand on the total, plus automatic doubling when a player gets two holes ahead. A golfer could win or lose $12,000 in a round.
Through most of the ’30s, Fred Sherman served as the club’s head pro. Fred was a gambler. His most famous bet challenged that he could hit a golf ball the nine miles between SDCC and Emerald Hills golf course on Federal Boulevard in 100 strokes. He reportedly pawned all he owned and risked it on side bets.
According to Andy Borthwick, a former bank president, “Fred was a canny one. One of his conditions was that he be allowed to tee up each shot. Nobody realized he’d come up with foot-high tees for hitting out of and over the orchards that offered a shortcut east. Another was that he could drive down , streets. Give him a one-wood shot on a straight highway, and the ball would roll forever.”
Sherman surveyed the course beforehand by car and bet shrewdly, so he scored a bonus for each stroke under 100. He holed out in 78. “The media coverage was sensational,” Borthwick recalled. “The whole country heard about it.”
On another day, Sherman “...was putting on the 14th green when a truck came by heading south on the road to Tijuana,” Borthwick said. “The truck backfired, he blew the putt, then heaved his club at the driver. It landed in the truck bed, and no one ever saw it again.”
Edward E. “Red” Spenser joined the crew at San Diego Country Club at age 18 as caddymaster and starter, when most of the men golfers wore knickers. He worked for $3 a day plus a barracks-like room and meals. He remembers there being 139 members, about 60 of them women. The men were business people, doctors, and attorneys. The monthly dues were $15. The stock market had crashed, and in the wake of the crash, four club members took their lives.
In 1931, as assistant pro, Red polished hickory shafts and gave lessons. In 1933, Red was put in charge of membership and began a new job as the steward and bartender. It might’ve been the Tijuana booze an employee smuggled in that inspired so many new members. By the end of 1933, the membership had risen to 339. In 1935, Red took the job as assistant manager. He was given the manager’s house across the street from the golf course and performed all the manager’s duties, until the nation began preparing for World War II, and Red went to work for Rohr Industries, a contact that saved the club.
By 1943, the hearts and minds of even the prosperous weren’t so much on the game as with the country. Younger members went to war, and the club’s debt grew. There seemed no option but to give the place up, until Red contacted Fred Rohr, who called Red to his office and asked for the bottom line. Red admitted the club was $69,000 in debt, and the bank wouldn’t let the payments slide any longer.
Because of its function as a war industry, Rohr Aircraft couldn’t acquire new properties without government permission, so Rohr leased the club, made the payments to the bank, and for the duration of the war, San Diego Country Club served as the Rohr Recreation Center, which employees could use for $1 monthly and which Red Spenser was hired to run.
Longtime member Gordon Hurlburt tells how he learned about our entrance into World War II. On December 7, 1941, he and his regular Sunday-morning foursome stood on the first tee from which they could see all the way to the ocean. They watched a Navy warship steam out of the harbor past Point Loma out to sea. Suddenly the ship made a tight U-turn and headed back toward the Naval base. The men were puzzled, but it didn't stop them from playing golf. When they paused after nine holes for lunch at the clubhouse, they learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. On the back nine, Hurlburt says, he kept a wary eye on the western horizon.
The first annual San Diego Open golf tournament took place on a windy, rainy day in 1952. Fighter Joe Louis entered the Pro-Am by invitation and teamed with a black pro, Bill Spiller. Only the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) still had racial barriers, which blocked Spiller’s acceptance into the organization, and since it was a PGA tournament, Spiller couldn’t enter.
Commentator Walter Winchell blasted the club rather than the PGA. But Louis did play, since amateurs didn’t need PGA membership, and this historic entrance of a black golfer in a PGA-cosponsored event restored the club’s reputation. Louis was teamed with Horton Smith, director of the PGA and the top pro of the day, and in the rain Louis beat Smith on the first nine by a stroke and finished with a respectable 76. Ted Kroll won the main event.
