For 32 years, R.J. Harper has been 'Mr. Pebble Beach,' a beloved figure at a beloved course

Monday February 6th, 2017
Harper, on the 7th tee at Pebble Beach, passed his love for golf on to his two sons, Tucker (far left) and J.T. (center).
Robert Beck

Certain individuals are a special part of the fabric of the golf community, cloaking it in tradition and gentility, stitching together friendships among those with a shared passion. Jim Langley at Cypress Point, Bob Ford at Oakmont, Eddie Merrins at Bel-Air, Gary Groh at Bob O'Link, Craig Harmon at Oak Hill: They set a standard for the golfing gentleman, known by most and cherished by all who do. Pebble Beach Golf Links is not a cloistered private club but rather a public trust. The course is a field of dreams for those who will never get to play the likes of Cypress and Oakmont; it is as much a part of the American imagination as Yosemite and Niagara Falls. For 32 years the key guy at Pebble Beach has been R.J. Harper, and he is as beloved as any figure in the game.

"He's part of the persona of Pebble, the culture of Pebble and the feel of Pebble because he's always been there and been so visible," says recently retired PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "R.J. is an institution. He's Mr. Pebble Beach."

Adds USGA executive director Mike Davis, "If you're anybody in golf, you know R.J. Harper and you love the guy. He has touched so many lives. You think about all the ownership changes over the years at Pebble Beach, he's always been the one constant. He has always been the smiling face out front."

And what a face it is. "First of all, he's drop-dead gorgeous," says Mimi Griffin, the corporate hospitality manager for the U.S. Open. "But you can't even hate him for it, because he's such a kind, friendly, relatable, gentle soul. If you could take the essence of Pebble Beach Golf Links—the beauty, the specialness, the feeling it evokes in people—and turn it into a person, it's R.J."

He is a classic American success story, having begun his career at Pebble as a $5-an-hour marshal before working his way up to head pro and now a senior executive position at the Pebble Beach Co. Oozing the Southern charm of a down-home Tennessee boy and possessing the swagger of the football star he once was, Harper has the rare ability to befriend everyone from resort guests to PGA Tour stars, greenskeepers to captains of industry. In his three decades at Pebble he has become one of the most-connected men on the planet. "R.J. has brought so many of us together in some way," says singer George Strait, a longtime friend. "Everyone loves Pebble Beach. As soon as you say those magic words R.J.'s name comes up, and whoever you're talking to is a friend of R.J.'s and has a story about him. You know, it's not easy to get a tee time out there, but R.J. always makes it happen. You wanna play Pebble? Call R.J. That should be the resort motto."

For all of the famous folks who rely on Harper for access, he finds it most gratifying to help the other dreamers: military veterans, Make-A-Wish families and what he calls "the guy who can't afford to play the course but it's a lifelong goal and we find a way to get it done. I've never forgotten how special this place is to people, and it's an honor to help." Not only does Harper organize the tee time, he'll schmooze his guests on the 1st tee or be waiting on the 18th green, or maybe both.

"A guy like R.J. could have had any job in golf, but his heart has always been here," says Hall of Famer Johnny Miller, who lives in Pacific Grove, the town next door to Pebble Beach. "It's not a job to him, it's a love affair. So because of that he does the job so well. I've never seen anyone who is as good as R.J. at making people feel special, feel welcome, making them happy."

I know that feeling—my summer job in college was as a cart attendant at Pebble Beach, and R.J. was my boss. Depending on how the staff was performing, he could play the role of the stern father figure, rah-rah head coach or just one of the boys. The golf operation was a disparate cast of characters, but the one thing we all shared was a yearning for his approval.

When R.J. was eight, his father walked out on the family. He grew up hand-to-mouth in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Memphis, hard by Highway 61, a road that figures prominently in the mythology of the blues. That soulful music was the soundtrack to R.J.'s youth. No one in his family played golf, but he was drawn to the game by watching Arnold Palmer on TV. "He told a different story simply by his golf swing," R.J. says. "He said, ‘I'm out to whoop your ass.' He wasn't going to finesse you. This wasn't a powder- puff match. The gloves were on, and if you didn't start throwing blows Arnold was going to whoop your ass. I dug that, man. And I think a lot of that goes to the psychology of my world, with my dad leaving when I was a little kid. I was always looking for mentors, looking for father figures. Arnold exuded that rugged masculinity, but he also had style and class. I wanted to be just like him, so I picked up a golf club for the first time."

