Head for the Hills

Al Abrego helping young golfers with their grip.
  • Al Abrego helping young golfers with their grip.

The first time he stood on the sixth tee at Presidio Hills Golf Course, Tiger Woods stopped, turned to his father Earl, and said, “It’s wrong.”

The green on the 72-yard par three slants hard from left to right. The grass is thick right up to the putting surface.

“Bad design,” said Woods. “You should be able to run it up” — hit the equivalent of a ground ball to second base, instead of having to fly and stop a ball on the small surface. “It’s more like a recovery shot.” Woods, four-foot-seven and wearing glasses, was six years old.

When Phil Mickelson played the 18-hole pitch-and-putt course for the first time, he shot 144. Par is 54 (56, in those days, for juniors). In 1977, the seven-year-old lefty birdied #18 and broke 70 for the first time.

Until his father built a practice area in their back yard, Presidio Hills was Mickelson’s home away from home: “My parents would drop me off there every day around eight o’clock and pick me up around six or seven. I loved it, I just loved it!”

The golf course stands on what may be the most historic ground in San Diego. For at least 10,000 years, going back to the Ice Age, native tribes lived in this area: Paleo-Indians, Shoshoneans, Yumans. The Kumeyaay nation had a village on the flat plain: “Kosa’aay” (“the drying ground”). It lay beneath a brown, treeless hill, near a river to the north and a wide bay to the west.

In 1769, the Entrada brought missionaries and soldiers up from New Spain. Father Junípero Serra built the first mission on the hillside overlooking the village, and Lieutenant Pedro Fages built the first presidio — Spanish for “fort.” Although natives lived here for millennia, Presidio Hill and the plain below have been labeled the “Plymouth Rock of the West” and “Where California Began.”

Around 1810, Captain Francisco Ruíz built the first structure down the hill from the fort. The single-story building, with adobe walls over a foot thick, stood in the center of his garden-orchard: olive, fig, pomegranate, and 26 hand-watered pear trees planted in precise rows.

In 1821, Ruíz gave the house to his cousin, Joaquín Victor Carrillo, whose family had grown too large for their quarters on the hill. The Casa de Carrillo became famous only for being the first private dwelling in California; it was also where Josefa Carrillo and Captain Henry Fitch had their wedding stopped — in mid-ceremony. Some say the jealous governor, José María de Echeandia, disapproved of the marriage. The couple sailed south. After two-and-a-half celibate months aboard ship, a parish priest married them in Valparaiso.

Historical marker #74 commemorates the building at 4136 Wallace Street in Old Town. Today, the Casa de Carrillo serves as the pro shop for a golf course as historic (in its own way) as its predecessors. At one time or another, every great local golfer honed his or her game at Presidio Hills. Junior golf began here; Junior World Championships were contested. Many call Presidio Hills the “cradle of golf in San Diego.”

In 1870, 20-year-old George Marston came to town. He became a successful merchant and a preservationist long before others saw the need. He was an early supporter for Balboa Park, and in 1907, he and some partners bought Presidio Hill to save the site from development. In 1929, a year after he founded the San Diego Historical Society, Marston commissioned William Templeton Johnson to build the Serra Museum, the gleaming white tower at the southern entrance to Mission Valley.

In 1921, while vacationing at the Red Lion Inn near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Marston and his daughter Mary took their first golf lessons at an 11-hole pitch-and-putt course. He was 71 and became an avid golfer. In 1928, he shot his best round, a 93 at San Diego Country Club.

In the late 1920s, Marston owned a driving range, the Presidio Fairway, just down the hill on Taylor Street. San Diego had only seven or eight full-length courses in those days, and Marston wanted a practice course like the one in Massachusetts: short par threes where newcomers could learn the game, and more advanced players — himself included — could keep theirs fine-tuned.

The first all-par-three course opened in Portsmouth, England, in 1914. “Presidio Hills Golf Club, Ltd.,” which opened in 1932, was among the first of its kind in the United States, yet was different from the start. Marston told architect Billy Bell he didn’t want 18 straightforward holes. He wanted trouble: recovery shots 100 yards and in — from the tee — as if golfers had already mangled a drive, or an approach, and had to extricate themselves from grief. He wanted challenging greens, sloping or two-tiered, to see, as Tribune sports columnist Tom Gwynne wrote in 1941, if “your putter contains magic as well as steel.”

Bell responded. Sycamore and pepper trees hood some fairways, demanding low, knock-down shots to reach the green; other holes require precise, stately floaters. A scramble from the start, the sixth calls for an uphill tree- and cyclone-fence-lined punch to a blind green that slants down and away, as if turning its back on the tee.

Tiger Woods was right about the 15th. It was badly designed, by design. It’s meant to test a player’s ability to stop a short lob dead on a tiny green, tilted sideways like the “Redan” at North Berwick in Scotland.

