Editor’s Note: ACES Editor Dennis Miller interviewed Sandy Tatum in 2010 for this feature story. Tatum died June 20 at the age of 96. His wife of 67 years had passed in February. We are re-publishing this updated interview. In a piece on Fox’s coverage of the U.S. Senior Open, it was noted by David Fay that it was Tatum, as president of the United States Golf Association, who pushed through the Senior Open. He also was the driving force of bringing the U.S. Open to Pebble Beach in 1972, the first time it had been played on course open to the public. Pebble has been the site of the tournament four other times and will host it in 2019.
Ask any average golfer in Northern California to name a golf icon and, odds are, the response will be “Pebble Beach.” Ask anyone in the local golf industry and you will hear the name Sandy Tatum.
Frank “Sandy” Tatum, who turned 90 in July 2010, has been arguably the most influential person in the Northern California golfing community, promoting not just the game, but the life lessons that come along with golf. Learning the game from his father, Tatum experienced the core values of the game at an early age and those values have defined his life.
“He loved to play,” said Tatum, speaking in a whisper because of throat surgery, but still is a commanding presence. “He loved all the values that come with the game and he left that legacy to me.”
Tatum was quite a player himself, winning the NCAA title for Stanford University in 1942 (the only other Stanford players to win the title are Tiger Woods and Cameron Wilson). It was a win that carried a number of levels of satisfaction. For starters, the Stanford team nearly did not make it to the tournament. Funding was tight and the Athletic Department informed the players that they were not going to be able to send the team to the tournament. Tatum decided to organize a committee to raise the money, but was told he needed approval from Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur.
“I was nervous about going to see him,” said Tatum. “There were no secretaries back then, so I knocked on the door which said ‘President.’ I heard a ‘come in’ and opened the door. I made my pitch and he never looked up—he just kept working. When I was done, he reached into his cubby, pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $25 and said, ‘good luck, young man.’ Talk about putting the ultimate dimension to the experience.”
Tatum raised the money, went back to the tournament and emerged with the individual title, while Stanford won its second straight team title.
On a personal level, it was a defining moment in terms of his relationship with his father.
“What mattered most to me was the personal level of winning the tournament,” said Tatum. “When I finally was able to get to a phone and call my father, I was all choked up, but managed to say, ‘I won.’ Neither of us was able to speak for a while.”
After graduating from Stanford, Tatum won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University before returning to Stanford for law school. He passed the bar exam and was admitted to the California Bar Association in 1950. Tatum joined the Cooley law firm in Palo Alto, where he has been ever since, becoming a partner along the way. Despite formally retiring in 1993, he still has an office at the firm, which he occupies during weekdays.
Though Tatum found success as an amateur golfer, he never seriously thought about being a professional golfer.
“I never thought much about turning pro,” said Tatum. “I knew how important the game has been in my life and what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to do something to get the game out there. I was very conscious about how the game developed in this country. It was a damn shame when municipal golf died out and I was thinking about what I could do. Harding is a good example.”
Tatum was instrumental in the renovation of Harding Park in San Francisco, drawing on his past experiences on the course, as well as the dismay he felt when he looked at the course’s state of disarray.
“(Harding Park) always grabbed me, said Tatum. “It was a wonderful layout and the environment was so impressive. The public access to the course really appealed to me and I fell in love with the place. But I saw it was turning into a weed patch and that was intolerable.”
Tatum knew renovating the course was going to be expensive so he turned to the PGA Tour and his friend Charles Schwab (founder of the discount brokerage firm that carries his name).
“Chuck arranged a dinner with Tim Finchem (PGA Tour Commissioner) and the three of us talked about Harding Park,” explained Tatum. Tim agreed to send out his design guy, Chris Gray. Chris and I went around the weed patch together and he could see what could be done.”
Tatum had the blessing, as well as design help, from the PGA Tour, but there was plenty of money to be raised. With Tatum and then-Mayor Willie Brown leading the campaign, the city came up with the $16 million needed to renovate the course.
But when the course was finished, there was no money left for the clubhouse or maintenance shed. Needing another $8 million, Tatum went back to work. Schwab was the first to come through, donating $2 million to the cause with the caveat that the clubhouse should be named for Tatum.
“I told Chuck I thought it should be named after him, since he was donating the money,” said Tatum. He said no, so I said how about the Schwab-Tatum Clubhouse? He finally said, ‘Do you want the money or not?’ I told him I would take it.”
Harding has been a joy to play since the renovation and it has hosted six major events—the 2005 WGC-American Express Championships, the 2009 President’s Club, three Charles Schwab Cup Championships and the WGC Match Play.
The one lingering problem has been course maintenance that was handled by the city of San Francisco. According to Tatum, up until a week before the President’s Cup, the PGA Tour was not sure they would have a quality course for the event.