When Palmer became part of the Pebble Beach Company's ownership group in 1999, the two formed a fast friendship. Any tweaks to the course had to be approved by Palmer, and R.J. became his eyes on the ground. When Arnie was on site they spent many hours in a cart cruising around the course and talking about golf, and life. "There was a great affection in that relationship," says Bill Perocchi, CEO of the Pebble Beach Co. "Anytime you saw R.J. and Arnold together they were laughing and carrying on."

At Palmer's memorial service last fall in Latrobe, Pa., R.J. was conspicuous by his absence, at least until Jim Nantz mentioned him only a couple of minutes into his tribute to Arnie: "There's so many people who should have this chance to deliver a testimonial to this man, [like] his good friend R.J. Harper"—Nantz's voice cracked a little as he said the name—"who's out in Pebble Beach. He grew up wanting to be like Arnold Palmer, and the way he carries himself, he certainly has."

The conjuring of R.J. in that setting hit the golfy crowd like a thunderbolt because many of them already knew that a couple of days earlier he had been diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, which had metastasized to his liver. The news was particularly stunning because R.J., 60, has always been such a vital, virile presence. "I just wanted R.J. to know that he was in that room with all of us," Nantz says now. "He is one of the greatest guys who has ever walked the planet. He has been an incredible friend to all of us in the golf community and put so much love and good feeling out into the world. I wanted him to know we're all here for him during this fight."

Harper has been a fixture at Pebble Beach for more than three decades.
Robert Beck

 
***

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, R.J. strolled to the 10th tee at the Nicklaus Club Monterey, where he is a member. As always his eyes were as blue and alive as the Pacific, but otherwise he didn't look like himself. A couple of months earlier he had been a buffed 185 pounds, intimidating anyone who was unlucky enough to be in the gym at the same time to witness one of his punishing workouts. Now, after numerous rounds of chemotherapy, his weight had dipped below 150 pounds and his gait was labored and unsteady. But there was no keeping him off the golf course, not as long as his sons were out there. Tucker, 27, is an in-demand caddie at Pebble who oozes surfer-dude cool. He is rarely without his own soundtrack: the Steely Dan channel on Pandora, which plays out of an omnipresent portable speaker. J.T., 25, has his dad's athletic build and movie-star looks. He played golf at Seton Hall. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and young son and has spent the last few years pursuing a music career while also working in sales for a tech firm. While R.J. was eating breakfast in the clubhouse, J.T. had shot a 36 on the tough front nine at the Nicklaus Club, which left him one-down to his big brother. The woofing was merciless.

R.J. has dedicated his life to giving his sons the love and support he never had from his own father. He coached most of their youth teams and spent countless hours teaching them golf. I first met the brothers when they were little kids, and I can still picture R.J. walking with them at his side, a meaty paw on the back of each neck.

R.J. took a few practice swings with his driver to get loose, gouging out divots each time. "Let's see what you got, old man," Tucker said.

He popped the first drive straight up; it landed with a thud maybe 30 yards in front of the tee.

"All things considered, I guess you can have a mulligan," said J.T.

R.J. hit a push-slice a little ways down the fairway and walked off the tee, grabbing his elder son's arm for balance. As soon as the diagnosis came down Tucker stopped caddying and has been his dad's primary caretaker. "My guardian angel," R.J. calls him. J.T. and his family immediately came home for more than a month.

"For all of his gifts, what I admire most about R.J. is what a loving father he is," says Perocchi. "To see him with his boys…" He paused to collect himself. "Well, it's just a very beautiful thing."

The 14th hole at the Nicklaus Club is a par-3 that is all carry over a hazard. For R.J. it was playing 157 yards. He had yet to hit a driver more than about 120 yards in the air, but ego—or maybe the ingrained memory of how good he used to be—compelled him to choose a 4-iron.

"I think you need more club, Dad," said Tucker, ever the observant caddie.

