U.S. Open 2019: Bill Perocchi’s remarkable journey from the projects to the shrine of American golf
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Bill Perocchi’s office conveys his status in golf circles. Start with its prime location, overlooking the practice green at Pebble Beach Golf Links—no more than a pitch shot from the No. 1 tee at one of the world’s most storied courses.
The photos lining the walls reinforce this lofty realm in which he resides. There’s a splash of childhood idolatry—namely, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski tipping his cap to the Fenway Park crowd—but mostly there are shots of Perocchi posing with famous golfers, sports figures and celebrities, from Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth to Tom Brady and Clint Eastwood.
Nice company for a kid from the projects.
Perocchi, longtime chief executive officer and part owner of the Pebble Beach Company, didn’t grow up envisioning this gilded life. He never imagined shepherding Pebble through its role as U.S. Open host, as he’s doing for the third time this week.
One of the most prominent people in golf grew up in one of the poorest cities in New England. Perocchi lived in the stadium projects of Lawrence, Mass., about 30 miles north of downtown Boston.
His upbringing was tumultuous and tragic. Perocchi’s mom died in a car accident when he was 9. His dad, a World War II veteran, suffered from a disability and struggled to keep the family together. They lived in a cramped apartment, six people sharing one bathroom. “Billy almost brought himself up, to be honest with you,” said Steve Kelley, associate director of the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club. “He and the kids who lived in the projects kind of took care of each other.”
Kelley coached Perocchi in football and basketball when he was in grammar school. Kelley remembered Perocchi’s strong work ethic and passion for sports; Kelley occasionally crammed Perocchi and other kids into his oversized Volkswagen Beetle and took them to Celtics games at fabled Boston Garden.
Perocchi became captain of his high school football team, embracing the camaraderie of team sports. They helped set him on the right path.
“We don’t always recognize how important sports are to young kids who grow up in tough environments,” Perocchi said. “That’s where you bond with other kids and where you get mentors if you don’t have them at home.
“You’re striving to improve and doing something useful with your time. For me, it was that bonding of sports and the determination to get out of the environment you’re in and make something out of your life.”
He did exactly that, ultimately helping Peter Ueberroth and Dick Ferris complete their purchase of Pebble Beach in 1999. Soon thereafter, Perocchi returned to Lawrence and visited Kelley at the old Boys & Girls Club.
Kelley asked Perocchi what he was doing. He talked of recently leaving one job, then sheepishly mentioned he and a couple friends had bought a golf course.
Kelley: “You don’t even play golf. Where?”
Perocchi: “Oh, in California.”
Kelley: “Where in California?”
Perocchi: “Pebble Beach.”
Kelley, telling the story in a recent phone interview, laughed at the memory. As he put it, “I kind of whacked him on the shoulder, and said, ‘Get outta here!’ ”
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Perocchi, 61, launched his career in business, far removed from golf. He rose through General Electric’s management training program, then moved to Doubletree Hotels. He worked crazy-long hours in his 20s and 30s, on his way to becoming chief financial officer at Doubletree.
That’s where he met Ueberroth, the former Major League Baseball commissioner and architect of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and Ferris, onetime United Airlines CEO. They worked together to sell Doubletree, at which point Perocchi—who already had amassed a fortune—planned to retire in his early 40s and coach his kids’ youth sports teams.
Ueberroth and Ferris persuaded him to run Pebble Beach instead. Perocchi suddenly found himself as the gatekeeper to a shrine of American golf, routinely interacting with the game’s giants. “That was intimidating,” he said. “It’s not what I expected to be doing, given where I grew up. You almost don’t know how to act initially. It wasn’t natural for me.”
Perocchi figured it out. He organized team lunches with each Pebble Beach department, sitting down with them over pizza to get their input. He tried to understand the operation at every level.
The consensus among those who have worked with Perocchi throughout his 20 years at Pebble: He’s a hands-on leader, especially when the U.S. Open comes around.
“He’s involved in every element,” said Steve John, CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “He wants to know the toast served to the guests at Stillwater Cove was perfect. That’s not a fault, it just shows what Bill’s about. Nothing is going to get past him.”
Perocchi and the Ueberroth/Ferris ownership group took over at Pebble in ’99, a year in which the course hosted the U.S. Amateur. The U.S. Open came back one year later. So there was a lot on Perocchi’s plate right away.
USGA chief executive officer Mike Davis recalled that as a tenuous time, in some respects, given the new owners and the looming Open. But Perocchi and his crew “couldn’t have handled it better,” as Davis put it.
The two decades since then have featured another U.S. Amateur (2018) at Pebble Beach, and now two more U.S. Opens (2010 and ’19). They also included several ambitious projects, from a new state-of-the-art practice facility (opened in 2014) and sparkling visitors center (November 2018) to an expanded "Wall of Champions" behind the No. 1 tee (unveiled in February) and extensive upgrades at the Lodge and nearby Spanish Bay. Pebble renovated four greens, as well—Nos. 9, 13, 14 and 17—in recent years, with an eye toward this week’s Open.
Davis called himself a “huge fan” of Perocchi, who belied his lack of golf background in acclimating himself to the top job at the country’s most well-known resort course. “He’s learned the game,” Davis said. “He’s a smart person and a quick study. And he’s process-driven: He asks a lot of his employees and they give him a lot.”
Perocchi might count as a demanding boss, but he showed a warmer side when Pebble Beach’s affable director of golf, R.J. Harper, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016. Perocchi arranged access to top doctors and often drove Harper to his appointments.
Harper died in November 2017, at age 61.
“From the minute R.J. was diagnosed, Bill took over,” John said. “He really became R.J.’s personal assistant, to make sure he had whatever he needed. I admire what Bill did, making sure R.J.’s remaining time was well spent.”
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Perocchi’s path to Pebble Beach required good fortune, as he readily acknowledged. He credited the impact of his uncle, Steve Perocchi; his seventh-grade teacher, Carmen Iannicullo; and Kelley, who has worked at the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club for 53 years.
Bill Perocchi took a bus to the club three days a week from age 6 to 14, his stays stretching from late afternoon into the evening. Kelley was his counselor, offering much-needed guidance and direction.
Kelley and Steve Perocchi helped young Bill land a scholarship at Brooks, an elite private school in nearby North Andover, after he got in trouble at Lawrence High as a freshman. Steve Perocchi, who died about a year ago, was Brooks’ football coach at the time.
That break paved the way for the younger Perocchi to play football at the University of New Hampshire. Another break—of his wrist, less than a month into his freshman season—prompted Perocchi to take his studies seriously, and propelled him on his career path.
All these years later, Perocchi still keeps in touch with Kelley and Iannicullo (who will attend this week’s Open). Perocchi donated more than $1 million to the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, which used the gift to build a new 5,800-square foot facility in 2007, and he’s also involved in the Monterey chapter.
And now Perocchi embarks on a milestone week, celebrating Pebble Beach’s centennial with its sixth U.S. Open, more than any other course in the past 50 years. The kid with modest roots—from the stadium projects in Lawrence to a membership at Cypress Point—now sits comfortably in his perch atop the golf world.
“It’s a tribute to the work ethic he had in sports, and the mental toughness he had to develop along the way,” Kelley said. “He earned everything he has. That’s the epitome of what we try to teach to the kids.”
Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.