We lost our dog in December. Saddest few days since my Pop passed in 2013. The dog’s name was Steve. Our sons, Jesse and Jack, were huge Steve Nash fans. He was 11, a Golden Doodle. Sweet and lovable. I always said, there are a lot of good guys in the world but only a few who could be called real good guys. Steve was one of the real good ones.
When he passed, I needed to go to Pebble Beach to do what came to be known at Golf Channel as “the dog story.” To rub bellies. To talk gibberish. Man, I could talk gibberish with Steve. I’d come home, Steve by the door, excited like an Eagles fan in the final minute of the Super Bowl, and it went like this: “Hi, pup! Come on, let’s do all the things that you enjoy. Let’s not waste any time. Here’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to have a rub. And then, when we’re done with that, we’ll have an additional rub, and when we’re done with that, we’ll have a bonus rub because rubbing is good.” And with that, the rubbing commenced and, everybody was super happy.
Steve had plenty of time for rubs and gibberish, because he didn’t have a job.
Lefty and Charlie, on the other hand, work like dogs.
At $550 a round, there’s an expectation — reasonable at that rate — that the condition of the one of the world’s most famous courses will match the scenery. It does.
But 20 years ago, they had problem. Geese poop. They couldn’t find a way to resolve it.
“Then we read an article about airports using dogs to chase geese off the runways,” said Jack Holt, pictured above, Pebble’s longtime assistant superintendent. “We thought that’d be cool. But nobody really wanted to take a dog. It’s like having a kid. I’ve had dogs all my life. I thought, ‘Why not, especially when I can bring ‘em to work.’ So, I volunteered.”
Thus, around the time Tiger won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble by 15, Lucky, and the legend, were born.
It happened a few years later at The Pure Insurance First Tee Open, a PGA Tour Champions event. The man with the best tan in golf, Tour official Joe Terry, called Jack and told him the geese were hovering at 18. In front of a sizable crowd of more than 3,000 fans, Lucky hopped off Jack’s cart and did what she’d been trained to do — shoo the geese. But instead of coming back to the cart, she ran into the bunker along the seawall, then around the cypress and in front of the green.
“And then she did her business in front of the grandstands,” Jack remembers with a laugh.
Lucky got a standing ovation. At last she came back and laid down beside Jack’s cart.
“I drove the other way,” Jack cracked with a sly smile.
Lucky died three years ago, at 16. Her picture hangs on the wall of the lunch room in the maintenance barn.
“I still have her ashes,” Jack said, wistfully. “Can’t figure out what to do with them.”
For 39 years, Jack’s been beating the sun to work, these days with Lefty and Charlie by his side (all three pictured above). They’re all in the truck just after 4:30 in the morning. Lefty’s 9 years old, a border collie trained by Lucky. “Lefty’s semi-retired,” says Jack. “We operate at the same speed — half-speed.”
Lefty, in turn, showed Charlie the way. Charlie’s a 3-year-old McNabb, a half-sheep dog and half-border collie bred in Mendicino for herding cattle. “Charlie’s tougher than a woodpecker’s beak.”
A McNabb — with short, mincing, powerful steps — can run like a Kenyan marathoner at an average 10 miles a day but up to as many as 100 if need be.
But this happens to be a slow morning for Lefty and Charlie. They’re mostly laying on Jack’s lap as he makes his rounds in the cart. I’m getting rubs in where I can, and they like rubs as much as running.
Still, with the big white Canadian goose lolling just offshore, Jack assures us that’s a sign that harder days are coming for the dogs. The geese will be back. Soon. Jack has a fisherman’s sense. He knows this land.
Born here, he graduated nearby Pacific Grove High School in 1968 and remembers going to the Monterey Pop Festival, transfixed by The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cream, and the Mamas and the Papas. Then he went to Vietnam, two tours in the Navy. “I was raised in California,” he says, “but I grew up in Vietnam.” He was part of the biggest naval battle since World War II and made dozens of dangerous runs into North Vietnam. “It got hairy,” he admits. His unit received a Meritorious Commendation.
He returned home and built driftwood furniture for a few years. “Didn’t want to be under anyone’s control,” he says. “Didn’t want to be regimented.”
Pebble pulled at him though. His father, Jack Sr., caddied there for the founder Samuel F.B. Morse in the late 1930s. Dad also did a stint as greenskeeper at Del Monte, spraying daisies right as Jack was born. He rushed to the hospital and forgot to turn off the spray rig. “He left a trail of destruction,” Jack says with a smile beneath the beard that makes him look like the old quarterback Dan Fouts, though in an offensive lineman’s body.
Senior went on to become the respected postmaster general in Carmel for 35 years. Mom Shirley was a local artist.
Jack found his own canvas in 1980 when he took a job on the grounds crew at Spyglass, landing at Pebble in time for U.S. Open in 1982. He helped grow that rough where Tom Watson made history.
Jack’s sharing his story when his phone goes off. The ringtone is Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” I loved that song when I was in sixth grade.
At 69 years old, Jack is the oldest member of Pebble’s grounds crew.
