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History in the Monterey Peninsula

Roger Lapham and Sam Morse were the same age and of the same disposition, both of them born in New England and glad to discover in California the freedom from Puritan restraint. They associated the game of golf with gambling and a sporting consumption of alcohol, and they liked to bet extravagant sums on the outcome of nearly every shot (closest to the pin, farthest from the tee, so many strokes to make a safe return from the ice plant or the sand). During the long prayer of Prohibition, the lodge at Pebble Beach never lacked for a fresh deck of cards or a magnum of vintage champagne, and on cold days at Cypress Point, Grandfather was in the habit of playing the round with two bottles of whiskey in the bag--the scotch to drink, the bourbon for warming his hands at the twelfth hole, where the course turns back into the wind.

Like almost everything else in the country, the real estate market on the Monterey Peninsula collapsed during the Great Depression. Houses that had cost a million to build in 1929 were selling, in 1932, for $50,000, the membership at Cypress Point dwindling to a list of thirty-three names, and those few who were able to pay the groundskeepers could do so only because Morse forgave the debt of $150,000 still owed on the purchase of the property. It wasn't until 1947 that prospects began to improve. In the same year that I first consulted the oracle better known as Turk, Bing Crosby was persuaded to move his annual golf tournament to Pebble Beach, and a new generation of Hollywood celebrity began to drift north into the "circle of enchantment."

Pleased to welcome the return of the good news and the soft money, Morse lived long enough to see the development of the peninsula proceed along the lines that he had drawn in the sand in 1919. Always less concerned with a quick profit than with the long-term loveliness of the landscape, he stubbornly resisted the lure of cut-rate real estate deals even during the worst days of the Depression, and if the seacoast between Pacific Grove and Carmel Bay has retained its dreamlike form for nearly one hundred years, the marvel is a testament to Morse's foresight and intransigence. He died in 1969, at the age of eighty-four, and in one of his last years I remember seeing him seated on the terrace of the Cypress Point Club, a hearty and still vigorous figure with a strong drink in his hand who never tired of saying that property values were going nowhere but up, that the world was full of millionaire vulgarians and always ready for another "Big Bonanza." In the meantime, he ruled over Del Monte Properties with the hauteur of a medieval duke, granting easements and settling disputes about the flow of water rights, refusing to sell houses (even at double the asking price) to people whom he judged to be the wrong sort, reserving a good percentage of his fief to the use of animals and birds, setting the green fee for a round at Pebble Beach at the sum of thirty dollars in the early sixties. He was a poor golfer but proud of the course, which he prized as a national monument that deserved to be seen by an admiring public.

Since Morse's death, what was once the Rancho el Pescadero has passed into the realm of corporate management, sold to 20th Century Fox in 1979, to a Japanese bank in 1992 and, most recently--in 1999 for $820 million--to a consortium of investors including Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood. As Morse foresaw, prices have floated upward with the bubbles of prosperity; the champagne is more expensive, the first tee more difficult to reach. The cost of playing the eighteen holes at Pebble Beach is now three hundred dollars, a starting time advisably booked well in advance, the journey around the course accomplished in six hours instead of three.

But if the well-dressed names have changed (Crosby's tournament now sponsored by AT&T, celebrity sightings of Charles Schwab and Kevin Costner in place of Bob Hope and Lefty O'Doule), the character of the place remains much as it was in the winter of 1947--the playground that a "flaunting caravanserai" can easily mistake for Eden, deer browsing in the forest and whales basking in the sea, early-morning fog gathering the sunlight ("as is usually the case here") into a mist of Spanish silver, every speculation in the next golf shot (short iron or long putt) certain to redeem the promissory note of par.


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