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Icons & Innovators: Pebble Beach

James Y. Bartlett

Strokes Of Genius
After moving west from his native New England in 1908, Samuel F.B. Morse, a distant cousin of the inventor of the telegraph, went to work for the Pacific Improvement Co. Among the Northern California real estate firm’s holdings at the time was a hotel on the Monterey Peninsula. Built in 1879, after Pacific Improvement’s owner, the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., had completed a spur line into Monterey, the Hotel Del Monte was a popular destination for California’s affluent ranks, even more so after the proprietors added a golf course to the grounds in 1890.

By 1915, however, when Morse became manager of Pacific Improvement’s properties on the Monterey Peninsula, the Del Monte’s Gilded Age glamour had faded, and lot sales at another of the company’s projects, known as Pebble Beach, were not meeting expectations. Morse’s charge was to spruce up the company’s holdings on the peninsula and find a buyer willing to pay $1.3 million for them.

Morse scrapped Pebble Beach’s existing development plans, which called for small, crowded lots along the seafront, and convinced his employer to buy back all of the parcels. (Pacific Improvement succeeded in reacquiring all of the lots but one, whose owner refused to sell.) Morse’s vision for the property included larger homes set back from the beach and overlooking a golf course that would meander along the rocky bluffs above Stillwater Cove. But as he would recall years later, Morse believed that only two prominent golf course architects were qualified for the task: Charles Blair Macdonald, a wealthy Easterner who was not interested in the job, and Alister Mackenzie, who was serving in the British army in World War I.

Morse therefore enlisted two local men—neither of whom was a course designer—to build the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Jack Neville, a Pebble Beach real estate salesman for Pacific Improvement, had proven himself a fine golfer by winning the first California State Amateur tournament at the Del Monte course in 1916. Douglas Grant, the scion of a San Francisco family, had spent time in Great Britain playing amateur golf and studying the classic links courses. Together, under the guidance of Morse, the duo designed what remains one of the world’s finest, and certainly one of its most famous, golf courses.

A year or two after Pebble Beach opened in 1919, Morse expanded the 18th hole into a par 5 that stretched along the curved line of Stillwater Cove. (Critics had complained about the course’s conditioning and its poor closing hole, a short par 4.) In the late 1990s, the Pebble Beach Co. succeeded in purchasing the parcel of land from the family of the owner who had refused to sell to Pacific Improvement, and the resort enlisted Jack Nicklaus to build a new par-3 fifth hole on the clifftop site. Aside from theses changes, the layout Neville and Grant designed is virtually the same one played today.

The same year he opened the Golf Links and the adjacent Lodge at Pebble Beach, Morse acquired from his employer the 18,000 acres that included Pebble Beach, the Hotel Del Monte, and the Del Monte Forest. Although he paid slightly more than the original $1.3 million asking price, Morse likely knew that he had mined a diamond from the rough.

A Living Legacy
Until his death in 1969, Samuel F.B. Morse remained the owner of the Del Monte Properties Co., the firm he formed to operate Pebble Beach. The resort, the golf course, and their surroundings eventually changed hands in 1978, when 20th Century Fox purchased Del Monte Properties for $72 million. Oil billionaire Marvin Davis then acquired the movie studio, including its Pebble Beach properties, in 1981. “I never fall in love with an asset,” said Davis years later, “but with Pebble Beach I came pretty close.”
 
In 1990, however, Minoru Isutani, who headed a Japanese conglomerate and owned golf courses in his country, offered Davis $841 million for Pebble Beach. Davis sold to Isutani, who planned to sell million-dollar memberships and make the course semiprivate. This provoked an outcry from Monterey Peninsula residents, and the state-sponsored California Coastal Commission rejected Isutani’s proposal.

Eighteen months after he bought Pebble Beach, Isutani sold it for only $500 million to a partnership of Sumitomo Bank and the Taiheiyo Club, which also owned golf courses in Japan. The group invested more than $100 million to renovate the lodge, upgrade the property’s beach club, add a spa, and open a boutique hotel, but by 1999, Pebble Beach was on the market again. Among the companies that tendered bids—the benchmark price was $800 million—were Starwood Hotels & Resorts, private golf course owner ClubCorp USA, former owner Marvin Davis, the Marriott Corp., and the Contrarian Group, the latter of which was headed by Olympic impresario and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

Ueberroth assembled a team of investors that included former United Airlines CEO Dick Ferris, golfer Arnold Palmer, and actor/director/ local politician Clint Eastwood. Pebble Beach’s Japanese owners accepted the team’s bid of $820 million, a large portion of which the partners raised by selling ownership units, priced from $2 million to $10 million, to 132 friends and associates. The names of those friends and associates have never been disclosed.

 

Forest For the Tees
The Pebble Beach Co., the entity owned by Ueberroth and his partners, manages an empire of resorts, restaurants, golf courses, and more on its now-5,300-acre property on the Monterey Peninsula. The company’s facilities include the Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Casa Palmero hotel, the Inn at Spanish Bay, the Spa at Pebble Beach, a beach and tennis club, an equestrian center with 34 miles of trails, and 17-Mile Drive, the scenic road that wends through the peninsula and passes the area’s landmark Lone Cypress tree. Still, golf is the primary draw at Pebble Beach, and visitors soon may have another venue on which to play.

Pebble Beach’s existing golf courses consist of the Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill (a coastal layout that would be the main attraction at nearly any other resort), the Links at Spanish Bay, the old Del Monte Golf Course, and a nine-hole executive track. This year, a plan for a new golf course—its provisional name is the Forest Course—may finally come to fruition.
 
First designed in 1992 by architect Tom Fazio, the Forest Course originally was slated for an uplands area on the peninsula. The California Coastal Commission and local environmentalists protested the plan, claiming that it would result in the loss of too many Monterey pines, which grow only in three areas, including the Monterey Peninsula, and which were already threatened by a pitch canker disease.

The Pebble Beach Co. thus moved the proposed site, and Fazio’s new routing, unveiled in 1999, plays through the land bordered by the Peter Hay executive course, the Equestrian Center, and Spyglass Hill. “Tom’s original site was laid out over very hilly and rough terrain,” says R.J. Harper, Pebble Beach’s director of golf. “The new site is a lot like Spyglass Hill, with rolling hills and views out to the ocean.”
 
As part of its new proposal, Pebble Beach agreed to set aside several hundred acres of Monterey-pine forest. Thus far, environmental groups have been amenable to the plan, and earlier this year it was approved by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. The Coastal Commission must approve the plans before construction can begin; at press time, the board had scheduled public hearings for late 2005 or early 2006.

Pebble Beach Resorts, www.pebblebeach.com

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