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Golf’s Bogeyman

Times staff writer Paul Lieberman, a competitive golfer for 43 years, has a five handicap.

We are passing the most spectacular stretch of 17-Mile Drive, where the waves crash on Seal Rock and the seals loll on Bird Rock, when David Dilworth brings up the man who died after licking his golf ball, or some such thing.

Dilworth has not been having the best of days in his bid to convince a golf lover--me--that we are treading on habitat so endangered that it’s time to stop building new courses here. His impromptu tour could not be expected to turn up any of those famous and elusive California red-legged frogs, but we’ve found no pools of water either in what are supposed to be wetlands. And we’re not even sure we’re seeing any rare Yadon’s piperia orchids amid the towering Monterey pines. Except for those trees, he’s basically been whiffing, in the parlance of the game, in his bid to demonstrate the environmental hazards that he and like-minded souls are hoping will block the course being proposed by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer and their partners in the Pebble Beach Co.

So he finally mentions the late George Prior, the 30-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant who in 1982 played for three straight days at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., and developed headaches, nausea and a rash across his stomach before his organs failed. “His golf ball,” says Dilworth, “was covered with pesticides. And that’s sort of symbolic of the hidden harms of golf--it was invisible to him and it killed him.”

There are many other golf haters in the world, of course. Dilworth just happens to be one in the place aficionados consider their mecca, the Monterey Peninsula, whose waterside courses include two of the top-rated ones in the country, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point. If the Pebble Beach Co. has its way, 18 more holes soon will be added.

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A computer software developer-turned-full-time environmental activist, Dilworth has been fighting that prospect since 1992, when a Japanese group had the land, and now with its American celebrity ownership led by Eastwood, Palmer and Peter Ueberroth. When we first met in December 2004--and he offered a tour--he already had filed a 990-page objection to the county’s environmental impact report, and soon after would go to court when the local county commission, as expected, sided with Pebble Beach Co. He also was readying his forces, and a Mark Twain impersonator, for the most crucial confrontation, before the California Coastal Commission.

“I don’t hate golf,” he insists. “I don’t like golf courses.”

So I give him the test, questions about whether he views caddies as exploited and about astronaut Alan Shepard’s golf shot on the moon. That’s when he tells me about “GAGM,” as in “gag ‘em,” the Global Anti-Golf Movement.

“Yeah, you’re a golf hater,” I say, though, in the back of my mind, I can’t help thinking that, given enough time, I might save him from his golf-hating ways.

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You know ‘em when you see ‘em. They’re the ones who “Amen!” comedian George Carlin’s rants about golf as “an arrogant, elitist . . . meaningless, mindless . . . boring game” and about turning golf courses over to the homeless. Their hatred is visceral for all that senseless chasing of a silly white ball by, as Carlin calls us, “dorks in hats and checkered pants.”

The enmity grows exponentially when you add environmental zeal. I once was at a conference of wildlife filmmakers in the Tetons that included a reception at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. As we peered out at the first hole and the snow-capped mountains, one of the filmmakers went into a rage. “Do you know what I see out there?” he said. “I see poisonous fertilizer seeping into the water, I see animal passageways obliterated, I see . . . “

“You know what I see?” I said when he was done. “A three-wood off the tee, then a soft nine-iron to the green.”

The bystanders had to separate me and that hater, who could not fathom that I might get as much pleasure on this manicured landscape as he does in the untamed wilderness. At play was an ideological divide over the varying meanings of “green,” the rightful perks of wealth and to what degree others should be able to dictate what we can do with our own land.

I was telling this story much later at a course back East when a sympathetic player told me if I really wanted to experience such passions I needed to check out the “grand slam” of golf disputes. “It’s got trees, it’s got water, it’s got plant life--some kind of orchid--and it’s got wildlife, if you can call frogs wildlife,” the guy said, “and it’s got fanatics like you wouldn’t believe.”

And that’s how I first heard of Mr. Dilworth.

