The list of people who strolled the fairways behind the pink walls of the Annenberg Estate reads like the attendees at a G8 Summit or World Golf Hall of Fame dinner—individuals whose everyday lives were so public that they relished the private time afforded by this invite-only retreat. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to tee it up on the course belonging to Ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, but he was hardly the last political heavyweight to do so. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle all played golf at the parkland course. Icons of the sport like Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson have also played here; in some cases in the same groups as the political figures mentioned above, making for star-studded foursomes that Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf would have drooled over.
“Those who had the privilege of playing the golf course were friends, family and invited guests,” says Pat Truchan, Director of Landscape and Agronomy at Sunnylands. “This was a place for very famous people to get away from everything. They didn’t keep detailed records because it was like you inviting your friends over…except if you went into your back yard and played golf.”
The course was open for play in 1964 and was used by Mrs. Annenberg for her regular Ladies Game up until she became ill, then passed away on March 12, 2009, at age 91. Before he passed away in 2002 at age 94, Ambassador Annenberg played the course most afternoons when the stock market closed on the East Coast. The Ambassador would generally loop the course three times, changing his shoes after each nine. When he was three or four holes into his round, a maintenance worker would switch the pin placements behind him to alter the experience on his next loop.
The newly created Sunnylands visitor center reveals that star-studded groups like the one on January 17, 1992—which included golf course designer Ed Seay, as well as Quayle, Palmer, Floyd and Ambassador Annenberg—were somewhat the norm. Floyd was the first professional golfer to play the Sunnylands course and he and his wife, Maria, became close friends with the Annenbergs through the years. In fact, the Floyds stayed at the Annenberg estate whenever Ray was in town to play the Bob Hope Classic. Floyd says that Leonore Annenberg played more golf on the course than her husband did. “The golf course wasn’t overly challenging,” Floyd says, “but it was a fun course to play.”
President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were also close friends of the Annenbergs and spent a number of New Years’ holidays on the property. In fact, the President teed it up with his Secretary of State, George Shultz, as well as pro golfers Watson and Trevino on New Year’s Eve, 1988. Shultz says that he and the President had a regular game at Sunnylands every New Year’s Eve for a number of years. “It was about the only time the President played,” Shultz recalls. “One year I drove up and there were Tom Watson and Lee Trevino on the first tee. They wanted to arrange a match and I said, ‘It’s a social occasion. Let’s just have fun. He only plays once a year.’ President Reagan was a strong, well-coordinated man and they gave him some tips as we played. By the time we got through 18 holes he was having a lot of fun.”
More than two decades later, Watson still vividly remembers his only visit. “It was a surprise for me. We were in Palm Springs over New Year’s to get warmed up for the Tour, and our good friends Claudia and Lee Trevino were out there,” Watson says. “I mentioned that Lee had played there with the President and I said, ‘You know, that’d be on my bucket list.’ So I got a call from Lee saying, ‘Come on. We’re playing golf this morning.’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘It’s a surprise.’ I kind of figured it out from there. We hopped in his car and drove over and we stopped at the gate and had the bomb dogs sniffing around the car as we went in. We spent the morning playing golf, then we had lunch and saw the estate, including the Annenberg’s great art collection. It was a very good golf course in very good condition. We had a wonderful time.”
Watson confirms that he offered tips to the President and remembers being impressed with his strength, but said he lacked some of the proper golf fundamentals. “I’d say President Reagan was a better horseman than he was a golfer,” the five-time Open Championship winner says with a laugh. “As with most amateurs I play with, if solicited—or sometimes even if I’m not—I will try to help them with their golf game. I tried to help the president with his chipping. I wish I could have helped him more, but it was a wonderful experience.”
Like Floyd, Shultz was keenly aware that he was playing golf on Ambassador Annenberg’s precious gem. “Ambassador Annenberg liked to point out that the greens were slightly elevated, which you couldn’t notice. That was a good little wrinkle that he liked about it,” Shultz says. “But you were always a bit hesitant when you played with him because you might take a divot and ruin his golf course. Of course, it is a golf course and you are supposed to take divots.” Now 90 years of age, Shultz, who says he used to play a decent game of golf and had some pretty good rounds at Sunnylands, remembers being struck by the overall beauty as he drove onto the property. “It’s spectacular drive up,” he says. “If you drove in at night and it was all lighted, it was a like a fairyland. In daytime, it was a great scene with rolling hills and the house fit right into the landscape. It’s a wonderful place.”
Evidence of private rounds like the one between Reagan, Shultz, Watson and Trevino were inadvertently left behind and recently discovered during the course renovation. Golfers at Sunnylands were given golf balls with their name on them and when the lake on the fifth hole was drained as part of the renovation project, golf balls that once were lost to the hazard were once again found. For Tim Jackson and David Kahn, the golf course designers who oversaw the facelift of Sunnylands, discovering the lost balls were a reminder that this was hallowed ground in recent American history. “We would occasionally come across golf balls that had the names of President Reagan, President Nixon, President George H.W. Bush and even former Vice President Quayle,” Jackson says. “And Vice President Quayle was quite a stick so finding his golf ball where the water was came as a surprise.” The golf balls that were found are now on display in the visitor center, along with a number of photos taken through the years.