Except for a road — called Juan Street — that ran from the clubhouse down the fifth fairway and up to the hill, the course hasn’t changed much. The nines have been reversed several times, but most of the holes are where they were when the course opened, 80 years ago, on January 3, 1932.

At 10:00 a.m., a large group gathered for the dedication ceremony. Before them lay a green, 1426-yard expanse punctuated by white splotches — bunkers, at least two per hole, that looked like patches of dogwood. The course was one of the first all-grass layouts in San Diego. And since Gene Sarazen would “invent” the sand wedge later in 1932, players used a niblick (today’s nine iron) to flee entrapment.

Attendees toured the refurbished Casa de Carrillo: on walls festooned with red peppers, golf clubs crossed like swords. Following remarks by master of ceremonies George Burnham and music by a mariachi band, Marston and Ralph Jenny played H.H. Jones and Hugh Strong in a mixed foursome “dedication match.” All were officials of the new club. They teed off on today’s tenth hole with wooden-shafted mashies (five irons) and hit hard, rubber-cored gutta-percha balls. According to the San Diego Union, Marston “sent a perfect tee shot to the green; the ball rolled straight for the cup, but came to rest just an inch short.” Marston made the first official birdie at Presidio Hills. In a foursome playing behind him, Fred Dana hit an identical low-roller that made a beeline for the cup and vanished: the first hole-in-one on the chalkboard in the clubhouse.

Marston and Jenny won their match: Jenny shot 57, three over par; Marston and Jones had 65s; Strong, a 67.

Also in Dana’s foursome was a professional golfer Marston had hired to run the driving range in 1931: Al Abrego. The choice is too remarkable for fiction. His grandfather, Don José Abrego, was one of the founding fathers of California (he was treasurer of the province from 1839 to 1846). In 1880, Al was born, and he was raised in Don José’s adobe house on Abrego Street, now a historical landmark in Monterey. Leo Carrillo, the actor who played Pancho in The Cisco Kid, was Al’s second cousin. Their ancestors form a direct line back to the original Carrillo family on Presidio Hill.

Like his cousins, Olin Dutra (who won the U.S. Open) and Al Espinosa (who lost the Open in a playoff to Bobby Jones), Abrego took up golf at an early age. At five-foot-five and, at most, 135 pounds, he wasn’t a long hitter. But he became a scoring demon. At a two-day tournament in San Jose, he played 36 holes in 126 strokes: an average of 63 per 18. For years, he held several course records in San Diego, including a 68 at the La Jolla Country Club.

Marston was impressed with how Abrego ran the driving range, and when the Presidio Hills course opened, made him head pro. Abrego taught at the course by day and at the range (moved to today’s Juan Street) by night. He rented both for $150 a month.

His first task was unexpected. A teenaged gang terrorized the course daily and, wrote Jack Murphy, “made [Abrego] fear for his safety.”

“When there’s a behavior problem,” Abrego told a reporter, “the parents are usually at fault. The child is rebellious because he has been rejected, neglected, or treated harshly. I try to become the child’s friend by treating him with respect, by making him feel important. Children respond to kindness.”

Abrego slowly won the gang over, often with nickels and dimes or a patient ear. “I had to make friends with them, or they would have torn the place apart.” Abrego encouraged the boys to take up golf. “The only place a kid can get into trouble on a golf course,” he told them, “is a sand trap.” Some became his students, along with Adelia Wilcox (who lived next to #2 green and was his first official student).

Teaching — and teaching anyone eager to learn — became Abrego’s trademark. “Golf was considered a wealthy man’s sport,” says Donna Abrego, who also ran the course for many years, “but my grandfather wanted to show people that it was important to teach all people how to play.”

From the start, Abrego went against the grain: he taught anyone willing to learn, and, contrary to most instruction at the time, he didn’t advocate a single, “one size fits all” swing. “Every man and woman,” he told a reporter, “has his or her physical and nervous peculiarities. These must determine…how certain things are done.”

Teaching juniors was almost unheard of in the 1930s. Abrego’s first students were his four children: Emmy Lou, Marcie, Alfonso, Jr., and Don. “I started them in the game in 1921, and got the idea that other kids could learn to play, too.”

In the 1930s, he established a Tiny Tots junior program at Presidio Hills. He was the first local pro to give group lessons. “Four years old isn’t too young to begin — youngsters learn fundamentals easily and remember them better.” From his classes, he encouraged students to move on to larger courses and other teaching pros.

Billy Casper began at Presidio Hills, then moved to the San Diego Country Club. Ben Hogan said Mary Kathryn “Mickey” Wright had the best swing he ever saw. She went from Presidio Hills to La Jolla Country Club. Another youngster was so shy he wouldn’t take lessons: Gene Littler. His mother would ask Abrego for tips about the boy’s swing. Abrego taught feel: swing the club as naturally as “a dog wagging its tail.” No golfer achieved this goal better than Littler, who won the U.S. Open in 1955.