Reluctantly, R.J. trudged back to the cart and pulled a hybrid.

"I think it's a driver," said J.T.

"The hell it is," said his old man, with some steel in his voice.

He stood over this tee shot a little longer than usual, staring down the flag. R.J. summoned his best strike of the day, and the ball tore through the air. It would've been a cinematic moment had it cozied up to the hole, but, alas, his ball fell out of the sky short of the green, into the hazard.

"That was a good-looking swing, Dad," J.T. said.

Pause.

"Shoulda hit the driver, though."

Everybody laughed, no one harder than R.J.

R.J. (seated) with his sons Tucker (left) and J.T. (right).
Robert Beck

A few moments later, with the sun on his face and wind in his hair, R.J. couldn't help but be reflective. "I mean, it hurts my pride a little bit to play so badly, but I'm out here because every second with these boys is precious to me," he said. "I'm also out here to prove a point to them. I want to show them that no matter how big the challenge, you meet it head on. You never stop battling. You never stop living."

His dignity and determination in the face of very long odds has had a galvanizing effect on his huge network of friends. Every day Margo Daniels, R.J.'s loyal assistant, prints out all of his incoming emails and transcribes every voice mail. There have been times when more than 100 well-wishers have reached out in a single day. Gifts and tokens of appreciation trickle in too. Griffin sent along a family treasure: a small medallion that had been blessed by the Pope decades ago, a memento her brother carried with him throughout the Vietnam War. "I've put R.J. on the prayer rolls at my church," says Miller. "I know many, many people in the world of golf who have been praying for him."

While deeply moved by the support, R.J. won't abide any pity. "Why would anyone feel sorry for me?" he says. "Look at the love these boys have for me, and me for them. I've spent the last 32 years in the greatest place in the world, doing what I love. I've had a helluva life."

Growing up, it was defined by sports. They were R.J.'s salvation, a way to bond with older male figures and earn respect in the neighborhood. At Westwood High he somehow lettered in football, basketball, baseball, track and golf, often racing from practice in one sport to a competition in another. He was a quicksilver quarterback who ran a wishbone offense adroitly enough to earn a ride to Division III Rhodes College in hometown Memphis. There he was converted to halfback, and in his first game as a freshman he scored four touchdowns. Returning to his dorm room that night a fetching coed he'd never met was leaning against his door. "I'm not sure if it hasn't been all downhill from there," he says with a hearty laugh.

As a senior R.J. led Rhodes to 9-1-1 record, the best in school history. After earning degrees in anthropology and sociology, he lit out for a year of tramping across Europe, a long-haired free spirit with a backpack and a guitar. To support himself along the way he worked in olive groves, a cucumber-processing plant and even dug ditches. On the Greek island of Crete he wooed a fellow American vagabond named Kelly Yost, and eventually they settled in Miami. At Southwest High he coached girls' basketball and served as the offensive coordinator on the football team. R.J. loved coaching and had a gift for it, but he wasn't sure he wanted to make it his life's work. In the summers he spent a lot of time hanging around a muni in Key Biscayne and became friendly with the guys in the pro shop. Over time he decided he wanted to work in the golf world, but first he planned to marry Kelly. "Until I got cold feet," he recalls.

Kelly flew off in a huff to a girlfriend's place on the Monterey Peninsula, and R.J. chased her down there. Before knocking on her door to beg for forgiveness, he needed a place to gather his thoughts. He wound up next to the 18th green at Pebble Beach, the first time he had ever laid eyes on the property. "It sounds sappy," he says, "but that was the exact moment I decided I wanted Pebble to be our home. That became the dream and I couldn't let go of it." Kelly took him back and they returned to Miami, sold all of their belongings and bought a beat-up VW camper van. For six months they crisscrossed the country. By the time they arrived in Pebble Beach for his job interview, R.J. had only one collared shirt left. He talked his way into the marshaling position and still recalls his first day of work: Sept. 5, 1985. He didn't dare say it out loud, but his goal was to be head pro within three years. It took him four. "Still kind of ticks me off," he says.

