I began working as a cart boy at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the spring of 1991, when I was a high school senior in Salinas, Calif., a dusty farming town 15 miles east and a world away from Pebble. My first weekend on the job happened to come a few days after something called the Swallows tournament had been played, and the Beach was still buzzing. I had never heard of the Swallows but quickly ascertained that it was a prestigious amateur tournament played annually around Pebble. (Hence the name—the invitees fly in every year for the last full weekend in April, as predictably as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano.) Finally I asked a fellow cart boy, "Who gets to play in the Swallows?" I've never forgotten his answer: "Masters of the universe." I worked three summers at Pebble Beach, pretty much putting myself through UCLA on the tips. I was always in school when the Swallows was played and thus never got to experience it, even from the outside looking in. This only added to the mystique for me. Over the years I asked a lot of questions but never got satisfactory answers. No one seemed to know the format or the field or the tournament's history. The Swallows was shrouded in mystery and exclusivity, often compared to two other status markers among the ruling class: Skull and Bones, the secret fraternity at Yale that has produced three U.S. presidents, and Bohemian Grove, the annual gathering in the northern California redwoods at which, according to lore, the Manhattan Project was dreamed up.
Last winter I visited Pebble Beach to interview Bill Perocchi, the company's CEO. I was scrounging around for ideas for the U.S. Open preview you now hold in your hands. (It's an easy commute for me to get to Pebble as four years ago my high school sweetheart and I moved back to Salinas to raise our children among our extended family.) Perocchi is not normally effusive with reporters, but his face lit up when I mentioned the Swallows, in which he is heavily involved.
"I believe it is the greatest amateur golf tournament in the world," Perocchi said in his Boston accent, which is thicker than U.S. Open rough. "It is a gathering of old friends and new friends, and it's built on strong camaraderie and a shared love of golf. You take all that and put it in this setting—it's magical."
Perocchi continued waxing so eloquently that I could barely take notes fast enough. At some point he stopped his soliloquy and mused, "I think to really understand the Swallows spirit, you need to play in the tournament."
I wasn't sure if this was a rhetorical statement, but I quickly blurted out, "Well, Mr. Perocchi, I'd love to!"
He picked up a pen and jotted a note to himself. "We'll make it happen," he said.
I stumbled out of his office in a euphoric fog. Had I really been invited to play in the Swallows? Still, deep down I knew I was unworthy, and I figured Perocchi would either come to his senses or get talked out of inviting me. Months went by without any contact, and slowly my hopes dimmed. Then one day in March I opened my mailbox to find a beautifully designed invitation. I couldn't have been more excited had I found one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. I read and reread the schedule of events: rounds at Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill; cookouts by day, jacket-and-tie dinners by night. According to the invitation, all events were mandatory to foster "the Swallows spirit."
There was only one problem: The entry fee was $5,500. I have four young kids and a bloated mortgage. Devoting that much of the family budget to three days of golf was out of the question. I called my editor in New York City, who I knew has always had his own fascination with the Swallows. I gingerly explained that I was in need of a corporate sponsorship.
"We'll pay," he said, in the tone of a fairy-tale bad guy offering a magic potion, "but you have to write a story about it. "
So at long last I would get to experience the Swallows, but only as a double agent: both a starry-eyed former cart boy and a hawkeyed reporter penetrating an event that no one, to my knowledge, had ever written about.