I do not exactly lie to him before our first encounter. I simply omit a detail about my presence on the peninsula--that I’m here to play a charity tournament on Pebble and two other courses. I fear he may suspect something, however, when I say I have to be back at the Inn at Spanish Bay by 9 a.m.

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“I get up at four,” he says, suggesting that I be down in the lobby at 6 a.m. He picks me up in a cluttered old Honda. On the dash is a manual 951 pages thick, “Golf Course Management and Construction: Environmental Issues,” and it’s not from any green group. It’s the United States Golf Assn.'s guide, meaning he understands a basic rule of any war--know thine enemy.

He appears to be in his mid-50s, with ample gray in his beard and bushy hair, but he won’t tell me his exact age or much about himself other than that he grew up in “Pacific Stump,” his name for Pacific Grove, the city of 15,000 at the northern edge of 17-Mile Drive, and ran cross-country in high school. That comes up when he says “we used to run right here” as we reach Pescadero Canyon, a wooded area on the ocean side of Highway 1.

“You are now surrounded . . . by virgin forest,” he says as he leads me into the thicket, past dozens of small green, red and white flags stuck in the ground. Each presumably represents an endangered orchid, except he’s not certain that the brownish stalks we see are remnants of the ones listed as imperiled by the federal government in 1998, the same year Dilworth founded HOPE, Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment, the nonprofit he heads to this day. He says he was offered a healthy chunk of change for his software business and doesn’t have to ask for donations; “people just send us money.”

“That was like a coup for you, ammunition,” I say of the orchid.

“It was,” he says. “See this?” We’re at a tree seedling. “That’s a baby Monterey pine,” and there are a slew of them, a sign of a forest vigorously regenerating itself while serving as a home for horned owls and deer and, in the past, lion and black bear. But then he asks, “See this stump,” pointing at a dead pine where, he says, “25 feet up, baby woodpeckers would stick their nose out and ‘mom’ would fly around. . . . One day we came by, the tree was just cut down. And that’s sort of a metaphor for the Pebble Beach Co.'s ignorant destruction of wildlife habitat.”

Then I ask if this is where they want to build the new course--and he says no. This had been the site in 1992, under the Japanese ownership that also hoped to go private with the Pebble Beach course and to develop a 400-lot subdivision on the company’s unused property. That didn’t have a prayer of getting by the Coastal Commission, but Eastwood and his partners were viewed as heroes when they bought out the Japanese group for $820 million in 1999. They then announced their proposal to put aside 800 acres as open space, develop 33 residential lots and add 160 hotel rooms and suites, a new equestrian center and the eighth 18-hole course in the peninsula’s Del Monte forest. They did use poetic license when they took the plan, known as Measure A, before Monterey County voters in 2000, billing their expansion as “Forest Preservation and Development Limitations.” It sold, winning approval on 63.5% of the ballots. Of course, that was before an environmental impact report determined that the plan would require removing 17,969 trees.

Still, it seems that those trees are not in the enchanted forest Dilworth is showing me--this is the prime area Clint proposes to preserve. But the Japanese plans “could be revived,” Dilworth argues, “so this is still threatened.”

How could I bust him for putting his spin on reality when I had not told him that I am, in essence, the enemy, a lifelong golf nut in town to take divots out of his beloved home turf? I feel that we’re even. So it’s time for our quiz.

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I ask what he feels when he sees golfers in Italian knit shirts. “I never really watch golfers,” he insists. I ask if he views caddies as an exploited class, or as people with employment opportunities. “Certainly, jobs,” he swears, though he understands why “other people,” such as the Japan-based Global Anti-Golf Movement crowd, view the game as “the poster child for what’s wrong with our social ills, the rich versus the poor.”

But I get him with Alan Shepard, asking whether the astronaut’s six-iron shot on the moon was good fun or a sacrilege. He recalls how Shepard lived right here at the end of his life. They met at a reception, and the first American in space was “very brusque,” he says. “Maybe Shepard knew exactly who I was, that I’m trying to stop Pebble Beach company from destroying the forest.”