In 1952, kids from Presidio Hills played tournaments in Los Angeles. John Brown, chief of the local restaurant workers’ union, usually did the driving. Almost as an aside, Abrego told Brown to start his own program in San Diego. Later that year, the San Diego Junior Golf Association was born. From the start, said Mrs. A.S. “Lou” Smith, who ran the day-to-day operation for years, Brown didn’t envision turning out champions. “He simply wanted children of all races, religions, and financial means to be exposed to an honorable game from which life’s lessons could be learned.”

Brown instituted rules: no smoking; no parents following their children during a tournament (they had to stay on the sidelines); and, the first rule of golf — leave the course better than you found it.

Forty juniors joined in 1952. The number has escalated since and led, in 1968, to staging the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego. Founded by Norrie West, the JWs are among the most prestigious international events in the world. Kids in the youngest age brackets compete at Presidio Hills: “the week,” wrote Dave Distel, “when the players use their allowances to mark their balls.”

Many winners of the 10-and-Under Division at Presidio Hills have become household names: Lorena Ochoa (1990–1992); Mickelson (1980); William “Billy” Mayfair (1976); and Woods, who criticized the design of #15 the first time he played — and signed the wrong scorecard and was disqualified. He won the division in 1984 and 1985.

Just some of the golfers who learned the game at Presidio Hills: Craig Stadler (Masters champion) and son Kevin, Scott Simpson (U.S. Open champion), Lon Hinkle and sister Jennie, Mark Wiebe, Chuck Courtney, Morris Hatalsky, Chris Riley, Pat Perez. Phil Rodgers, the 1958 NCAA champion, aced #16 when he was ten years old. Not long before, Al Abrego ordered him to tape a pencil down the brim of his baseball cap, then “point the pencil at the ball and never take it off there.”

Al Abrego died in 1976. He was 96. He passed down another tradition: three generations of Abregos, each a “master instructor,” ran the course for 71 years. Don Abrego, Al’s son, began teaching in the 1940s and took over in the ’60s. Don’s daughter, Donna (whose mother “was picking up range balls on the night I was born”) began teaching in 1972; she ran the course from 1986 to 2003. During her tenure, Presidio Hills was the only local course with teachers exclusively from the LPGA: Donna, Debbie Skinner, Jennie Hinkle, and Rosanne Isom — all students of Al and Don Abrego.

Al Abrego gave history as well as golf lessons. He’d point to the Casa Carrillo, Presidio Hill, or the former native village of Cosoy and retell their stories. One question persisted for decades: Who is more accurate, a golfer or a Native American with bow and arrow? Around the time Littler won the Open, the “Grinders” — regulars at the course — had a challenge match: short irons and a golf ball versus skilled bowmen. No contest. Even against players with scratch short games, the bows won by a wide margin. On the 100-yard fifth, an arrow almost did a Robin Hood: split the pin on the fly.

The Grinders played the course almost every day. A list of names from 1932 to 1979, says Donna Abrego, “is the history of San Diego golf.”

The late Barry Fraser, a British gent and a sage golf instructor, would have qualified as a Grinder. Though in his late 70s, he “headed for the Hills” every chance he could. When someone asked why, he replied: “Here you will learn to chip and putt, to score, to handle adversity, and — possibly as difficult — to handle success: in other words, how to accept the occasional good graces of Dame Fortune.” ■
— Jeff Smith

QUOTES:

  1. On the original scorecard: “Lord give me grace to make a score so low that even I, when talking of it afterwards, may never need to lie.”
  2. Most holes-in-one: Jim East, who took out a policy from Lloyd’s of London “to help relieve the expense of being a lucky ace-maker.”
  3. Official course records: Men–40, Bert Grove, Frank Young; Women–43, Margaret Hope (which beats my 44, shot in 2009 under the stern, watchful eye of the late Barry Fraser).

SOURCES:

Abrego, Donna, personal scrapbooks; interview.

Carrico, Richard, “Portola’s 1769 Expedition and Coastal Native Villages,” Journal of California Anthropology 4, Winter 1977.

Marston, George, “Presidio Park: A Statement of George W. Marston in 1942,” Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1986, vol. 32, number 2.

Marston, Mary Gilman, George White Marston: A Family Chronicle, San Diego, 1956.

Shinn, Charles Howard, “Pioneer Spanish Families of California,” Journal of San Diego History, June 1965, vol. 11, number 3.

West, Norrie, 100 Years of Golf in San Diego County, San Diego, 1997.

Articles in the San Diego Union, the Tribune, the Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.

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Mr. Abrego, with his genuine smile and passion for golf, taught me a simple routine "one,two, follow through". He was the Master of golf teachers and treated all with respect and kindness. I enjoy the eighteen unique and challenging holes at Presidio with the 17th being my favorite! Great and enlightening story for one who longs for more "pitch and putts".

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