Better days appear to be here. The recent announcement that Harding Park has become a member of the TPC family of courses. It is now known as TPC Harding Park and will be for at least the next nine years (though 2019), which should improve the maintenance of the course.
“For the first time, I think, we are in the situation to realize the potential for Harding Park,” said Tatum. “In addition to next year’s Schwab Cup, there will be at least two more professional tournaments at Harding Park over the next five years.” (There have been four more and the PGA Championship is slated for 2020.)
Part of the redevelopment of Harding Park was establishing a First Tee program there. The TPC management agreement calls for the donation of any incentive bonus to the First Tee.
During his career, Tatum served as president of the United States Golf Association from 1978-1980 and was on the executive committee from 1972 to 1980. He has been a high-profile individual in the game for years and has very strong feelings about the current state of the game.
“The game needs to develop its potential,” said Tatum. “We need to expand dramatically the number of people who play the game. It has grown stagnant. We need to find ways to make it and keep it affordable.”
Tatum has followed with great interest the career of another former Stanford player—Tiger Woods.
“He was the ultimate phenomenon,” said Tatum of Woods. “There was something about Tiger that was hard to define, which made him a resource to attract people to the game. I was utterly fascinated by how he was raised by Earl and his game. He was universally attractive.”
Tatum tried a couple of times to stress to Woods about the importance of an education and how he could carry the message to the youth of his time. The first instance came before Woods left Stanford to turn professional. Tatum crafted a letter to Woods imploring him to stay in school, but did not get the letter to Woods before he decided to join the PGA Tour. Later, Tatum developed a memorandum about coming back and finishing school during the off-season.
“I thought he could make a statement to kids about getting an education,” said Tatum. “I got it to Tiger and Earl, but never heard a word.”
Still Tatum thinks Woods back at the top of golf would be in the best interests of the game. “It would help a lot,” said Tatum, if Woods started winning tournaments again. “I really hope it happens, for the sake of the game. But I do think it will never be what it could have been.”
Tatum’s most well-known relationship in the golf world has been with fellow Stanford alum, Tom Watson. Though separated by almost 30 years in age, the two have been very tight for years. They designed The Links at Spanish Bay along with Robert Trent Jones, Jr.
“It’s been a highly important factor in my life,” said Tatum of his relationship with Watson. “Ever since we made contact, it’s been a very important friendship.”
Tatum first became familiar with the Watson family when Tom’s father, Ray, was a graduate student at Stanford while Tatum was an underclassman, Once Tom started playing at Stanford, Tatum made his acquaintance and it was Tatum that Watson went to when he was contemplating the decision to try professional golf.
“He came to me and said he needed to know how good he could be,” explained Tatum. “He said, ‘If I’m good enough I’ll stay, if not, then I am out of here.’ He had to find out for himself. He turned out to be one of the greatest players ever to play the game.”
The duo played together in the AT&T at Pebble Beach for 20 years, starting in 1977 when the tournament was still known as the Crosby. The run also included Watson’s down years, when he went nine years without winning a tournament. It was during some of those bad times, Tatum recalls, that some of his fondest memories of Watson were formed and spoke to the character of the man.
“One time during the bad years, we were playing in the AT&T and he needed to go birdie-birdie to make the cut,” said Tatum. “He’s at the 17th at Pebble and he hits a bad iron shot—he chunked it. I had never seen him chunk one. He double-bogeys the hole and misses the cut. Afterwards, we went to lunch over at Cypress (Point Club) and you would have thought he was leading the tournament by his demeanor. As we are leaving, he checks his watch, looks at me and says, ‘Tatum—we have time to get nine holes in.’”
“We didn’t have time for nine, but we could play No. 1 and then 14-18. We didn’t have any clubs with us so I saw Hank Ketchum (the creator of Dennis the Menace) and asked him to play with us, but told him that we needed to use his clubs. It was cold, wet, damp and windy, but playing that day was an experience I would put at the top of my list.”
Their friendship has matured to the point where Tatum feels he knows Watson’s game as well as his own.
“I have gotten so involved that I could play vicariously through Tom,” explained Tatum. “His game become mine.”
In 2009, when Watson nearly won the British Open, Tatum was, by his own admission, “glued to the television.”
When Watson lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink, the 89-year-old Tatum fired off an email to Watson that said, “It never occurred to me that, at the age of 60, we could win the British Open.”
Now 90, Tatum has recovered physically from the vocal cord surgery to get back on the course. No longer able to walk 18 holes, Tatum—a strong advocate of walking a course—is forced to ride or, as he puts it, “I have to take a damn cart!”
Still playing at Cypress Point and the San Francisco Golf Club, as well as at Stanford, Tatum also has changed his outlook toward the game.
“I’ve had to change my mantra from ‘just go for it’ to ‘just keep swinging without caring where the hell it goes,” said Tatum. “But how lucky can a guy be to still be playing San Francisco (Golf Club) and Cypress?”