Chronicle Article June 2013
At 100, Sequoyah’s roots spread to Merion
Picturesque and historic, Sequoyah Country Club in the Oakland hills marks its centennial this year.
By Al Saracevic
June 16, 2013
Ben Hogan’s 1-iron looms over this year’s U.S. Open like some sort of holy relic.
Most every golfer knows the story, authored in 1950 and immortalized in one of the sport’s great photos. The image depicts Hogan in perfect balance after completing his follow-through, watching his ball soar down the 18th fairway of Merion Golf Club before its miraculous landing upon the green. That shot set up a par, which set up a playoff, which set up a championship.
Hogan’s 1-iron became instant legend and so did he. The brusque Texan won the U.S. Open that year and the rest is his story.
Hogan’s shot has been a nostalgic sidebar to proceedings all week at Merion, just outside Philadelphia, with players posing beside the plaque commemorating the exact spot. The tale gets even better when you consider the oft-told back story: Hogan survived a terrible car accident 16 months prior to the 1950 Open and prevailed under serious physical duress. But that’s not the only obstacle he overcame before hitting one of the most famous shots in U.S. Open history.
If you really want to know how Ben Hogan made it to golf’s greatest heights, you need to start on a patch of land in the East Bay hills. And you have to go back in time 100 years. Back in time to the founding of Oakland’s Sequoyah Country Club.
The year was 1913 and golf was growing in popularity stateside. Born in Scotland, the game had made major inroads on this side of the Atlantic. A young amateur named Francis Ouimet had just won the U.S. Open in what became known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Golf was on the rise, poised to take its place alongside horse racing and boxing among the most popular American sports.
Here in the Bay Area, a few golf courses had been established in the early 1900s, including the Presidio and San Francisco clubs in the city, Oakland’s Claremont Country Club and Del Monte in Monterey. But a group of serious Bay Area businessmen wanted more.
So, names like Clay and Sherman and Searles and Rheem gathered at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel on Oct. 3, 1913, and laid out plans to form a new course.
They would call it Sequoyah Country Club, using the Native American spelling of the word. “The real old Indian spelling is give to the name instead of ‘Sequoia’ as commonly used today,” The Chronicle wrote a day later. “The word is associated with California and it is the intention of the directors of the new club to immediately plant sequoia trees through the fairway of the prospective links.”
Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Member Aubrey Willacy walks through the locker room at Sequoyah Country Club. Many golf greats have played the course.
You can see the results of their gardening on Sequoyah’s fairways a century later.
An early prospectus described the club’s goal simply: “It is the purpose of the Sequoyah Country Club to have a championship golf course that will be most attractive to all lovers of the Royal and Ancient Game.”
A dozen years before Hogan’s famous shot at Merion, “The Hawk” was struggling to survive as a touring pro. He had already tried and failed twice to make a living playing golf. Now, on his third try, he and his wife, Valerie, were barnstorming the West Coast in the winter of 1938 and things were not going well. They were down to their last $24 and basically living out of a car.
Hogan was despondent. This wasn’t the couple’s idea of married bliss.
But the young golfer, then 25, decided to give it one more try. He set his sights on the $5,000 Oakland Open to be held at Sequoyah Country Club.
Michael Macor, The Chronicle
The 16th hole at Seqouyah Country Club in Oakland shows the vision of Bay Area businessmen who gathered at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to design the course in 1913.
“If I don’t win any money, the wife and I are going back to Forth Worth,” he was quoted as saying.
So off they went to Oakland, reportedly parking their car across the street from the Leamington Hotel at a cost of 15 cents. The next day, the Hogans woke up to find their car up on blocks, the tires gone.
Apparently, Oakland had already developed its rough streak.
And Hogan’s future didn’t look bright.
After settling on a name, Sequoyah Country Club’s founding fathers went off to look for a plot of land. Time was of the essence if they were to keep up with their metropolitan competitors.
An Oakland Tribune account of their intentions explained it like this:
“The existence of eighty-five golf clubs in New York City demonstrates the popularity of the game on the eastern seaboard, and Chicago with fifty clubs on the western march.
“On the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles has held the record for organizations devoted to the ancient Scots game, while San Francisco bay region has been limited to but few clubs. None of the courses laid out in California, however, possess the requisite features of intricate topography which bring forth every device and resource of the skillful player. Realizing this deficiency, the directors of the Sequoyah Country Club decided to acquire property exactly suitable for the location of the perfect course.”
That land was in the Oakland hills, where the newly formed club acquired 180 acres of ranchland for the grand sum of $81,000. They put $12,500 down and mortgaged the purchase at a rate of 6 percent.