During those postwar, Cold War years, throngs of military people discovered golf, perhaps following the lead of their commander in chief, President Dwight David Eisenhower.
By 1959, San Diego Country Club membership included a brigadier general, an admiral, two lieutenant generals, two colonels, a commander, five captains, two lieutenants, and a single enlisted man. On October 21, 1960, a year before I defaced the 17th green, President Eisenhower came to call. His helicopter landed in the ninth fairway, and “Ike” descended, saluted, then strode toward the 2500 cheering fans who filled the tenth fairway. He joined 19 others at luncheon tables set up on the tenth tee. He was served a birthday cake. When waiter Nacho Romero hurried toward the president brandishing a large, sharp knife with which to cut it, Secret Service agents leaped into action. Romero, still a waiter in the club dining room, is the father of pianist Gustavo Romero, who learned to play piano in the clubhouse while waiting for his father’s shift to end.
Ike expressed his disappointment for not having enough time to play the course. According to legend, he invited a member to accompany him to Palm Springs for a round of golf the next day, but the member replied that he “already had a game.”
More prized by the club than any visiting president are the champions, Mickey Wright and Billy Casper.
A 1963 San Diego Union article exclaimed, “It’s a tribute to Mary Kathryn (Mickey) Wright that she’s not only the most successful but the most popular performer on the Indies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.... When an athlete dominates a sport the way Mickey has women’s professional golf, envy almost always creeps in, but there are no signs of it toward Miss Wright. Mickey now has won 12 of the 23 tourneys she has entered this year.”
A San Diego native, Mickey Wright led the San Diego Country Club women’s golf team to three Southern California championships during the early 1950s. Yet one of her 6 write stories concerns her father’s conviction that she couldn’t count on golf as a way to make a living and his insistence that she go to Stanford to earn a teaching degree to fall back on. After a semester or two, Mickey took time off to win a professional tournament, then showed her father a check for nearly $3000, close to a year’s pay for a starting teacher.
Dad changed his mind. Mickey took to the road, and using a golf swing characterized by Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson as the best they’d ever seen— man or woman — dominated the LPGA tour between 1955 and 1973. She won 82 championships, averaging almost eight wins a year, and in 1961 captured three of the four major titles, a feat unmatched in the history of the women’s tour. In 1962 and 1963, she won four consecutive tournaments and in 1963 captured 13 titles, a record expected to last forever. The Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year for 1963 and 1964. In the ^Midland (Texas) Open, Mickey shot 62, setting a record for the LPGA tour. She was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1964 and into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1976.
In 1993, 22 years after she give up touring full-time, Mickey played in the Sprint Senior Challenge in Tallahassee, Florida. Over 100 players from the regular LPGA tour came out to watch her play, and she entertained them by whistling 270-yard tee shots with a 1962 vintage wooden driver. When asked why she never exploited her talent to make the kind of money she deserved, she said, “I have no interest in translating my name into a million dollars or any amount. To me, golf means one thing, tlie pure pleasure I get from swinging a golf club.”
The club’s other hero is Billy Casper, who tallied the fifth-best record in the history of the American pro golf tour. He’s a fixture at SDCC and has been for half its years.
”I was 11 years old when my dad and mother settled in the Castle Park area of Chula Vista in the early 1940s. We lived near enough to the club to attract me to work there as a caddie, but you couldn’t be a caddie until you were 12. So when one of the ladies wanted me to caddie, the only way I could do it was wait for her outside the fence near the second tee, climb over, and carry her bag until the 18th tee, when I had to climb back over and disappear.
“As soon as I turned 12, I joined the other guys in the caddie shack. We could play the course on Mondays, and I quickly developed a 24 handicap. One of my first tournaments was at Emerald Hills in La Mesa, and on the first day I shot 80, for a net 56. The idea of a 12-year-old boy winning an adult tournament didn’t go over real well, and they gave me my money back and told me to disappear.
