A family connection to Pebble Beach's founder
In 2012, shortly after we moved into our home at Pebble Beach, I spent a morning strolling about the colonnade at The Lodge, getting a feel for the surroundings I’d soon get to experience every day. I walked into my favorite shop, a golf antiquity and collectibles store called Golf Links to the Past. If you like old clubs, books, artwork and the like, the store is one of the best on the planet.
After exchanging greetings with the man in charge, Kip Opgrand, I glanced at his offerings. Within three seconds, my eyes fell on a large painting propped on the wood floor. Moving closer, I saw it was a stunning landscape of a scene at Pebble Beach, a mélange of red, burgundy and orange illuminating cypress trees, with a hint of Stillwater Cove peeking through. It was enormous, and I immediately envisioned it hanging on the wall of our dining room, which was unoccupied.
“Guess who the painter is?” said Kip, noticing I was held rapt. I stooped down and saw in the corner the signature, SFBM, 1968. I bolted upright and stared at Kip in disbelief. “That’s right, it’s by Sam Morse,” he said, smiling. “It’s an original. It just came in yesterday.”
Within 30 minutes—Kip and I hadn’t even settled on a price—the painting was mounted on a golf cart and being driven slowly to my residence, where it fit the dimensions of the wall to within an inch. If that sounds like a reckless way to buy a rare piece of art, understand that Samuel Finley Brown Morse, the founder of Pebble Beach, is to me the greatest golf visionary who ever lived. We’ll all get to see the fruits of his vision this month when the U.S. Open is played at Pebble Beach. But it’s important to remind that Morse also was behind the creation of Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula. Moreover, he didn’t just foresee and develop the incredible courses, he laid out the entire area, which might be the most beautiful in North America, if not the world.
There’s more to my personal connections to Morse, but first the outline of his story. Born in 1885, he was a distant cousin to the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse. As a young man he captained and played fullback on the 1906 Yale football team that went undefeated, and was named first-team All-America. Though smart, tough and pugnacious—he once was thrown out of a game on a charge of being “overly aggressive”—he also was charismatic and likable.
Morse married and moved to California in 1907, where he was hired by a man named W.H. Crocker to run the Del Monte Company, a land holding centered around a popular resort property called the Hotel Del Monte. Morse performed well, and in 1916, Crocker hired him to manage the Pacific Improvement Company, which owned 28,000 acres of land in the area that encompasses not only that singular coastline but large tracts inland—including what is now my property. Crocker had three partners—one of them Leland Stanford, who founded a fairly well-known university in Palo Alto—and they wanted Morse to try to sell the property on their behalf for $1.3 million. Morse did his job finding a buyer, but that entity agreed on the condition that Morse manage the property. Morse wasn’t enthralled with the prospective owners’ plans for the property. My research hasn’t revealed what those plans were exactly, but suffice to say, Bing Crosby many years later said it best: “Without Sam Morse, Pebble Beach would be a West Coast Coney Island.” Morse privately yearned to buy the property himself, for he already had a vision for it becoming what we know it as today. The problem was, he didn’t have $1.3 million.
In his grandson Charles Osborne’s fabulous 2018 biography, Boss: The Story of S.F.B Morse, the Founder of Pebble Beach, he talks of how Morse in 1918 was riding his horse, Moonlight, around Pebble Beach, imagining what it could become, when he was called to a meeting with Crocker, in which he revealed his desire to have Crocker help with financing so Morse could make the purchase himself. Crocker demurred because he didn’t want to essentially be both seller and buyer. Morse struck out on his own and a short time later obtained the $1.3 million financing through a bond offering arranged by Herbert Fleishhacker of the Anglo California National Bank in San Francisco.
Bing Crosby many years later said it best: “Without Sam Morse, Pebble Beach would be a West Coast Coney Island.”
Sam Morse now had control, and soon after, he commissioned Jack Neville and Douglas Grant to lay out the Pebble Beach Golf Links. The course opened in 1919, the year Prohibition was ratified. The 100th anniversary of the first round played there was in February, and a lot has occurred at Pebble Beach over the years. A large bust of Morse resides near the first tee, and although he died in 1969—we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of his passing—it’s completely fitting that his legacy is being kept alive.
My 2012 purchase of that painting by Morse was the first of several efforts to keep his presence alive, for my family and guests at my home. In 2014, when my wife, Courtney, was expecting our daughter and we were contemplating a name, I said, “How about Finley?” Only after Courtney said that she loved the name did I reveal that it was inspired by an aspect of Samuel Finley Brown Morse. I admit now she might not have been as smitten had I told her about the Sam Morse connection up front.
A short time later, I mentioned to Neal Hotelling, the longstanding official historian at Pebble Beach, my Morse painting acquisition. Neal, knowledgeable of all things Pebble Beach, put me in touch with Jesse Corsaut, a renowned local artist and sculptor who painted, and still possessed, the only known oil portrait of Sam Morse. I bought that painting directly from Jesse, who passed away in 2016 at age 86. Neal contacted me a short time later to say that a fellow in Corsica was willing to sell yet another painting by Sam Morse. The addition of that one brought my total of Morse-related art pieces to three.
Illustrations by Jesse Corsaut
The final part of my Morse infatuation occurred in 2016, when I learned that Sam’s youngest child, Mary Morse Shaw, was still alive, age 96 and living in Pebble Beach. She was an extraordinary woman in many ways, and in her youth had been a fine golfer and student of the legendary Marion Hollins. She reached the quarterfinals of the 1940 U.S. Women’s Amateur and once held the course records at Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and the Stanford University course. I passed along word through Neal, as well as Mrs. Shaw’s granddaughter, Mary Schley, a local writer of great renown for the Carmel Pine Cone, that I’d love to meet her. Word came back from both parties that if it did happen, I should consider calling on her at 5 p.m., for she still enjoyed cocktail hour and a strong martini.
Finally a plan came together, and on the day of my visit, I was quite nervous. I called at 5 p.m. sharp and to ease things along I brought along a bottle of chardonnay.
Seated next to her I said, “Mrs. Shaw, I have such a high regard for Pebble Beach and your father. I can’t get enough reading about him and wish I could have met him. Most important, I felt a need to bring a story full circle. I had to tell you in person that my wife and I named our daughter after your father. She looked at me quizzically and said “For goodness sake, what is the child’s name? Is it Sam for Samantha?” Almost trembling from months of buildup and knowing that I was now officially connecting the Morse and Nantz families, I said, “We named her Finley. She was born in Pebble Beach. She’ll be raised here. We wanted to pay tribute to the man who built this magnificent place.”
I half thought the big reveal might bring tears, but Mary’s reaction was matter-of-fact. Taking a sip of her martini, she replied, “Well, there are a lot of people named Finley.” The lack of sentimentality was disarming. The moment had come and gone. I thought that at the very least my daughter had now been officially linked with the founding father.
I pivoted the rest of the visit to focus on her golf career. She said, “I never really liked golf. My father wanted me to be a champion and forced me to play. He insisted I hit a hundred balls a day from our backyard out to the 18th hole here at Pebble. I gave it up in my 20s. I never missed it.” Something in her tone suggested we leave it at that.
When Mary passed away last year at age 97, I thought of how fortunate I was to meet the little girl who had a front-row seat to the greatness of her father and his beloved Pebble Beach. And how happy I am to know there is another little girl living in the Del Monte forest who shares the Morse family name.