Locals protect the spirit of muni golf at Torrey Pines, a course under corporate siege

Locals protect the spirit of muni golf at Torrey Pines, a course under corporate siege

The real Torrey dream team gets there before the dew does.
Robert Benson

In his blue jeans, rumpled t-shirt and handlebar mustache, Gordon Gutzka — aka Gordo, the Governor and Chicken Gordon Bleu — looks less like a golfer than a dungaree-clad stunt-double for Gary McCord. On a recent moonlit morning, he rolled out of bed and into the parking lot of Torrey Pines Golf Course. It was 4 a.m. With a few beers and a half-pound of beef in his belly, Gutzka had slept soundly on a mattress in the flatbed of his red, well-traveled Mazda pickup.

But now the grounds were stirring with tribal rites. Bill Coyne, 42, a hulking southpaw with the fierce gaze and goatee of a Major League closer, was whacking wooden chips with his 5-iron. His buddy, Robert Mason, also 42 — whose fashion tastes lean toward wife-beaters — stretched in the soft glow of a street lamp, touching his toes to keep loose.

“Hey, Gordo!” growled Sean Tupper from the van he’d slept in, his voice a pro wrestler’s rasp. “I think those guys might be under the false impression that they’re first in line.” Tupper gestured toward an Escalade that had pulled into the parking lot just after midnight. Its headlights were still on, an Alpha-dog signal to the next cars that arrived. Gutzka shrugged. “I guess they’ll have to be disabused of that notion,” he said, and ambled off to set the interlopers straight.

Before Tiger tamed it or Rees Jones redesigned it, before the USGA claimed it to host the 108th U.S. Open, Torrey Pines belonged to guys like Gutzka, blue-collar locals whose hearts beat to the rhythm of a blue-blood sport. For more than 20 years, through price hikes, legal spats and policy changes, they’ve preserved the muni spirit of a golf course under growing siege from corporations. Every weekend, without fail, they leave behind their jobs as painters, tile-layers and carpenters for a ritual that kicks off with a tailgate and culminates with tee shots struck in the morning’s first light. Torrey is not just another muni to them. They guard it and groom it. And they enforce unwritten rules upon newbies — like “no cutting” — with such a sense of duty that they’ve earned a moniker: the Dawn Patrol.

“I’ve explained the situation, and they’re disappointed,” said Gutzka, strolling back from his debriefing session. The latecomers may — or may not — get in their golf, given that five Dawn Patrol-mobiles are ahead of them. “I feel bad for them,” Gutzka says. “They drove down from L.A.”

He understands the impulse, but it still bemuses him that anyone would do it — drive through the night only to sleep in the car for a chance to shell out $200 for a round of golf. Gutzka, who runs a window-washing business, wouldn’t spend that much on a Gucci squeegee. He lives just up the road and plays for $43. (Locals get a price break.) “These out-of-towners are committed,” Gutzka said. “Or maybe they should just be committed.”

Of course, the Dawn Patrol are the real odd men out. Corporate swells and trophy hunters represent the new breed of Torrey golfer, flooding the parking lot with Beemers, choking the course with six-hour rounds. Gutzka and company are the dinosaurs.

Over the years, as hotels have sprouted astride Torrey’s fairways, and as tee times have been meted out to special interests, the Dawn Patrol has dwindled to about a dozen. The hardest of the hardcore cling to precious turf: the block of unscheduled time between sunrise and 7:30 a.m., when official play begins. “They’d love to get rid of us,” said Coyne, a concrete contractor who started camping out at Torrey in his teens. “But we’re not going away easily.” “Yeah,” rumbled Tupper, 42, who works in hardwood flooring. “But we can see the writing on the wall.”

There was a time when no one wrangled over Torrey. A round cost as much as a club sandwich, and you could walk on almost any time. Unlike Bethpage Black before it won the prize of hosting the 2002 U.S. Open, the golf world was well aware of southern California’s finest muni; the Tour first came here in 1968. But this wasn’t New York, with its feisty locals and short golf season. No scuffles in the parking lot. Dawn Patrollers camped out because they wanted to play early, not for fear of not playing. If the tee sheet was crowded, hey, there were still 300 other days of sunshine. (Or you could slip the starter a flask of J.D.) The tide began to shift with Tiger. Golf grew trendy. Then in 2001, Rees Jones, the Open Doctor, donned his surgical mask and brought Torrey up to modern strength.

A fancy lodge was built, lawsuits and assorted differences were settled: town-and-gown disputes involving locals, hotels and who got to play and when. New management got serious. Bribes were not accepted. Ditto counterfeit resident cards.

Gordon and his friends gained a world-class golf course but lost something else. A tumble-down motel became the trendy, spendy Lodge. The greasy cheapskate’s diner became a fancy grill. Says Gutzka, “Torrey used to be a sleepy little place.”

His friends call him “the Governor” because Gutzka instills order, enforcing the first-come, first-served policies. They call him Gordon Bleu because he isn’t fancy and he’s far from French. Not that Dawn Patrollers lack sophistication. No one complained on this particular evening when their buddy George Brdlik, 54, turned up at the tailgate with a salad, baked potatoes and an 18-ounce prime rib befitting a man with so few vowels in his last name.

Darkness fell, and the conversation filled with campfire reflections. Coyne recalled the day when a fellow Dawn Patroller busted out his will on the 10th fairway, dictating where he wished his ashes to be scattered. Then there was the (possibly tall) tale about a salty veteran who kicked the bucket after smacking his approach shot. His group paid their respects, made the proper calls, then dragged him to the rough, and played on. “Hey,” Sean Tupper rasped. “If you gotta go…”

It’s not that golf is a lot like life. It’s that a lot of life takes place on the golf course. Members of the Dawn Patrol have seen one another through important points of passage: marriage, children, and breakups. Lots of breakups. “Put it this way,” Robert Mason said. “I’ve lost more than one girlfriend over this.”

The Dawn Patrol’s long night’s journey into day typically begins at about midnight, as it did this February night. They dispersed, bundling themselves into the cabins of their pickups, bedding down on blankets in their vans. It’s California, but an ocean mist had blown in, and it was cold. They were up again in less time than it takes to play 18.

Finally, the starter. Mason went and checked them in. As usual, the group was first out. In the gauzy morning light, white corporate tents were rising on the less-celebrated North course. On the South, the rough was ankle-deep in the run-up to the Open, the greens freshly punched and so thickly sanded you’d need a curling sweeper to find the line. They played it anyway, and finished in four hours. In the Dawn Patrol, you don’t have to be good, but you’d better be fast. Afterward, Gutzka walked back to his pickup in his jeans and T-shirt, ragtag clubs slung across his shoulder. His Mazda was now squeezed beside a Maserati. He marveled at the sports car, and mumbled something about the inelasticity of demand. After 2009, the city plans to raise local rates at Torrey to around $60, which is still a steal. But you can’t measure everything in dollars.

“At first, I was really proud and excited that we got the Open,” Gutzka said. “I was glad it was coming.” He looked around him. “Now,” he added, “I’m not so sure.”

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