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A Slice of San Diego Golf History

IN HIS 1997 BOOK 100 Years of Golf in San Diego County, local journalist and golf historian Norrie West traces the formal debut of the sport in this city to the year 1897 and the opening of its first course —an unnamed 2,389-yard tract along Florida Canyon in what now is Balboa Park. According to West, the initial pairing to tee off—over dirt fairways in search of the sand greens—was Dr. and Mrs. William Edwards. They either failed to return a scorecard, or West, a mannerly fellow, elected not to transfer the yellowed result to print.

During the 111 years since, hundreds of thousands have left tee boxes in San Diego County to play courses that today approach nearly 100 in number. Despite the modest inaugural, San Diego’s golfing profile gradually has grown to one of international prominence, now enhanced by the arrival of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South this summer.

Other noteworthy events preceded. The Bing Crosby National Pro-Am sank its first flag at North County’s Rancho Santa Fe course in 1937 and remained at that property for six years before moving to the Monterey Peninsula. Under a variety of titles—the San Diego Open, Andy Williams Tournament, Shearson-Lehman Brothers Open and Buick Invitational—a PGA event has been staged in this city annually for more than a half-century. The LPGA has had three runs at area layouts—a tournament named for Mickey Wright from 1970 through 1976, the Honda Classic (1977-80) and the Kyocera Inamori (1983-93).

The prestigious Tournament of Champions, which began in Las Vegas and for many years was the opening event of the PGA season, moved west to La Costa Resort & Spa in 1969, where it enjoyed a run of more than two decades. More recently, La Costa was host to the first (and two other) Accenture Match Play Championships, one of four elements in the annual World Golf Championships.

A slice of San Diego’s golf history that is not widely known developed at the San Diego Open in 1952. Ben Spiller and Ted Rhodes, two African-American professionals, chose that site to attempt a breach of the PGA’s “Caucasians only” clause, still in existence at that time (and until 1961). Also in the field was former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, admitted as an amateur and primary gate attraction.

When then–PGA president Horton Smith ruled that none of the three could participate, Louis contacted Walter Winchell, a widely known columnist and radio commentator of the era. During his Sunday-night broadcast, Winchell suggested that “if Joe Louis could carry a gun in the U.S. Army [which he’d done], then he certainly could carry a golf club in San Diego.”

Only partially ruffled by the rebuke, Smith still denied entry to Spiller and Rhodes but backed off on Louis, who—most golf authorities agree—thus became the first African-American to play in a PGA-sanctioned event.