I detect a chance to bring him to his senses only when we drive past the short Peter Hay Golf Course, a pitch-and-putt track named for a longtime pro at Pebble. Dilworth confesses that once, years ago, he and a few friends tried it out, “laughing so hard at how hilariously awful we were at this. Especially me. Half the time, we’d swing and miss.”

I tell him that’s the essence of the game, being humbled and humiliated.

Or dead, he reminds me--citing the case of the Navy golfer.

We make one more stop, at a wooded patch that the Pebble Beach Co. hopes to level for a new driving range. We’re looking for the pond that forms after a rain--evidence that these are wetlands--but there is none today. “You win some, you lose some,” I say.

He drops me at my hotel and says, “Have a good game.”

During my tournament, I’m grouped with a real estate man from Texas who tells me he once wrote a letter to George Carlin after hearing the comedian’s routine on golf courses. “I said, ‘You probably get $500,000 per performance. Why don’t you buy a few yourself and give them to the homeless?’ ”

I also go see Pebble Beach’s in-house historian, Neal Hotelling, who notes that Pebble was slated to be a real-estate tract in 1915 until developer Samuel Morse had second thoughts and started buying back lots to build the cliff-side course that people today happily pay nearly $500 per round to play.

I squeeze in a visit with Eastwood’s friend Alan Williams, who is spearheading the drive for a new course. He and Eastwood hooked up in 1986 when Carmel’s actor-turned-mayor decided to buy the Mission Ranch inn after plans were made to tear it down to build condos. Eastwood used to go there during his days at Ft. Ord and “thought it was worth preserving,” Williams recalls.

We meet at another of their projects, the mountaintop Tehama Golf Club, inland in Carmel, where wild oaks adorn $2-million lots. Williams says Tehama is a Native American word for “abundance of nature.”

A realpolitik sort, he doesn’t argue when I raise an eyebrow at the local referendum portraying their Pebble Beach project as preservation. “You’re right,” he says, “it’s a development plan.” But some developers still consider themselves caretakers of their land--and it’s no fun being demonized as environmental rapists. Williams says they’ve been through “18 or 19" designs for the course to “dogleg around” wetlands and the area where their consultants found the two rare frogs. Even so, the Coastal Commission had just sent Monterey County officials a letter cautioning that local approvals are meaningless if the project site is deemed an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area.

Then there are the “do-gooders,” Williams says. “I mean, we have one guy who wrote 900 pages.”

“Dilworth?”

“Dilworth, yeah.”

But the demonizing cuts both ways, as I discover when I speak with Dilworth’s leading critic, Paul Miller, publisher of the Carmel Pine Cone, a strong supporter of the Pebble project. After Dilworth filed his environmental objections, Miller skewered them as “twice as long as ‘Moby Dick’” in a piece headlined “Dilworth’s epic warns of hotel hair dryer danger” based on a section about the supposed health dangers of electromagnetic radiation that suggested “even a hair dryer can cause a high level.”

Yet when I call Miller, that sense of humor is not in evidence. Never mind that I’m merely trying to infiltrate the psyche of a golf hater, he flies off the handle when I mention that I’ve spoken to Dilworth.

“He’s a crazy . . . a local rabble-rouser who has no credibility,” the Carmel publisher says. “I suppose he told you he has a group. . . . We were able to locate . . . one nut with seven backers. . . . So we go back to Dilworth. ‘Do you have a degree in chemistry?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you have a college degree?’ ‘No, I took a few courses and didn’t like it.’ . . . This would be a good story: how one person can thwart the majority for years. . . . “

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Dilworth was more charitable when I asked him about the publisher’s lambasting. He conceded that he got carried away in his epic filing--he’d been compiling a “Scientific Encyclopedia of Environmental Impacts” and threw all sorts of material in there, such as the bit about hair dryers. “It’s trivial compared to other impacts,” he agreed, “and Miller correctly picked up on that.”

