Inside Pebble Beach's Other Major: The Swallows

Wednesday June 9th, 2010
Alan Shipnuck tees off on the 7th hole at Pebble Beach.
Kohjiro Kinno

I began working as a cart boy at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the spring of 1991, when I was a high school senior in Salinas, Calif., a dusty farming town 15 miles east and a world away from Pebble. My first weekend on the job happened to come a few days after something called the Swallows tournament had been played, and the Beach was still buzzing. I had never heard of the Swallows but quickly ascertained that it was a prestigious amateur tournament played annually around Pebble. (Hence the name — the invitees fly in every year for the last full weekend in April, as predictably as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano.) Finally I asked a fellow cart boy, "Who gets to play in the Swallows?" I've never forgotten his answer: "Masters of the universe."

I worked three summers at Pebble Beach, pretty much putting myself through UCLA on the tips. I was always in school when the Swallows was played and thus never got to experience it, even from the outside looking in. This only added to the mystique for me. Over the years I asked a lot of questions but never got satisfactory answers. No one seemed to know the format or the field or the tournament's history. The Swallows was shrouded in mystery and exclusivity, often compared to two other status markers among the ruling class: Skull and Bones, the secret fraternity at Yale that has produced three U.S. presidents, and Bohemian Grove, the annual gathering in the northern California redwoods at which, according to lore, the Manhattan Project was dreamed up.

Last January, I visited Pebble Beach to interview Bill Perocchi, the company's CEO. I was scrounging around for ideas for the U.S. Open preview you now hold in your hands. (It's an easy commute for me to get to Pebble as four years ago my high school sweetheart and I moved back to Salinas to raise our children among their extended family.) Perocchi is not normally effusive with reporters, but his face lit up when I mentioned the Swallows, in which he is heavily involved.

The famed 18th hole at Pebble Beach.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

"I believe it is the greatest amateur golf tournament in the world," Perocchi said in his Boston accent, which is thicker than U.S. Open rough. "It is a gathering of old friends and new friends, and it's built on strong camaraderie and a shared love of golf. You take all that and put it in this setting — it's magical."

Perocchi continued waxing so eloquently that I could barely take notes fast enough. At some point he stopped his soliloquy and mused, "I think to really understand the Swallows spirit, you need to play in the tournament."

I wasn't sure if this was a rhetorical statement, but I quickly blurted out, "Well, Mr. Perocchi, I'd love to!"

He picked up a pen and jotted a note to himself. "We'll make it happen," he said.

I stumbled out of his office in a euphoric fog. Had I really been invited to play in the Swallows? Still, deep down I knew I was unworthy, and I figured Perocchi would either come to his senses or get talked out of inviting me. Months went by without any contact, and slowly my hopes dimmed. Then one day in March, I opened my mailbox to find a beautifully designed invitation. I couldn't have been more excited had I found one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. I read and reread the schedule of events: rounds at Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill; cookouts by day, jacket-and-tie dinners by night. According to the invitation, all events were mandatory to foster "the Swallows spirit."

There was only one problem: The entry fee was $5,500. I have four young kids and a bloated mortgage. Devoting that much of the family budget to three days of golf was out of the question. I called my editor in New York City, who I knew has always had his own fascination with the Swallows. I gingerly explained that I was in need of a corporate sponsorship.

"We'll pay," he said, in the tone of a fairy-tale bad guy offering a magic potion, "but you have to write a story about it."

So at long last I would get to experience the Swallows, but only as a double agent: both a starry-eyed former cart boy and a hawk-eyed reporter penetrating an event that no one, to my knowledge, had ever written about.

The festivities began on the evening of April 22, with a welcome reception at the Beach & Tennis Club, which is perched on the edge of Stillwater Cove, adjacent to Pebble's 17th hole. Cruising to the reception along 17 Mile Drive put me in a nostalgic mood. I still know every bend in the road from my old summertime commute and always wince when I pass the unfortunate spot where, rushing to make a 5:30 a.m. opening shift, I swerved to avoid a deer and exploded my tire on the curb.

Arriving at the Beach Club, I was given my lovely Swallows tie, which had little white silhouettes of the birds against a red-and-blue background. I slipped it on, took a deep breath and stepped onto the terrace where my fellow attendees had gathered to sip cocktails and watch the setting sun. I immediately noticed all the different neckwear; it is a Swallows tradition to wear the tie from your first year. Scanning the crowd, I realized that I was the youngest guy there, and I readily recognized some silver-haired lions of the establishment, among them Charles Schwab, Peter Ueberroth, Dan Quayle and George Roberts — the R in KKR, the all-powerful private-equity firm. The younger set was no less intimidating, including Jerry Yang, the billionaire co-founder of Yahoo!, and Joe Lacob, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who owns maybe the biggest house on Pebble Beach Golf Links. But for all their credentials, this was an exceedingly jovial, chatty group. Turns out that the man who has everything really just wants to be invited back to the Swallows. In the field of 92 there were 11 other first-timers, reflective of the annual effort to infuse the event with fresh blood. "You block out the weekend on your calendar and then pray the invitation comes," said Neal ElAttrache, a Southern California surgeon who has repaired the knees, elbows and shoulders of many of the biggest stars in the sports world.

