Remembering R.J. Harper, Pebble Beach’s Point Man

An Interview With The Face Of A Great American Golf Destination
R.J. Harper in 2010

Editor’s Note: On November 8, 2017, the game of golf lost one of its greatest leaders, characters, supporters and ambassadors. Robert “R.J.” Thomas Harper, who started at Pebble Beach as a course marshal in 1985 and rose through the ranks to become Executive Vice President of Golf and Retail for the Pebble Beach Company, died of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind sons Tucker and JT Harper, grandsons Caden and Hudson, sister Cathy Carr and former wife and close friend Kelly Yost Harper. He also leaves behind a legacy of excellence that may never be equaled in the golf resort realm, or at any level. He was the consummate host, boss, visionary and friend of the game, and he never failed to greet newcomers with a smile, a rich story and a kind word while overseeing one of the most respected and admired golf operations in the world with grace, humor and a tireless work ethic. In 2003, as editor and co-publisher of Fairways + Greens magazine, Golf Tips editor Vic Williams sat down with Harper for the following interview. Though we’re 15 years removed from these words and a few changes have taken place along 17-Mile Drive over those years, including the names of the owners and partners, Harper’s enthusiasm and bright spirit shine through — and will continue to echo across the cliffs and coves of his beloved Pebble Beach.

He runs the most famous and revered public golf operation in the world, but R.J. Harper doesn’t put on airs. He’s as down-to-earth and humble as they come, and always puts the customer first — whether he’s a well-heeled CEO or an everyday Joe who’s saved up the bucks to make the pilgrimage to the Monterey Peninsula and play Pebble Beach itself or its sister courses: Spyglass Hill, the Links at Spanish Bay or Del Monte Golf Club. He’s got the best job in golf, and the toughest.

In his 18 years as Director of Golf Operations for the Pebble Beach Company, Harper has hosted a couple of U.S. Opens — including Tiger Woods’ epochal 15-stroke victory in 2000 — thousands of celebrities and top-tier pros in the AT&T National Pro-Am every February, and hundreds of thousands of golfers who stream in day after day to tee it up in whatever weather the fickle Pacific throws at them.

“Today it’s hot,” Harper told us in late June as he prepared to take a much-deserved vacation. “It’s pushing 85 degrees, with almost no wind. We usually don’t get into the 70s around here. It’s unusual — and gorgeous.”

Just another day in golf paradise, which put Harper in the mood for a fascinating talk about what makes the Pebble Beach Company tick, and how he, his employees and the company’s principals (including Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood) are constantly striving to make a unique, stellar product even better.

You’ve seen all kinds of changes in 18 years — changes in ownership, changes in the golf course, moving a new tree to No. 18 in place of the famous old tree just last year. You’re probably at the most revered course in the country if not the world next to Augusta National. What’s it like to be there on a day to day basis and see people’s reaction to the course and the whole Pebble Beach mystique?

Harper: There’s a unique challenge every day with respect to Pebble Beach, the entire company and our resort. It’s exciting to come into the office every day after all these years and know there’s something new on the horizon that needs to be addressed. It’s all about progress, never about looking back.

I was the championship director for the U.S. Open in 2000. I kind of ran the tournament. It was a wonderful shining moment, but the day after the Open left here, we had a full house with both hotels full, and it was business booming and let’s go get it. There’s no real time to sit back and look at the past. It’s about moving forward, particularly with respect to this new ownership. Not to diminish what their predecessors did; they did a wonderful job of polishing the jewel with Pebble Beach. But this group is intent on continuing to progress and keep improving everything we have, everything we’re privileged to manage out here.

How great is it to be here? It’s fantastic. I can’t say there’s no stress in the job. When you manage four golf courses and all that potentially can go wrong, and have as many visitors that come through here with extremely high expectations, there’s certainly a level of responsibility that goes with that. But I don’t love it any less today than when I came here.

After seeing the course in person, the thought is always the same: There’s no way TV can bring across how special the place really is.

