125 Years of Golf in America: California June 12, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: Five-time USGA champion Juli Inkster on growing up in Northern California and the impact it had on her Hall-of-Fame career

Northern California a Hotbed of Champions

By Ron Kroichick

This story, originally published in May 2012, has been modified.

Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion, is arguably the finest male golfer to come out of Northern California. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

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.

Northern Californians and ex-San Jose State players Juli Inkster (left) and Pat Hurst have combined to win 7 USGA titles. (USGA/Jonathan Ernst)

Then, abruptly, Venturi’s career arc dramatically changed. Dr. John Everett, a Congressional member, walked the final 18 holes alongside him, providing water and salt tablets. Everett worried for Venturi’s life – and instead he helped to forever change his life.

“It’s hard to express, but to come back borders on a miracle,” Venturi says of his long-ago Open triumph. “It’s storybook. It’s fictional.”

Venturi forged a trail – from San Francisco upbringing to U.S. Open champion to prominent television analyst – eventually duplicated and embellished by Miller. He put together one of the most dominant stretches in PGA Tour history, winning 12 tournaments in 1974 and ’75.

By the late 1970s, a female golfer was about to take the USGA, and eventually the country, by storm.

Juli Simpson Inkster grew up in Santa Cruz in a home bordering Pasatiempo Golf Club, a semi-private facility designed by Alister Mackenzie, and although she didn’t have a stellar junior career, she blossomed by the time she went to San Jose State. Inkster, who married future club professional Brian Inkster, won three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur titles from 1980-82, then followed it up by claiming a pair of U.S. Women’s Open titles in 1999 and 2002.

“I really think where I grew up, playing Pasatiempo, shaped my career as far as playing USGA events,” said Inkster. “It’s a tough golf course and the conditions always change a little bit with the fog and cold. If I shot even par there, that was a great round.

“It actually took me a while to learn how to play less difficult courses. All of a sudden you go to Florida and you can hit all the par 5s in two shots, and they don’t have ravines or canyons. So I think playing in this area, and playing all these great courses, really shaped my game and got me used to the difficulty.”

Inkster was followed by a host of female Northern Californians who would hoist USGA trophies, including Pleasanton native Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion (Oakmont).

Pat Hurst would claim U.S. Girls’ Junior (1986) and U.S. Women’s Amateur (1990) titles before losing an 18-hole playoff to Annika Sorenstam in the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club. Kay Cockerill, another close friend of Inkster, registered back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur victories in 1986 and 1987 after walking on and becoming an All-American at UCLA. She is now a well-known golf analyst with NBC/Golf Channel.

Cockerill grew up in Los Gatos, about 20 minutes from Santa Cruz. She left the Bay Area to attend UCLA – unlike Inkster and Hurst, who played at San Jose State – but she took with her a playing style hatched in Northern California.

“When I see players from NorCal, I think great putters and great short games,” said Cockerill “We have a lot of older courses without great practice facilities and with a lot of smaller greens. So we were out playing more than we were pounding balls – and we were constantly challenged on the course.”

Hurst grew up in San Leandro, near Oakland, and used Northern California Golf Association events to sharpen her game. That’s a common theme among these players, especially in an era before the growth and popularity of the American Junior Golf Association.

Not only did Hurst regularly compete in junior tournaments throughout the Bay Area, she also had access to several good public courses. Then she became an honorary junior member at Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, the same club where Creamer would later learn the game.

“We had a great junior golf organization when I was growing up,” Hurst says. “I had a competition every week and played great courses for hardly anything – I’d play places for $5 or $10. …

“We had a lot of great junior golfers at Castlewood. So I’d compete with them day in and day out, or I’d go out there and work on my game. I also played skins games throughout the Bay Area – I totally enjoyed being out there.”

Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.