Sport Golf

Monday 25 September 2017

Stars of stage and greens embellish legend of Pebble

California venue has been the scene of some of golf's iconic moments

Actor Bill Murray watches his tee shot on the seventh hole during the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
Actor Bill Murray watches his tee shot on the seventh hole during the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

Dermot Gilleece

It is widely acknowledged in tournament golf that a venue's greatness can be measured by the quality of those players who have successfully trod its turf. This is certainly true of Pebble Beach where challengers gather today for the climax of the AT&T National Pro-Am.

Indeed as the golfing world paid tribute last week to the late Billy Casper, it came as no surprise to find his name among the winners of this weekend's event. As it happened, Casper twice triumphed at Pebble, in 1958 and 1963, and also finished runner-up to Jack Nicklaus under the Bing Crosby banner in 1967.

Since early this month, significant members of the Hollywood glitterati have been negotiating the few hundred miles on Route 101 from Los Angeles up the Pacific coast towards the Monterey Peninsula. In the process, they were highlighting the strong link there has always been between showbusiness and golf.

The overall impression is of wonderfully tolerant professionals indulging the golfing inadequacies of their celebrity partners, though in one of his more testy moods, Fuzzy Zoeller famously broke ranks. When asked why the amateurs played off forward tees, he snapped: "It helps guys like Jack Lemmon from making an eight or a nine on national television."

My first sight of Pebble was in 1981 when I was covering the Walker Cup at nearby Cypress Point. That was when Philip Walton was a member of the British and Irish team and his brother Allan, who had made the trip, availed of the opportunity of an early-morning round where Tom Watson would win the US Open the following June.

Three Pebble events stand out in the memory, for very different reasons. One was the 1994 Pro-Am when an absolutely gripping telecast had Johnny Miller, battling desperately against the yips, scrambling to his last tournament victory by one stroke with a final round of 74.

Then there was the privilege of being present in 2000 when Tiger Woods produced the greatest ever Major performance for a 15-stroke victory in the US Open. And I experienced a fascinating postscript to Graeme McDowell's victory there 10 years later.

It occurred in November 2010 in The Lamplighter Tavern, owned on the outskirts of Philadelphia by Irish-American Jack Quinn, whose father emigrated to the US 90 years previously, from Co Tyrone. I had also been present in the Monterey Plaza Hotel on a memorable Monday morning the previous June, when teaching professional Joe Dolan drifted quietly onto the scene. Seeing a glorious opportunity of doing a favour for a long-time friend, Dolan asked McDowell if he would put a message on a US Open flag. And the newly-crowned champion graciously wrote: "To the best Irish bar in Philadelphia, The Lamplighter. Best wishes, Graeme McDowell."

At the end of a 30-minute taxi trip from downtown Philadelphia, I was greeted at the tavern by the owner holding the precious flag in his hands. "After the US Open, Joe came here saying he had something for me," said Quinn. "It was a fantastic thing for him to do."

Another great Irish experience at Pebble Beach was related to me by Joe Carr, who lost a semi-final of the US Amateur there to Dudley Wysong in 1961. On that trip, Joe and his wife Dor stayed with a family named Sheehan, close by the Lodge.

After his wife's death, Joe kept in touch with the Sheehans, sending them pictures of his growing children and other items of family information. In the event, he and his son John returned to Pebble in 1990 with a group from Sutton GC as part of the club's centenary celebrations.

"I wondered if they (the Sheehans) would still be around," Joe mused some time later. "As luck would have it, there was only one 'J Sheehan' in the phonebook, so John and I called to the house which had changed somewhat in the intervening years. When we knocked, a lovely, white-haired lady called down 'Hello' from an upstairs window. 'I think I stayed with you in 1961', I ventured. 'Where are you from?' she asked. 'Ireland,' I replied. To which she said: 'Do you know Joe Carr?' Wasn't that amazing!"

The death last July of the much-loved actor James Garner brought to mind his considerable golfing prowess. In fact, Nicklaus thought so highly of him as a pro-am partner that one of the Bear's grandchildren - his daughter Nancy's fourth child - was named Robert James, after Bob Hope and Garner.

All of which leads me to Ray 'Foot' Mendis, the Pebble Beach caddie who once worked for Garner and the tour professional Jim Simons, before easing into his winter years as a frail resident of the Vagabond Motel, about 10 minutes down the road from Cannery Row.

His sobriquet stemmed from an incident about 40 years ago when he warned his player not to leave himself a downhill putt on Pebble's treacherous 11th green.

Still, in the way of the golfing world, the caddie was duly blamed when the 55-footer careered off the front. That was when Mendis calmly dropped a ball from his overalls where his player's had been. Then, with a flick of his toe after it hit the ground, he sent it at breakneck speed down the slippery slope. Mendis later recalled: "Wouldn't you know it, the son of a gun went in." From that day on, he became known to everyone as 'Foot'.

Memorable among his fund of stories was one he wasn't prepared to relate himself. It concerned the occasion when, short-taken out on the course, he headed for a portable toilet, golf bag and all, though there wasn't enough room.

After several attempts, Foot and his bag became wedged inside and the more he struggled, the more the portaloo shook. Finally it tipped over, much to the delight of fascinated onlookers. And as Oliver Goldsmith might have written, and still they gazed and still the odour grew . . .

"They tell a lot of stories," Foot would remark about his colourful past. A particularly interesting one, however, had nothing to do with golf. It dated from World War II when Russian soldiers dragged his father from his Latvian home and bayoneted him to death.

This caused his widow to flee with their son to America where the youngster eventually found a new life on California's west coast, via the Vietnam war. And through the caddie shack at Pebble Beach.

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