From the beginning R.J. distinguished himself as a consummate host to the myriad guests who roll through Pebble every day. "I remember one time we had a gig somewhere in Southern California," says country singer Clay Walker, "but I wanted to play Pebble so we drove the tour bus all through the night. We pulled into the bag drop area and camped out. Now, Pebble Beach is a very upscale, classy place, but musicians are by nature pretty blue-collar. The sun comes up and we've got guys straggling off the bus who didn't look too fresh, you know what I mean? I'd put on some nice slacks, I was dressed for occasion, so I'm just cringing. Well, as it turns out the bus had a flat tire, and was marooned right there in the bag drop. The sun is coming up and I'm panicking, so what do I do? I call R.J., of course. You have a problem, you call R.J. He sends me off to play and then he gets a company to come out and change the tire. While that's happening he takes my band and the crew out to lunch. I mean, he goes the extra mile and then some. I come off 18 and my road manager looks at me and says, ‘R.J. Harper is a prince. He is the prince of Pebble Beach.' In our crew that's the only way we refer to him now."

R.J. has always been an enthusiastic musician; at the wedding of Daniels's daughter Erica he sang "All I Can Ask of You" from Phantom of the Opera. Years ago Walker invited R.J. on stage at a packed concert in San Jose. Asked what song he wanted to sing R.J. chose one of Walker's biggest hits, "Live, Laugh, Love." Says Walker, "He absolutely tore the house down. The fans went crazy, and I had been worried because I thought they might be disappointed I wasn't singing it. R.J. has a cool voice, kind of like Rob Thomas [of Matchbox 20], but more than that he has a presence. Most guys would've panicked in that situation. R.J. was loving every second of it."

He writes many of his own songs and is legendary around Pebble Beach for one he performed a few years ago at the Swallows, the annual gathering of the masters of the golf universe. R.J. had been asked to be on stand-by to play in the event in case of a cancellation, so he penned a tune called "Swallows Blues." Sample lyric: "Yeah I'm an alternate in the Swallows, gotta be the ultimate in seduction/Like being invited to an orgy at the Playboy mansion and show up with a case of erectile dysfunction."

Walker believes that R.J. could've been a successful musician but the U.S. Open became his stage, as he was the driving force behind the 1992, 2000 and 2010 national championships. Tiger Woods produced the most-dominating performance in golf history in 2000, and the clip of him raising the hardware at the trophy ceremony is still heavily circulated. But whenever it alights my TV screen, I barely notice Tiger; my eyes instead always go straight to R.J., who is right over Woods's shoulder with the biggest grin you've ever seen. Naturally, there's a story there:

"We wanted to become the first U.S. Open to host an event with tip‑up, theater-style seats, instead of the usual metal grandstands. I found a company out of Belgium to manufacture them. They were fabulous looking and comfy as hell, but they got held up in customs and arrived here late so it was always going to be scramble to get them up. Then the assembly instructions they came with weren't in very good English. Well, we got further and further behind the eight‑ball until it's the Sunday before the Open and the grandstands still aren't ready. So we called a team meeting that night around nine and gathered 75 people and told them to take wrenches and tools and anything they could find and get to it. We worked all through the night to be ready for the crowds at the Monday morning practice rounds. You know those zip locks, those hard plastic strings with the loops? We wound up using those to hold up the back railings of the grandstand. Not exactly ideal, but it worked.

"Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. Tiger is grinding so hard to not make a bogey and he's like two holes behind. Up at 18 the second-to-last group finishes and people are sitting there for half an hour in these wonderful tip‑up seats but with nothing to watch. They'd been drinking beer all day, so of course now everybody decides to do the wave. They're jumping around having a great time. I am standing out in the middle of the 18th fairway, and my heart is pounding so hard it's about to pop out of my chest. I'm convinced the grandstand is going to crumble into the ocean and thousands are going to die. It's going to be the most catastrophic event in sports history, and it's going to be all my fault. Well, that didn't happen and I've never felt so relieved in my entire life. So, yeah, when I'm smiling like that at the trophy ceremony it has nothing to do with Tiger Woods."