“In those days almost everyone used a caddie—there were at least 50 of us, including ’Radio,’ who never stopped talking, and ‘Lefty,’who had only one arm — and I caddied for such people as Fred Rohr, Mac Uddon, Joe Rheim, Roy Pickford, and Reuben Fleet. Mr. Fleet used to pay me a dime for every halfbucket of rocks I would clear off the 13th fairway.
“The kitchen used to be where the snack shack is now, and every day we went over there for a Pepsi and our favorite sandwich: peanut butter on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. I still get a warm feeling when I think about that sandwich. Some of the adult caddies had a different choice of beverage. They’d take their earnings to the closest liquor store, and late in the day we usually found them snoozing up behind the third tee.
“Meanwhile, I was turning into a good player, but baseball was my first love. I used the money I earned as a caddie to go see the Padres at Lane Field. I might’ve tried for a career in professional baseball, but American Legion games were on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and those were the days I caddied. It was a problem I couldn’t solve. Without caddie money, I couldn’t afford to play baseball, but if I played baseball, I couldn't earn the money.
“The caddies played the course every way you can imagine — frontwards, backwards, sideways — from the 18th tee, for example, to the 9th green. We even played the game crosscountry. We’d tee off on the first tee, play that hole, then head out across the lemon orchard toward Chula Vista. Part of the course was a lob shot over the public library, and the last hole was the third spittoon from the left in Chub’s pool hall. There were always members shooting pool and playing cards, and their faces would light up when the door opened and the golf balls came tumbling in. The first guy to hit it in the spittoon won, and afterward we shot pool or played cards — a game we called ‘tonk’—under the streetlights until we had to go home..
“We used the golf course for other things. One of Vic Morgan’s regular duties was chasing us off the second fairway when we used it as a football field.”
When Casper isn’t golfing, a likely place to find him is the club’s card room, where the gin game that started 50-plus years ago continues. Players used to leave the game thousands of dollars richer or poorer, but these days it’s for pocket change, open to everybody. Not all the members are wealthy.
Memberships that now cost about $30,000 were $50 when Rohr owned the club, and people of modest incomes have stuck around since then, sharing the locker room with Rafael Carrillo, an international financier listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 50 wealthiest people around.
Since 1959 when, according to rosters,‘the racial makeup of the club remained about the same as in 1922, at least a dozen Hispanics have joined and as many Asians. The current roster shows a dozen Jewish names. Accusations of bigotry would likely cite the absence of African-American members.
Past bylaws aren’t available to the public, maybe due to racially offensive clauses, though the inclusion of Jewish names on the 1922 roster seems evidence to the contrary, as most country clubs of that era included Jews with other “unwelcomes.”
My friend Gene speculates that African-Americans willing to front the $30,000 up front and the $600 monthly could join, since he’s heard no remarks to the contrary during his five years at the club.
Though membership is sometimes offered by invitation, usually to friends of members, prospectives can be directed to members who will introduce them around and sponsor them. Once suggested for membership, names are posted for 30 days. If no member objects, and if the newcomer’s credit proves worthy, they’re accepted. Should anyone object, it must be for substantial reasons or the objection is disallowed.
In the 1922 roster, married couples were listed as equal members. Now, there’s only one member per immediate family, and few of the listed members are women. Spouses and underage children, though awarded most of the members’ privileges, can’t serve as officers or vote in elections. Neither can they golf during certain prime hours such as Saturday mornings.
Feminists might label the club a patriarchy. Recently, a few women objected to their nonmember status. The board of directors refused to amend the policy, whereupon the husbands of several women turned the family memberships over to their wives. After four or five transfers, the board voted to assess the membership transfer fee, which affects all other transfers including inheritance, to transfers between spouses. The fee is $12,500. Faced with such a bottom line, the issue died.
Gender, race, financial or social status, political affiliation — none of these seem to matter at San Diego Country Club. Even other sports fail to intrude. What counts most is neither money nor social status, but golf. During the ’40s, a few tennis courts were added, and for a decade they stood neglected until they made way for a parking lot addition. In 1960, a small group of members lobbied for a swimming pool. A vote of the general membership rejected the scheme.