The list of “important people” who played golf at Sunnylands extends well beyond politicians and pro golfers. In 1987, Ambassador Annenberg invited Warren Buffet and his wife, Susie, to the estate for a weekend with President Reagan and Nancy Reagan. In Alice Schroeder’s book, Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life, Buffet marvels at what he encountered on his visit: “(Walter) had his own driving range with ten tees lined up and all these golf balls piled in perfect little neat pyramids. And there wasn’t anybody there. The course was immaculate. If he had four foursomes, Walter would say, ‘That’s too much play for my course’ and send one of them off to play at Thunderbird Country Club. I’d go out there and hit four golf balls, and somebody’d run out and replace the pyramids. And that was the day at Sunnylands. It was as fancy as living gets.” According to the book, Ambassador Annenberg paired Buffet with the President that weekend as Secret Service agents trailed them.
The course itself offers a number of landmarks and distinguishing features, each with a story to tell. Among them are two mismatched palms trees on the second hole and a totem pole on the fifth hole. The only cocoa palms on the property were gifts from President Eisenhower. When one was accidently taken down by a maintenance worker who fell asleep on a mower, the Ambassador had it replaced, hoping the President wouldn’t notice. The totem pole was originally commissioned as a work of art by Ambassador Annenberg, but not for the course. Legend has it that a Canadian Prime minister told the Ambassador that the fifth hole needed some sort of target from the tee box. “I’ve got just the thing,” the Ambassador said, and the totem pole was placed in the distance. The underground portion of the pole had rotted over the years and is being restored by the son of the original artist.
On the seventh hole sits the Nixon Magnolia tree, which was gifted to the Annenbergs by President Nixon, who kept a set of clubs on the property. “The Nixon Magnolia was taken from a cutting of a magnolia tree on the Thomas Jefferson estate,” Truchan says. “That tree was then taken to the White House, and this tree grew from a cutting of that tree at the White House. It’s been on the premises since 1972. Out here, it’s everything it can do to survive in this heat.” The seventh hole is also home to perhaps the most randomly placed object on the course, a Joshua tree that sits in the middle of a bunker. The tree was another gift to the Ambassador, who had it planted in the bunker after being told that Joshua trees like sandy soils.
For all the intricacies found on the course, Ray Floyd, now a course architect himself, sees brilliance in the original layout. “The course architect, Dick Wilson, was a genius,” Floyd says. “What a mind you have to have to create 18 holes on nine greens. It’s so cleverly thought out. It really was great fun to be a part of that history. And there were very few rounds played on that course.” Asked whether he’d like to tee it up again at Sunnylands when the course facelift is complete, the four-time major championship winner doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, I’d love to.”
STORIES FROM SUNNYLANDS
(Sidebar to feature story above.)
For former Secretary of State George Shultz, playing golf at Sunnylands was a somewhat regular occurrence—if regular means every New Year’s Eve with the President of the United States for whom you serve; in his case, Ronald Reagan. Shultz maintains that if the fairways and bunkers of Sunnylands could talk, they might not have as much political dirt as people would think.
“We talked about some stuff,” Shultz says. “But mostly had a little fun and relaxed because golf is supposed to be fun. If I had something I wanted to speak with the president about, I would say, ‘I’d like to have a few minutes with you in private when we finish.’”
Raymond and Maria Floyd met Ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, for the first time in 1981 at Castle Pines in Colorado. “They asked us to dinner and from that it evolved into an invitation to stay with them at Sunnylands,” says Floyd, the first pro golfer to play at Sunnylands. “Maria and I stayed there every year that we went to the Bob Hope Classic and we all became close friends.”
On his first trip to Sunnylands, Floyd was to play golf after lunch with the Ambassador, who told him he would meet him at driving range. “The grass was perfect and had never had a divot taken out of it,” Floyd says. “There were only three stacks of balls on the driving range, all in pyramids. So I started hitting balls and, of course, I’m taking pro divots.”
When Ambassador Annenberg showed up, Floyd was surprised to see him go to the tee that was set below where Floyd was warming up. “I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, why don’t you come up here?’” Floyd remembers. “He said to me, ‘Oh, that grass is too perfect. I don’t go up there. That’s for the guests.’ So, I felt bad about that. When he’d tell that story he would say that I took those sirloin steak divots out of the ground.”
On one occasion, during the week of the Bob Hope Classic, Ambassador Annenberg asked Floyd to invite Arnold Palmer out for nine holes following their respective Friday morning tournament rounds. Vice President Dan Quayle—a two handicap at the time—was on the property for a fundraiser, but would be departing Saturday morning.
“We were going to play at Sunnylands in the afternoon with the Ambassador and Vice President Quayle,” Floyd says. “So I extended the invite and Arnold was going to come. Of course, Arnold had to do all his media after the tournament round and he didn’t get there until 3:15 p.m. It got dark pretty early and Arnold only got to play two or three holes. That year, Arnold was the head of fundraising for Wake Forest University and the Ambassador said to him, ‘Arnold, I’m prepared to donate X number of dollars to you.’ Arnold’s eyes popped out of his head and I looked at him and said, ‘Geez, Arnold, imagine if you got here in time to play nine.’”