After our first meeting, he kept me updated on his campaign to block the golf course through e-mails that ended, “May the Forest be with you.” We met for breakfast in Pacific Grove when I returned a year later, in December 2005, to play the same charity tournament, except that time I let him see my Bobby Jones shirt with little golfers on the collar.

His beard was gone, but he’d kept the drooping mustache, like actor Wilford Brimley’s. He talked more about himself too, recalling how he and other kids learned to do back flips on sand dunes where the Pebble Beach Co. later built the Spanish Bay resort. Those who assume he’s some wimpy hippie have no notion of his daredevil past: how he windsurfed long distances--once 26 miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey--set hang-gliding records in Europe, and raced and designed Formula B cars. It’s true he never finished college. “I can’t learn that slow,” he says.

Those who revile him might be surprised, too, that his father was a West Point graduate. His dad, who taught high school math, also caddied in his youth and was a golfer. When breakfast was done, we headed out to his “new” car, a ’90 Lexus, where he showed me a set of old clubs that belonged to his mom, a nurse. They were in an ancient canvas golf bag with two lady MacGregor woods and a rusted two-iron probably from the ‘40s. But what caught my eye were two putters, one with tape on the club face, as if someone was testing it to find the sweet spot, the other with a mirror affixed, the work of a tinkerer trying to invent a way to line up the putter with the cup.

“Golf is an easy target,” he said. “It doesn’t just destroy the trees, it takes away all the soils and replaces it with nonnative rocks, nonnative soils, nonnative grasses. . . . " He’s explaining why he calls golf courses “green graveyards.” But all I can think of is how those putters were tinkered with not so long ago.

The chairman of the California Coastal Commission is announcing the next speakers, “Bill Connors . . . Samuel Clemens.” I wonder whether Mark Twain’s pen name registers with anyone else.

It’s March 9, 2006, and we’re hours into its long-awaited hearing. Hundreds of partisans pack the Monterey Hyatt. The corridor outside is packed too, mostly with save-the-forest protest displays.

The commission staff says many issues before it generate high emotions, including proposals for Little League fields, which bring out scores of kids in their uniforms. But Sierra Club veterans count this among their top three causes in the coastal zone, up there with the Hearst Ranch development proposal that also included golf courses. “We’ve seen some horrible things, like the San Onofre nuclear power plant,” says Mark Massara, who heads the Sierra Club’s coastal campaign, “but there weren’t 17,000 trees cut down.”

Massara, a surfing lawyer with blond hair down his back, is the leader of the organized opposition, the one who lobbies commissioners face to face and contests the Pebble Beach proposal point by point. Dilworth is the irritant on the fringe--the one who delivers not only scientific treatises but also guerrilla theater. So he’s come with a certificate for Peter Ueberroth, a “Whopper Award” for having once said, “We are not developers.” He also has his Mark Twain impersonator poised backstage.

But the other side gets its say first. Eastwood kicks it off, amiably recounting how he’d found the commission’s staff report “very interesting” and “very biased.” The staff has again described the project area as environmentally sensitive habitat. Eastwood asks only for “a fair hearing.” Translation: The appointed commissioners have the votes that count, not those zealous staffers.

Then comes Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner and Olympics czar. He recounts his 40 years swimming in these waters and says “the ocean is much better, it’s recovering, because of you.” He also notes that Pebble Beach Co. gives $5 million a year to charity.

They leave it to Anthony Lombardo, the company’s chief attorney, to dismiss the dire claims about Monterey pines, saying they are in fact “the most populous tree on the planet.” The orchids? He shows slides of them growing like weeds by roadways. And the frogs? That’s an amazing tale.