In a few cases, it’s a trial ground for young guys, future superintendents from the renowned turf programs at Rutgers and Penn State.
But most are men between 40 and 60, guys who came to it in other ways.
Hector Mejia, known affectionately as Chingon, used to load 60-pound crates of celery in the rain and heat in Salinas, California, the salad bowl of America. He, with three other workers, handled 2000 boxes per day. He was 16 years old. “I was young,” he says with a smile and a gravelly voice. “Not no more.”
Michael Knoll, pictured above left with Raul Aguilar, mowed lawns in New Orleans. Then there weren’t many lawns after Katrina. He quit a middle management job when someone asked him to name the one job he’d do for free. “Never once in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be here,” he tells me. Charlie ambles by as we’re talking. “Don’t leave your food out,” Knoll cracks. “She might steal your tri-tip sandwich.”
Rick Pieper’s a 41-year veteran of the Pebble Beach grounds crew. He looks like Huey Lewis. “The way you tell us apart is our bank account and our voices,” Piepers jokes.
He tells me that he loves the dogs, that he stops whatever he’s doing when they come around, and that he loves the moon off the bay, the first light hitting Stillwater Cove. “It’s golden,” he says.
“I loved my job from the first day,” Aguilar says. This is his fourth U.S. Open. Raul cuts the rough. “Going to be tough,” he assures me.
The man in charge is Chris Dahlhammer, the director of golf course maintenance, though he doesn’t have an ounce of I’m-the-boss in him, just a welcoming way. He came out of Cal State, Chico. As we shoot 15-footers on the hoop outside the maintenance shed, he tells me: “Just as it is for the players, it is for us — the ultimate test, getting the course ready for the U.S. Open.”
It’s a symphony in morning silence, performed by solo artists with their earth instruments. A rake. A mower. A hose. A cup cutter.
And Lefty and Charlie — geese chasers, but above all, morale boosters.
It’s early on a crisp, clear morning, and Jack, Lefty, Charlie and I are hanging on the 18th tee. Jack points to the spot where Chinese immigrants of the 19th century used to put up their drying racks for abalone, before sending them back to China. Like I said, he knows this land.
“It’s in my blood,” Jack says. “The moods, the constant changing of the ocean, the quality of light.”
There is a stickiness to the grass here, each blade painted with a salty coating. The air does have weight to it. You can taste it, smell it. And the mix of the sea, the lush green turf and the tall pines further inland, all that heightens your senses. That hasn’t changed.
So much else has though.
“So many homes are being bought by people from out of town who rent them out as vacation homes,” he explains. “So, when it comes time to vote on funding for schools, they want no part of it. The quality of education and service slips.”
He says it feels like Carmel has become a suburb of San Jose. It started out as an artist community but now it’s mostly high-end boutiques and restaurants. Monterey has transitioned from a fishing town to vacation community. The canneries that Steinbeck wrote about are restaurants and shops and an aquarium.
Standing where we were, though, on the edge of the Pacific, you tend to see the world’s possibilities, not its inequities.
Lefty and Charlie are playing nearby. Jack whistles. They scoot over. We rub some more. “Who’s a good girl?” I ask. “Are you a good girl?” They are. Real good.
Jack’s thoughts come back to his dogs.
“They have such a sweetness about them,” he says. “That’s what’s so great.”
“What’s better than a great dog?” I ask him. “Not much,” he says. And if you have a dog, you know. I knew, and I thought about Steve.
“Why should they do what we tell them to do at any time without any hesitation?” Jack asks. “They’re happy to do it. It always amazes me. All they want to do is what you want to do. Their most important job is being with you. The primary job is chasing geese. The job they’re best at is keeping me happy.”
I knew. “If they’re around you that’s when they’re happiest.”
Jack’s life’s about to change. He’s retiring soon. This will be his last U.S. Open. With wife Shelley, he’s headed north to Cassel. He has five acres up near Oregon, between Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen.
I wondered: What happens to Lefty and Charlie?
“They’re going with me. They’re going fishing,” he says. “There’s great fly fishing up there, plenty of room for Lefty and Charlie to roam. They love to hang around the creek and watch me fish.”
“Funny thing is, I’ve worked here 39 years and have a lot of relationships, and I’ve had a lot of business successes, things I’m really proud of. And the thing I’m going to be remembered for is being the guy with the dogs.”
“You okay with that?” I ask.
“I am okay with that,” he answers. “I absolutely am.”
When Steve died, a friend told me I’d go through a couple stages. Grief, of course. But then, some relief, which surprised me. What he meant was you won’t have to look after the dog. You’ll feel a sense of freedom. He was right — I did. My wife, Robin, traveled with me more. We could go to late movies at home. Before, Steve needed medicine, every night at 9:30, to control his seizures.
Jack and I returned to the compound with the dogs. Robin met us, said hello to the crew and loved on Lefty and Charlie.
Jack looked over and said it, what we knew every day of the 11 years we had Steve: “Dogs just make this a better world.”
Our new puppy arrives in August.