Harper: No doubt. There’s a drama to it that changes during the day. It can be sunny and beautiful, and instantly a mist rolls in off the sea and it takes on a different hue. Then the sun starts to go down and everything just “wakes up.” It’s an interesting place. I’ve been to a lot of coastal courses around the world and have beauty and uniqueness, but nothing to match this. You go to Hawaii and get pretty much a continual weather pattern. Same in the desert. Here you get those subtle changes. You’re peeling off and putting layers back on, all in the course of one round of golf. It adds to the magic of the place.

When I came out here I had never seen Pebble Beach, just on TV, but I loved it. I went out and sat by the old pine tree on the 18t, watched the sun go down as the last two groups came in, and I swore that one day I was goingto be able to afford to play this golf course. And to think that now I’m running all of the Pebble Beach golf operations, I pinch myself. It’s a dream I could never have conjured up. I’ve been very fortunate.

Back to the new management team. Obviously they’re high-profile guys. Some of the locals don’t like what they’ve done. Others say, “Thank God they got Pebble back into American hands.” But it still has that feel of a classic American public golf course, even though it might not be accessible to everybody. So what has their contribution been as a whole and on an individual basis?

Harper: All four principals have provided their expertise on a very frequent basis.

I’ve used Arnold in a number of ways. He’s got his hands into the golf at Pebble Beach, Spyglass, Spanish Bay and even Del Monte, so we’re excited about every opportunity we have to engage Arnold in re-examining everything we do relative to the golf course, for a better experience for golfers — and keeping the promise these owners made to continue to improve the product.

Dick Ferris is a real hotel guy and also a golf guy. He’s on the PGA Tour policy board. He and Arnold are very close, so he’s working with use closely as well on the golf and hotel sides. He’s really involved.

Peter is doing a lot of work in sponsorships and marketing sales. He lends his expertise there. And Clint is doing a tremendous amount of work helping inform the community and political bodies about the Del Monte Forest plan so the right information is being submitted out there. We want to grow the core of our business — which is another golf course and some additional hotel rooms.

So each of them is really active in what we’re doing here.

When you headed up the [2000] Open, the USGA swooped in there and set up giant tents and huge infrastructure. You had a couple days of fog delays. Do you ever look back — even though the following Monday morning was business as usual — and think that you’d ever seen anything so colossal in scope? It was like the Super Bowl.

Harper: It was definitely our Super Bowl. We’re fortunate to do it once in a decade, and it’s been great.

I have a picture of the U.S. Open committee on my office wall. I look up every once in a while and look at all the faces that orchestrated this thing. We do sit back and marvel at what a feat it was. We had to build a city that was going to go up carefully and quietly and taken down carefully and quietly. We’re in a significant residential community, and we hear about it if we don’t do things right. We got their support on our side and there wouldn’t too many missteps. There were a few behind-the-scenes things we had to improve upon, but it was almost seamless from the perspective of the people who came to the event. NBC did a great job broadcasting the beauty of Pebble Beach. They had about 40 percent more cameras than any other tournament we’ve had here.

I just went to Olympia Fields [site of the 2003 Open], and that put it all back into focus for me — watching other people do it.

The golf course itself: You’ve got those classic holes, four through 10, along the ocean, then 17 and 18. Do you think some of the inland holes get short shrift? Are there a couple of favorites of yours?

Harper: One of my favorite golf holes is 16. It’s obviously in the home stretch, but it’s just a great hole, sets up real nicely off the tee. You’ve got to position yourself on the left side of that fairway, so you’ve got to hit a precise shot. And the green sitting down among that grove of oak trees is a pretty sight; you can see the ocean in the distance, so you don’t feel the ocean but you’ve got a presence there.

So many people who play Pebble Beach a few times talk about 16 as being one of those unsung, really good golf holes. All the coastal holes are terrific, obviously.

Fourteen is a beast of a hole. It requires three really good golf shots, then you’re not finished. You don’t want to be in that big greenside bunker, and most people are. There are a lot of high scores on that hole. It deserves its No. 1 ranking.

Walking the course, you notice all the design nuances that don’t come through on TV. For instance, the big half-pipe bunker in front of No. 2 green, and the big bunker in front at 16. You get out there and say, “This is totally different than on TV.”

Harper: You’re absolutely right. Television doesn’t have the perspective that you obviously have when you’re walking. Those bunkers are much larger than you imagine.