The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach in 2019 and R.J. is again the general chairman. It hasn't been easy for him to step away from the planning to focus on his health. Well-connected friends fixed him up with one of the best oncologists on the planet, Stanford's George Fisher, who treated Steve Jobs for pancreatic cancer. In December, R.J. got word that thanks to the aggressive chemo his tumors had shrunk substantially, what Johnny Miller calls "a hallelujah moment." The tumors have continued to shrink, allowing R.J. to reduce his pain medication and take less debilitating drugs during chemo. His appetite has come back, and he is up to 165 pounds and determined to hit 170. As he has felt more energetic he has become a more regular presence around Pebble Beach. "Wherever he goes he's treated like a celebrity," says his protégé Kevin Kakalow, director of retail for Pebble Beach Co. "Gawd, you'd think George Clooney had just come through. That kind of energy is magnetic. You feel it. It makes you a better person."

Harper has shown dignity and determination in the face of long odds.
Robert Beck

Nearly every day R.J. takes a three-mile walk from his home off 17 Mile Drive to Spanish Bay and back. Sometimes he does it with his girlfriend, Andrea Recio—he and Kelly divorced long ago—but usually it's with Tucker. On a few occasions they've toted their putters and goofed off on the practice green at Spanish Bay. R.J. hasn't felt strong enough to play golf since the holidays, but he's antsy to rekindle his love affair with the game; returning to the links will be a nice milestone in his comeback.

Such is the cult of personality around R.J. that many of those closest to him refuse to acknowledge the painful realities that come with stage-four pancreatic cancer. "This is the beginning of a miracle," says Daniels. "You always hear that no one beats pancreatic cancer. Let me tell you something: R.J. Harper will be the one to do it. I feel that in my bones. You know how there was Arnie's Army? Well, there's R.J.'s Army too, and we all believe."

Says Perocchi, who has accompanied R.J. to nearly all of his treatments and appointments,"No doubt it's a tough diagnosis, and when it came down we were thinking, Let's get to Thanksgiving, let's get to Christmas. Hopefully we get to the AT&T [the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am]. Now it's changed. After all the good news from Stanford, I told R.J., ‘You're the general chairman of the 2019 U.S. Open. We expect to see you on the 18th green for another trophy presentation.'"

"I love to hear that stuff," R.J. says, "but I know what I'm up against. People talk about fighting cancer, but I can't punch this motherf-----. The cancer is the only one doing the punching; I just have to take it. Every day is different, you have to be able to adapt, to fight through the depression, the fatigue, the feelings of woe-is-me. Cancer is a wily ol' thing—whatever you throw its way, it just keeps coming back."

In late January a blood infection sent R.J. to the hospital for four days. He had just been released when he got the news that his mother, Yolanda, had died, at 82, after her own battle with cancer. Since R.J. was still recovering from the infection his doctors wouldn't clear him to fly home to Memphis, so he wasn't with his mom at the end. Still, his tone brightens when he talks about her: "She led a good, decent life, and I know she's in a better place. I know that day will come for me too, at some point. I'm at peace with it. If a miracle is in store for me, well, I'll be forever grateful to the good Lord. But if it doesn't happen that's O.K. too. I look forward to seeing my mama again.

"I'm not afraid to talk about these things. Every day we all get a little closer to the end. The key is to live life to the fullest so when you look back there are no regrets."

Indeed, R.J. still has so much to live for. J.T.'s wife is pregnant, so another grandson will arrive this summer. (Following his dad's example, J.T. recently decided to follow his heart and enter the golf business.) R.J.'s baby is the annual charity fundraiser he puts on with Walker; they'll celebrate the 10th anniversary in July. Every year Nantz hosts a glitzy tournament at Pebble to raise money for research on Alzheimer's, the disease that took his father. This year the co-beneficiary will be the newly formed R.J. Harper Pancreatic Cancer Research Foundation. And then there is this week's Pro-Am, at which R.J. has always been "the unofficial host," according to Brad Faxon.

"This might be my last AT&T," says R.J. "I sure hope not, but I'm gonna live it up, I can promise you that. I just want to hug as many people as I can and thank them for all they've meant to me. The people in the golf community have enriched my life in so many ways."

There are many, many people who look forward to getting that hug. You can be sure they're going to be holding on tight to the prince of Pebble Beach.

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