From the Golf Journal Archives - A Great Amateur – Jack Neville

Apr 23, 2010

By Dan Hruby

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Golf Journal.)

Sometimes the description almost sounds disparaging. Golfers have read for years that someone named Jack Neville designed the famed Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links despite the fact he was “only an amateur.”

The truth is, Neville wasn’t a weekend duffer who liked to draw pictures of fairways and greens. He could play the game of golf so well that Samuel F.B. Morse, who managed the site of the proposed course, had no qualms in commissioning Neville to do the job. The fact the course today, 84 years after he sketched his first design, remains virtually as he outlined it is testimony to his genius.

Neville, a native of St. Louis, Mo., learned to play at age 11 at Claremont Country Club, near Berkeley, Calif., where his father had been a member. Two of his tutors at Claremont were Macdonald Smith and Jim Barnes, who became outstanding touring professionals. Neville, a master at match play, won his first California State Amateur in 1912 at age 19. It would be the first of five (nobody else has won more than three). Neville spread his dominance over 17 years, successfully defending the State Amateur in 1913, then winning again in 1919, ‘22 and ‘29. The first three took place at the Del Monte Golf and Country Club, the latter two at Pebble Beach.

Winning five was no easy chore. California has turned out more accomplished players than any other state in the union, and those who were never able to conquer the event once include Billy Casper, Corey Pavin, Lawson Little, Bob Rosburg, Scott Simpson, Craig Stadler, Dave Stockton and Tiger Woods.

Neville’s victories in the California Amateur finals were rarely nail-biters. In 1912 he prevailed over D.B Fredericks, 10 and 9; in 1913 over E.S. Armstrong, 5 and 3; in 1919 over Dr. C.H. Walter, 5 and 4; in 1922 over Robert Hunter, 11 and 9, and in 1929 over F.C. Stevens Jr., 3 and 1.

Neville’s greatest thrill, he often told friends before he died in 1978, was playing on the victorious Walker Cup team in 1923, when the Americans rallied to defeat Great Britain and Ireland, 6-5, at St. Andrews, Scotland, in only the second competition of the rivalry. Neville’s teammates included some powerhouse names: Harrison Johnston, Francis Ouimet, Jess Sweetser, O.E Willing and captain Robert Gardner.

Neville was tall and slender with a rather serious demeanor. Players often teased him about his sweeping golf swing.

“Bob Gardner, one of my Walker Cup teammates, once said it reminded him of two cities in France –Toulon and Toulouse,” Neville recalled with a smile in a 1969 San Jose Mercury News interview. Charlie Seaver, who once held the three most prestigious California championships simultaneously (the 1933 State and Northern California Amateurs and the 1934 Southern California Amateur) played with Neville frequently.

“It was true about Neville’s swing,” Seaver says. “He had a wide arc, but it was smooth and effortless. Obviously it was effective or he wouldn’t have won all those trophies. He was a quiet person, not too affable, but he fit in well with the group.

“Jack was a good friend of my father, Everett. They met in the Southern California Amateur finals in 1920 at Los Angeles Country Club. My dad won, 3 and 2, but it was especially memorable for me because I got appendicitis and he had to rush home from the course to take me to the hospital.”

Neville was paired in two qualifying rounds with Bob Jones in the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, the first tournament of national interest held at the course. Neville shot 82-86 to miss the match-play rounds by eight strokes.

“Of course, it; drew the biggest gallery, and the excitement of playing with Jones apparently did little for Neville’s game,” notes Neal Hotelling, the Pebble Beach Company’s historian and director of corporate affairs.

Coupled with his golf successes was the fact that Neville was a real estate salesman for Morse’s firm, the Pacific Improvement Company. So although Morse in 1916 had asked at least six other persons to draw up designs for the new course, he saw Neville as the logical choice for the task.

If Neville harbored any fears when he began his Pebble Beach design, they were well hidden. He asked Douglas Grant, a wealthy sportsman and fellow California Amateur champion, to help him, especially with the bunkering. The two golfers walked the course site for weeks before they settled on their final design.

“It was all there in plain sight,” Neville told journalist Herbert Warren Wind.

Neville sought to place as many holes as possible beside the ocean. This was done by creating a figure-8 routing, a concept that remains unchanged despite course alterations made over the years by such names as H. Chandler Egan, Frank (Sandy) Tatum and Jack Nicklaus. Originally, the fourth, sixth through 10th and 17th and 18th holes abutted the ocean. The total went to nine holes when land was acquired from a private party to rebuild the par-3 fifth hole so it, too, could overlook water. It debuted in 1998.

Neville, whose competitive career ended early because of severe arthritis, said in 1969 that Pebble Beach was “about 95 percent the same” as when it opened in 1919. “People have asked me many times how Grant and I happened to do such a good job when neither of us had designed a course before.

“Actually, Grant had traveled throughout Scotland and England and I had seen many courses in this country. We had the terrain and a lot of luck.”

Neville lived in relative obscurity the latter half of his life. His name surfaced briefly late in the 1960s when Tatum, a San Francisco attorney and later USGA president, was asked to oversee the renovation of the course for the 1972 U.S. Open. Tatum, surprised Neville was still alive, asked him to help in the project and Neville happily signed on.

To Tatum, his choice for assistance was obvious. How could there be anyone in the world more qualified?

Neville wasn’t a weekend duffer who liked to draw pictures of fairways and greens. He could play the game of golf. (USGA Museum)

Neville’s game was already considered one of the best in the state by 1925 (above), four years before he was paired with Bob Jones (below) during stroke-play rounds at the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. (USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)