All eyes are on California – and specifically the Monterey Peninsula – this week as Pebble Beach Golf Links celebrates its 100th anniversary by hosting the 119th U.S. Open. It will be the sixth U.S. Open contested on the iconic layout that so many great champions have walked.
It also brings further attention to the Golden State, which has no shortage of talent, from the Bay Area in the north to San Diego in the south.
Since we’re in Northern California this week, we’ll focus our attention on this region of the state. Many will recognize the names of Johnny Miller, Juli Inkster, Ken Venturi, Pat Hurst, Paula Creamer and recent up-and-comer Lucy Li, who drew worldwide attention when she qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at age 11.
Johnny Miller is arguably the most accomplished male golfer from Northern California. The San Francisco native not only won 25 times on the PGA Tour, he offered a signature memory during his 1973 U.S. Open triumph – bringing mighty Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh to its knees in a transcendent, final-round 63.
Ken Venturi, like Miller, grew up in San Francisco (they both attended Lincoln High in the city’s Sunset District). Venturi collected 14 tour victories, including his own memorable U.S Open win – when he survived 36 holes in smothering heat and humidity to prevail at Congressional Country Club in 1964.
But the parade of great players who grew up in the Bay Area and surrounding Northern California communities stretches much deeper than Miller and Venturi.
Lincoln High also produced Bob Lunn, who tied for third in the 1970 U.S. Open and produced six PGA Tour victories.
How about a Grand Slam of champions from the region: George Archer (also from San Francisco) won the 1969 Masters; Miller, Venturi and Lawson Little captured the U.S. Open; Miller and Tony Lema (Oakland) took The Open Championship conducted by The R&A; and Bob Rosburg (San Francisco) won the 1959 PGA Championship. Little also won what became known as the Little Slam, claiming the U.S. and British amateur titles in both 1934 and 1935.
Or consider this tidy triumvirate: In 1964, The Olympic Club alone boasted three USGA champions in Venturi (Open), Miller at age 17 (U.S. Junior Amateur) and William D. Higgins (U.S. Senior Amateur). What a year for a club.
And don’t forget about Nathaniel Crosby’s improbable victory in the 1981 U.S. Amateur. Crosby, son of singer/actor/avid golfer Bing Crosby, won his title on Olympic’s Lake Course, twice erasing big match-play deficits to become a USGA champion at age 19. Nathaniel is the captain of the 2019 USA Walker Cup Team, which will try to retain the cup at Royal Liverpool in September.
It makes sense, on many levels, for the Bay Area to crank out all these USGA champions. Given the scarcity of land in a densely populated urban setting, most of the courses are tight, tree-lined and demanding, with small greens.
Venturi, who passed away in 2013, and those who followed him had little choice: They learned how to control their shots.
“We became pretty straight,” he once said. “Now you can hit it in the trees at Olympic and get the next shot on the green – we’d pitch it out when we hit it in the trees, if we could find the ball.”
Crosby, not surprisingly, carved his own distinctive path into the game. His father hosted the annual tournament/party long known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, giving young Nathaniel early and captivating exposure to golf.
Crosby handed out scorecards and pencils for the starter at Cypress Point, and he followed celebrities around Cypress, Pebble and Spyglass Hill during his dad’s tournament. Then, to cement his interest in the game, another Northern California kid – Miller – climbed to dizzying heights, not only winning the Open in 1973 but also rolling to eight PGA Tour victories (including the Crosby) the following year.
“Johnny’s success in the early 70s was a big event for me,” says Crosby, who now resides in South Florida. “My mom had a daytime television show – on-site at the tournament – and Johnny appeared on that a couple of times. … Dad’s tournament was my original stimulator, and I quickly became a golf junkie.”
Crosby might have been an unlikely USGA champion, but Venturi overcame the most obstacles. He enjoyed an accomplished amateur career – famously dueling with Harvie Ward in the finals of the 1956 San Francisco City Championship, with 10,000 spectators tagging along at Harding Park – but Venturi’s path to prominence as a pro included several speed bumps.
He overcame a severe stutter, weathered two crushing Masters Tournament losses, sustained lingering injuries from a September 1961 car accident and disappeared into a long, maddening, career-threatening slump. So playing 36 holes in scorching heat and humidity, amid U.S. Open tension, seemed a fitting trial.
Venturi, one of two players to survive local and sectional qualifying to win a U.S. Open, became an enduring symbol of perseverance in winning the Open under brutal conditions on June 20, 1964. He fought through dehydration and exhaustion, but it’s also important to remember where his career stood at the time. He hadn’t won in nearly four years and, less than a month earlier, he was practically broke and on the brink of returning to the Bay Area to find a real job.