Something In the Air
From the early Bing Crosby Pro-Ams to hall of famers such as Billy Casper and Mickey Wright, San Diego has a rich, colorful history with the game.
Given the group of accom-plished golfers who have grown up in the San Diego area, you wonder if there is something in the water. More than likely, there is something in the weather. "Occasionally we would have to get out there and battle the elements on a winter day when it would get down to about 60 degrees," says Scott Simpson, one of five men's major champions to hail from the home of this year's U.S. Open, tongue firmly in cheek. "You always had those eight or nine days of rain a year. It was tough."
Says San Diegan Billy Casper, whose 51 PGA Tour titles include three majors: "Golf wasn't a seasonal thing. You can play almost every day of the year. If the wind blew hard one day, you didn't play because you knew the next day would be perfect."
If playing in wind wasn't their forte, success was. San Diego locals Casper, Phil Mickelson (34 wins), Gene Littler (29), Craig Stadler (13), Simpson (seven) and Phil Rodgers (five) have won 139 PGA Tour events, nine of them majors. Other San Diegans currently on tour include Charley Hoffman, Pat Perez and Chris Riley. Jamie Lovemark is a college star. Native Mickey Wright (82 LPGA victories, including 13 majors) set a standard for play by a woman that many feel has never been equaled.
The legendary Sam Snead made his mark just passing through. The first six Bing Crosby Pro-Ams were held at Rancho Santa Fe GC before the event moved north to the Monterey Peninsula following World War II, and Snead won three of them (1937, '38 and '41). A bad back kept Snead out of active duty during the war, but he kept his golf muscles limber while stationed in San Diego when he was in the Navy. "If you don't keep your name out of the paper, we'll have to put you on a ship," Snead recalled his commanding officer warning him after his golf exploits kept making news. "I said, 'Yes, sir.' These [reporters] would come out when I played and ask, 'What'd you shoot?' I told 'em I picked up two or three times and to leave me alone."
Snead set the course record, 60, at Balboa Park in 1943, but he played all around the area, including La Jolla CC, where a young Littler watched him often and believes some of Snead's silky rhythm rubbed off. Wright, whose father took her to La Jolla CC for the first time when she was 11, had a similar experience watching Littler, who was five years her senior. "I got a chance to watch Gene hit golf balls every day," Wright remembers. "Juniors couldn't play on the golf course without a regular member, so things were pretty well restricted. But boy, they let you on the practice tee. I took my little tin can and picked up those balls and watched Gene swing it, then I'd go swing it. I was just probably the luckiest young woman who ever lived."
According to Wright, Littler—who later would be labeled "Gene the Machine" by San Diego sportswriter Jack Murphy and win the 1954 San Diego Open as an amateur—inherited some of his smooth action from his mother. "I played bridge with his mother, Dorothy, and a lot of golf with her, too," says Wright. "That's where he got his pretty golf swing. She had the prettiest swing you've ever seen, beautiful rhythm just like Gene. I think he watched her a whole lot."
A few years later Wright's father became a member at San Diego CC in suburban Chula Vista, where Billy Casper was caddieing and honing his skills. "I got a chance to play golf with him and watch him practice putting," says Wright. "I learned from Billy that the best time of day to practice putting is at dusk. He said if you can't quite see it, you've got to feel it. It developed your touch, so you didn't get all messed up with technique and this, that and the other thing. You really had to relate from the ball to the hole. He didn't have a classic golf swing, but his hands were unbelievable."
When Wright was older, she teamed with Casper in matches with two other men. "Don Whitt, who I was in the Navy with, and this fellow George Bingham would come out here and stay and get ready for the winter tour," says Casper. "I told George we had a young lady who plays on the ladies tour that if you don't hit it just right, she'll knock it by you. Mickey and I would play George and Don. If George didn't hit it just right, she would knock it right by him. He found out real quick."