The Tribune trotted out its purplest prose to describe the site:
“Following long, gently sloping coulees, crossed clefts and topping low crests, which the eye wanders after over city and bay to opaline blue of the coast range, the only championship, all-turf golf course in California is being laid out on the extensive preserves of the Sequoyah swelling foothills and bosky canyons east of Elmhurst.
“Here where but yesterday rippling fields of grain swayed before the trade winds on the breezy uplands, wielders of the nib lick and cleek from all the quarters of the globe will contend for the premier honors of the world during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.”
Little did anyone know that the place would live up to its promise.
The 1938 Oakland Open was the first played at Sequoyah. Claremont had hosted the inaugural incarnation of the event in 1937. But there were no fences around Claremont, making it hard for organizers to collect money.
So, they turned to fenced-in Sequoyah, and a short-lived era of fabulous championship golf began in the East Bay hills.
The Oakland Open was part of a West Coast swing of tournaments held during the winter months, allowing pros from back East to make some money while their home fairways were under snow.
The Oakland tournament was well-known for its $5,000 purse, which brought out the stars. Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Harry Cooper, Dick Metz, Jim Demaret. They all played in Oakland.
Across the bay, the San Francisco Open was played every year at Harding Park. Combined, the two events dominated the pages of The Sporting Green in the dark days of January.
In a column titled “Nomad Golf? It isn’t ALL play!” former Chronicle sports editor Art Rosenbaum described the grueling schedule for touring pros. “Golf is fun, all right, but when you go after it from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, you’re liable to go bats.” Rosenbaum went on to explain the lengthy preparations golfers endured, describing how Snead played 36 holes and hit 100 sand shots in advance of the 1938 Oakland Open.
That, of course, was the year a young man named Hogan joined the field, down on his luck and down to his last dollars.
Once the land was bought, Sequoyah’s course was built in 1913 and a clubhouse came along in 1915.
The original course designer was the well-known William J. “Willie” Locke. In 1930, Sequoyah contracted with famed course architect Henry Chandler Egan, who had just finished some work on Pebble Beach. Egan, who worked with Allistair McKenzie, perhaps the most famous architect of them all, drew up plans for a new Sequoyah, but many of his ideas never came to fruition.
Despite its generally short dimensions, the course became known for its teeth. Especially on the greens.
In 1927, the great Walter Hagen paid a visit, perhaps to his chagrin. Widely known for his flamboyance and his golf game, Hagen shot a 77 that day at Sequoyah, losing an exhibition to a pair of club members.
The Tribune headline proclaimed: “Sir Walter Proves Just Good Golfer in Match Here.”
“Walter Hagen is not super-human,” the story said. “This fact was brought home to some 300 galleryites, as they watched Sir Walter lose an exhibition match at Sequoyah Saturday. When it is considered that he had never played the Sequoyah course, with its hostile greens and strange fairways, Hagen played rather good golf.”
Indeed, the greens are hostile. They’re sloped. They’re fast. And they can play like glass when the wind is up and the sun is high.
Years after Hagen’s humbling, following one of the Oakland Opens, Sequoyah’s resident historian Joe Tudisco recalls the greens were so difficult, it induced Sam Snead to swear, “I’ll never play this damn course again.”
And he never did.
Ben Hogan didn’t win the Oakland Open in 1938. He didn’t finish in the top three. In fact, comeback artist Harry Cooper won, sinking a dramatic eagle putt on 18 to close it out. Hogan finished sixth on the money list, propelled by a final round 67.
That was good enough to earn him $285. Which was good enough to buy some new tires and keep him in the game.
Without that weekend at Sequoyah, we may never have seen Hogan’s 1-iron at Merion. Or his 64 tournament wins, including nine majors.
So, on this Sunday at the U.S. Open – on this national holiday for golf fans, doubled up with Father’s Day – think of Sequoyah Country Club and the role it has played in golf history.
From the days of Ouimet and Hagan and Hogan and Snead, from its sloping hills and diabolical greens, Sequoyah Country Club has stood tall on the golf horizon, all the while sinking roots that stretch all the way to Pennsylvania. All the way to Merion Golf Club, where the world’s best gather to complete golf’s toughest test.
Happy birthday, Sequoyah. Long may you stand.
— 1913: Club founded and golf course built
— 1915: Original clubhouse completed
— 1922: Greens rebuilt and golf course “nines” switched
— 1923: Golf course tree planting project
— 1928: Clubhouse remodel and expansion
— 1938: First Oakland Open at the club
— 1944: Oakland police seize five slot machines and take into custody the club president
— 1945: Final Oakland Open at the club
— 1955: Course record of 60 established by assistant pro Don Whitt.
— 1967: Oakland Raiders franchise created by a group of Sequoyah members.
Source: Sequoyah Country Club