The day before, the commission had staged a bus tour of the project area and stopped by the spot where Pebble Beach’s scientists discovered the two critters a few years back--right by the current equestrian center, near foamy runoff that, for all we know, is half horse urine. I happened to be sitting in front of one of those consulting scientists, so I jokingly asked why he didn’t “disappear” the things. “A million dollars,” he said, and told me about the Northern California developer who was so fined after trying to cover up the discovery on his own site of the red-legged frogs, which were abundant in the 1800s until found to be a delicacy.

Now a drawling voice calls out in the hearing room, “Steamboat a comin’!” It’s the fully garbed Mark Twain imitator, there to testify how these creatures made his career with his story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” about a mining camp contest in which one fellow cons another by weighing down a prized frog with buckshot. The actor doing Twain says he’s just spoken to Big Momma Red-Leg, a descendant of that very frog, and she doesn’t mind if snakes get some frogs--that’s nature taking its course--but there’s this other threat, from impertinent humans.

The crazy thing is, the frogs can thrive on golf courses. Parts of one near San Francisco had to be shut because so many were breeding in a water hazard. What’s more, no one knows if Twain’s story was based on real events. One official of the jumping frog contests that have become a tourist boon to Calaveras County--now using larger bullfrogs--opines that, “To say that the frog in the story is the red-legged frog is the same as saying the bread crumbs that Hansel and Gretel dropped were rye bread and not sourdough.”

But the Twain impersonation gets the biggest applause of the day, and then Dilworth reminds the commission that no less than President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act.

After the hearing, I catch up with Clint and find him frustrated by everything from the frog testimony to how he and his partners were portrayed as greedy land abusers. He recalls caddying as a kid in Oakland and Orinda for 50 cents a loop, and how he started playing when he did TV’s “Rawhide” and began getting tournament invites. He says he’s given away more property for preservation than “anybody who is bitching” and compares the critics to a studio executive who would brag “about all the movies he’s canceled. . . . Well, someday,” Eastwood says, “you have to support something.”

But it comes down to politics and votes. Pebble Beach Co. is not sure it has enough on the Coastal Commission. Acting through Monterey County officials, it pulls the application for approval of the voter-backed Measure A.

Which brings us to June 13.

Dilworth is glum. The common wisdom in the environmental community is that Clint and his people have put the golf course back on the table because they’re confident their stars are finally aligned: California’s actor-governor has replaced two coastal commissioners, and the assumption is that the newcomers are there to help Arnold Schwarzenegger help an old Hollywood friend. “That’s OK. I’ve been fighting this for 15 years and I’ll keep fighting it,” Dilworth says.

This meeting is in Santa Rosa, hours from the focal point of the fight. It’s harder to get the troops there and the session draws a much smaller crowd than at last year’s Monterey hearing. Pebble Beach’s famous owners stay away--they’re leaving it to the lawyers. Dilworth doesn’t bring Mark Twain either. His prized speaker this time is a high school girl from the peninsula who talks about her rapturous walks through the endangered woods, like the one he’d led me on when we first met 2 1/2 years ago. Dilworth videotapes the meeting, including his short turn at the podium, when he pleads, “This is a golf course they don’t need. . . . Do not succumb to celebrity justice.”

Under other circumstances, they might compromise. Pebble Beach would relinquish some of its wish list, such as the driving range. The problem is, the voter resolution was an all-or-nothing proposition. Neither side knows how the vote will go. Then, the first of the new commissioners tips his hand. He doesn’t like that it’s all or nothing. Like that, it’s over, 8 to 4. Against.

As the Pebble lawyers huddle--they’ll have to decide whether to take the commission to court--Dilworth hugs his crew and says in disbelief, “We won.” He says he’ll call to tell me where they’ll celebrate, but my phone never rings that night.

“I lost your number,” he apologized recently. But he said the real party is yet to come. In the forest. “I will not be surprised,” he says, “if some tree hugging takes place.”

I counteroffer. Let’s meet somewhere else. I’ll treat you to nine holes on that short Peter Hay course. Bring your putter with the mirrors.

David Dilworth replies, “Why not?”

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Chat online with David Dilworth at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20, at chat.latimes.com.


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