A Vandal Returns
Aside from my concern that the judgment against me would stand, that 35 years after I plunged the blade of a Bullseye putter into the 17th green I would be discovered and again ordered off the premises, I had other reservations. Always I have found country clubs less hospitable than municipal courses. A few years ago, after recounting in an article that a certain club insisted my son and I wear shirts with collars and each have our own bag — even though the course was vacant and we were driving a cart — I remarked that country clubs were most appropriate for golfers with a tolerance for stupid rules. The manager wrote a vituperative letter, accusing me of having a rebellious streak. He got that right.
At San Diego Country Club last year, I was on the putting green, feeling significant because of the company. I recognized Dennis Conner, the sailor, but hadn’t known that the big guy on the other side was Junior Seau — I’d only seen him on TV wearing face masks—until a fellow putter’s remark clued me. This would be something to tell my son about, I mused. My kids always appreciated me more when I rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. They weren’t impressed that I had published books, but when I took them to visit a friend who writes TV shows, lives at the top of Beverly Hills, and drives a Rolls, they admitted I was cool.
My smugness was arrested when a man appeared out of nowhere, wearing an apologetic frown. Aww, I thought, one of the old-timers recognized me.
He said, “Sir, um, jeans aren’t allowed.”
I scuffed into the pro shop, grumbling, “God, you wear a shirt with a collar, they don’t allow jeans. I wonder if your socks need an alligator or something embroidered on them.” The pro shop, hardly a K-mart franchise, charged $35 for a pair of shorts.
I remained a little miffed until we played the first hole, and the beauty of the golf course made me reflect that I’d wear a pink tutu for a crack at this wonder. Even the fairways are plush, the greens plusher and sprawling, slick and unblemished, the contours unpredictable, the rough deep and cruel. Try to whack a shot out of the rough, strike the ball squarely, and watch it blip a few yards and then dribble up the fairway. Each hole has a unique, devious personality.
A month later, the course humiliated me again. I usually shoot below 90, but this monster required close to 100 strokes. Even though on number 12, I recovered after a hooked tee shot and scored a three on a long, cruel hole by chopping an iron shot under the branches, making the ball slice around a stand of trees: It skipped over a sand trap and rolled to within inches of the hole, raising my total of victorious moments at San Diego Country Club to one.
Golf is perilous, even to the naturally athletic. My friend and fellow mystery writer Alan Russell is a gifted basketball player, who starred at UCSD and still at age 40 plays in local leagues with pros, but the day he and Michael Connelly joined Russell and me at SDCC, he hacked, whiffed, and chopped around the course until his expression turned to that of a broken man. I worried he might become catatonic.
I hope they don’t ban me from the place; I’ve become a fan, not only for its golf, but for the members. Which reminds me of Billy Casper.
As a teenager, I caddied at the San Diego Open in Mission Valley, in a foursome that included Arnold Palmer, a most friendly man, even during his lousiest round. In the caddie shack, Billy Casper appeared to ignore us caddies, so I deemed him a snob.
Because of the San Diego Country Club’s centennial this year, I was invited to a journalists’ day.! played in a foursome with my friend Gene, club pro Tom Hust, and T.R. Reinma, the San Diego Union-Tribune golf writer. My drives are wimpy compared to what they used to be, but occasionally I belt one. That day, my first drive carried farther off the hill than any and split the fairway.
I turned, sighing relief while remaining cool enough to suppress a dopey grin. My only hopes were to not shame myself in front of these superior golfers and to meet Billy Casper, who’d been watching.
He reached to shake hands. “Fine shot, sir,” he said, and introduced himself, asked my name, and gave me a signed golf ball.
He’s a good fellow.
It’s a fine hangout.
— Ken Kuhlken
Ken Kuhlken s novels are Midheaven, from Viking Press, and The Loud Adios, The Venus Deal, and The Angel Gang from St. Martin's.