My tie marked me as a rookie, which was an easy conversation starter. I was quickly educated about the format: Each player keeps the same partner for all three rounds, posting a better-ball net score for each hole. Being passed around the reception were the pairings for the next morning, and I was delighted to discover that my partner was actor Chris O'Donnell. Just as we were called inside for dinner, O'Donnell blew into the room, radiating the boyish charm that has served him so well in Hollywood. "I can't believe I made it," he exclaimed, before we had even shaken hands. "I was literally on the set two hours ago."

That would be for the filming of his hit TV show NCIS: Los Angeles. O'Donnell loves the Swallows so much that he was planning that night to fly commercial from L.A. to San Jose and then drive to Pebble, most likely arriving around midnight. Then he got a call from ElAttrache, who had chartered a jet and was offering a ride. (I was told a couple of times that parked at the Monterey airport was more than a billion dollars' worth of private aircraft.)

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As the salad course arrived, Perocchi gave a warm welcoming speech and offered a brief history of the Swallows, which dates to 1934. He identified in the room a handful of gents who have been playing in the event since the '70s. One by one we rookies were asked to stand and give our place of birth and alma mater. The room was bursting with bonhomie, as between courses the men — and it is an all-male gathering — floated from table to table to catch up with their pals. Afterward a group migrated to the Tap Room for a nightcap. I was so worn out from all the buildup that I drove home and collapsed into bed. (My stingy editor had not seen the need to pony up for an ocean-view room at the Lodge, at $895 a night.)

The golf commenced the next morning with a shotgun start at Cypress Point. The parking lot looked as if it were hosting a Mercedes convention, and I was suddenly self-conscious about my Toyota SUV, its windows smeared with kids' fingerprints. O'Donnell and I were going off the par-5 2nd hole. He sliced his drive out-of-bounds, but I responded with three basically perfect shots and rolled in a 12-footer for a birdie, net eagle that did wonders for my nerves.

Alan Shipnuck at Pebble Beach.
Kohjiro Kinno

O'Donnell turned out to be a fabulous partner — down to earth, inquisitive, an ace storyteller with a knack for doing impressions, particularly of his celebrated costars. We quickly got into the details of our lives, and he told me the charming story of how he met his wife, Caroline Fentress. She's the kid sister of his roommate at Boston College, and during one of her visits to campus the two stole away for a secret make-out session. "As soon as I kissed her, I knew," O'Donnell said. Yet three years went by without any contact between them, though he often thought of her. Postcollege, he was at a bar with his old roommate and finally worked up the courage to ask, "So, what is Caroline doing?" Probably sleeping was the reply, since it was 2 a.m. O'Donnell insisted on calling her that second, and they've now been married for 13 years and have five kids.

During our stroll around wondrous Cypress Point we compared notes on everything from our respective minivans to our favorite courses, and I quickly came to understand that O'Donnell is part of golf's ultimate in crowd, known at America's finest clubs by his nickname, C.O.D. His annual circuit includes playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Swallows and three celebrated club tournaments: the Swat at Oakmont, the Pine Valley member-guest (he's the member) and the Swinging Bridge tournament at his home club, Bel-Air. Chris's brother John is also an accomplished player, and the O'Donnell boys have won the Swinging Bridge three times, most recently in 2006.

"My wife understands that if it's Pine Valley, Cypress or Augusta, I have to go," he said. How good is that?

O'Donnell has a strong, athletic swing, and for the Swallows he was playing off a five. (I carry an 8.4 index but was bumped to an 11.) He struggled a little at Cypress, which he attributed to the difference between working in television and movies. (TV actors have much less downtime.) I made three natural birdies but had just as many X's, and our score of even par left us 32nd out of 43 teams.

That night we had the rare treat of dining in the Cypress Point clubhouse, which is somehow both elegant and informal. There was a rush at the bar for the famed Sam's Special — a fizzy, blended rum drink that is dangerously delicious. I was excited to be seated at Ueberroth's table for dinner. He's known to most folks as the former baseball commissioner and Time's 1984 Man of the Year for his stewardship of the Los Angeles Olympics, but in my part of the world he is celebrated as the most influential managing partner of the Pebble Beach Company. Over dinner Ueberroth confirmed my long-standing belief that raising the $820 million needed to buy the company in 1999 basically boiled down to calling his Swallows buddies and asking each of them to kick in a few million dollars' worth of loose change. "It's because of the people in this room that the deal got done," he said.