Being there every day, do you sometimes feel the ghosts of the past? Do you feel Payne Stewart on the 18th green — there’s the story of him going out on the rock wall with his bottle of Cristal…

Harper: Oh, yes, I was part of that. I was in the Tap Room with him that night. There were a couple of guys sitting at the bar; Payne and I and Chuck [Cook, his longtime coach] were in the corner. Most everybody else had gone. These two guys kept looking back at Payne. He didn’t have his knickers or cap on, plus the Tap Room is dark, so it was hard to tell if it was him. When Payne and Chuck got up, they walked toward the lobby of the hotel. Payne had the U.S. Open trophy up in his hotel room. I walked out the front door, then I turned around when I heard the guys saying, “Hey, you’re not Payne Stewart, are you?” And he said, “Sure I am. Why do you ask?” And they said, “No, no, you’re not. We just made a bet.”

So Payne goes upstairs and gets the trophy, brings it back and sets it up on the bar. Then he gets the bartender to fill it up with beer and they’re all drinking out of the U.S. Open trophy. Later, Chuck and Payne carried it out to the seawall. It was pretty funny.

But to answer your question, we saw a lot of Payne Stewart here. He played the AT&T a number of times, and an Open or two. He was a wonderful guy. But there are a lot of guys who have come and gone; Pebble Beach conjures them up in the minds of most people who walk the golf course. They look back from the 18th green along the coast and kind of reflect that they’ve just walked among the greats.

With most Open championships, PGA Championships — and certainly The Masters and the British that don’t move around the United States — you’ve got very few golf courses that a great number of people have had a chance to play. Pebble’s one of them. You can remember shots the greats have hit here to win the U.S. Open. I can’t tell you the number of times people drop a ball at the left side of 17, filling in for Tom Watson’s shot in 1982.

Pebble is so famous and unique, but you’ve got a couple of other tracks there that are pretty darn good. Spyglass Hill has to be one of the toughest golf courses in the state, if not the toughest.

Spyglass is in its best condition ever. All our members and guests tell us that. We have been working so hard on it. The company made a significant capital investment — millions of dollars in infrastructure  — to make sure Spyglass is the golf course it’s supposed to be. We’re not going to stop there, but it’s so good right now.

Spyglass is kind of like Phil Mickelson in golf course form. Phil is the best golfer never to have won a major [Editor’s note: Mickelson finally broke through the following spring at the Masters], and Spyglass is the best course never to have hosted one. It should have had a major by now, but unfortunately it sits in the shadow of Pebble Beach. But I submit it’s still one of the better courses in the United States. It could host a major right now; it’s in that kind of shape. All the players in the state amateur qualifier earlier this year said the same thing.

How often do some of Pebble’s biggest fans — Mark O’Meara, who’s won the AT&T several times, Peter Jacobsen, who’s also done well there — sneak out for a round?

Harper: A number of players come out here on a fairly regular basis. Most top players are signed to sponsorship deals with a number of companies, and when those companies host meetings, outings, client entertainment et cetera at one of our hotels, O’Meara, Freddie Couples, Lee Trevino — all those guys will come out here to enjoy a day or two of golf. Johnny Miller. Mike Weir was here two weeks ago.

Once every week or so we’ve got a top name in the house. We’re very fortunate.

Hard-core golfers see the merit in paying a lot of money to play Pebble Beach. What would you say to somebody who’s skeptical — why is this golf course worth that kind of money? What pushes it over the edge?

Harper: You can play golf at 17,000 courses around the United States. There are a handful where you would say, “I had an experience,” something you’re going to talk about for the rest of your life, over and over again. Others are just a round of golf. I think what separates courses like Pebble Beach and other courses is, this one lingers with you. There are all those intangibles that add up to an experience like no other.

If you look at the price of Broadway shows, or sitting courtside at an NBA game, or NFL playoff tickets, they’re the same as playing Pebble — and that’s three hours of entertainment. So if you compare a round at Pebble Beach with other types of experiences that you’re going to remember and reflect on, and share with your father, or your son, or your wife, then you kind of see the reality of it.

I’m not trying to justify why Pebble Beach fees are what they are. But that’s the way people who want to come out here all the time feel about it, what I hear from them.

And you can’t really put a dollar amount on that.

Harper: No question about it.

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