Talking about business is subtly discouraged at the Swallows, so the conversation centered on Tiger Woods's travails and the upcoming U.S. Open. For the latter topic, it was helpful to have at the table venture capitalist Geoff Yang, whose impeccable golf résumé includes membership at Cypress and Augusta National and a spot on the USGA executive committee. Curiously, Ueberroth was most animated when he discovered that my lineup of kids consists of three girls and a boy as the youngest, which replicates his own brood. "I can tell you everything that's going to happen to you in the next 20 years," he chortled. I refrained from inquiring whether that would include future Swallows invitations.

The second day of golf brought a spin around Pebble Beach, which was shut down for the day to outside play. C.O.D. and I continued our disconcerting tendency of blowing up on the same hole, and we mustered a round of only one under par, dooming us to a middling finish. But it turns out that most of the guys at the Swallows don't really care about their score, more or less by design.

The winning and second-place teams get gorgeous bronze trophies and a cash stipend, but that's it as far as prizes go. Since third place and 43rd place pay the same, there is a notable absence of grinding, so the golf is fun and relaxed.

The morning shotgun was followed by a cookout at a house on the 1st fairway. Then came the most cherished part of the Swallows: an afternoon during which Pebble is a private playpen, and anything goes. (Last year O'Donnell crammed in 54 holes, the final 18 a Zen round all by himself played in under an hour.) I wound up in a twelvesome that raced to the 3rd hole to jump ahead of the other marauding golfers. Joe Mayernik, a Cincinnati raconteur, showed up on the tee with a case of Silver Oak cabernet, which retails at the Pebble Beach Market for $85 a bottle. It was gulped at a rate of about one bottle a hole. For our game, each guy kicked in $50 — I can expense that, right? — and we were paired in two-man teams. Jerry Yang and Geoff Yang are not related, but they turned out to be a formidable duo of trash talkers. They routinely credited their good shots to "a thousand years of superior breeding." On each hole partners had to "simul-blast," teeing off at the same time as everyone else hooted and hollered a 3-2-1 countdown, a stressful scenario that wreaked havoc with my tempo. Each hole was played with a different format: alternate shot, better-ball, etc. For the diabolical par-5 14th a worse-ball scramble was in effect. When Mayernik's partner Davis Sezna foozled a shot into a fairway bunker, someone shouted, "They're leaking cab!"

After 12 strokes Mayernik and Sezna still hadn't reached the putting surface, and a mercy rule was invoked, allowing them to pick up. This sloppy, giddy afternoon at the Beach was probably the most fun I've had on a golf course.

The golf concluded the next day at Spyglass Hill, the third round in a row with absolutely perfect weather, and then everyone jumped in their jets and winged home. But first there was one last steak dinner, on the preceding night, and for me it was a highlight.

George Roberts was seated next to me. He's a soft-spoken guy with a gentle manner who offers no hint that he's worth $3.8 billion. We talked about golf — what else? For both of us it's a favorite topic, and the chit-chat served as another reminder that, at its core, the Swallows is simply a gathering of guys who love the game.

It is a Swallows tradition to have an open microphone at the final dinner for storytelling and occasional blue humor. There is also a history of hazing the rookies. First-timer Jackson Hsieh, global head of real estate investment banking at UBS, was called to the front of the room and asked to sing the fight song of his alma mater, Cal. He was barely on the second line when he was booed off the microphone.

Residing as master of ceremonies was Paul Spengler, a majordomo in the local golf scene. Spengler helps vet the list of the invitees for both the Swallows and the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, making him more powerful than many senators. When I was a cart boy, he was an executive overseeing Pebble Beach Company's golf operations and therefore my de facto boss. I was squirming in my seat throughout dinner, knowing that Spengler was going to single me out. But first he called up Danny Sullivan, who gave a detailed recounting of his famous spinout during his victory at the 1985 Indy 500. Next to speak was Tom Siebel, a Swallows regular who couldn't play this year because he's recuperating from severe injuries suffered when he was stomped and gored by an elephant while on a safari in Tanzania. He offered a harrowing recounting of the attack. Finally, Spengler called me up. I couldn't match Sullivan or Siebel for drama, and there was no use trying to be funny, because I knew the next guy on the mic was going to be Sezna, a legendary joke teller. So I went for sincerity, explaining how meaningful it was for me to have gone from a lowly cart boy to playing in the Swallows. While I was speaking I caught Ueberroth's eye, and he nodded approvingly. He had once been a caddie who sneaked onto Pebble Beach to play the course by moonlight, and Ueberroth was hardly the only self-made man in the room. Don Lucas was a onetime used-car salesman who built a home on Pebble's 5th hole, right next door to Schwab's. Jerry Yang arrived in America at the age of eight knowing only one word of English, in the care of his widowed mother. The Swallows turns out to be more inclusive than I had thought. All you have to do is make your way in the world. And love golf.

Returning to my seat, Roberts offered a hearty handshake and whispered, "Well done."

I was aware of something he had once told TheWall Street Journal: "Golf is the best game ever invented by man. It treats everyone as an equal, and whatever you do well or poorly you've done yourself."

That night I had a funny, unfamiliar feeling. I felt like I belonged.

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