Meet the professor of Pebble Beach golf: Neal Hotelling

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Neal Hotelling isn't much of a golfer. He plays only a few times a year. But he's a scratch historian, with as much passion for events and people of the past as most golfers possess for making pars and birdies.

Neal Hotelling
Neal Hotelling has taken it on himself to chronicle the history of Pebble Beach.
Neal HotellingPebble Beach: The Official Golf HistoryNeal Hotelling book signing
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Hotelling, the reigning authority on the history of Pebble Beach golf, probably gets a bigger thrill from sharing the tale of Marion Hollins' responsibility for the famous 16th at Cypress Point than he would in making a birdie on the hole.

So if you have a question about golf on the Monterey Peninsula, don't ask a native Californian, or even former Carmel mayor Clint Eastwood. Ask Hotelling, who, upon arriving to the area in 1985 with his wife Bettina from Western Michigan, started digging for answers.

He hasn't stopped since.

"I've always loved history and like to know the history of where I live," said Hotelling, 54, currently the director of licensing and special projects for the Pebble Beach Co.

He has written two books on Pebble Beach and numerous articles in addition to making public appearances to discuss the history of the golf-rich area.

You'll find Hollins on page 25 and in at least a dozen more spots in Hotelling's latest book – a gorgeous, 250-page chronicle of golf on the peninsula, "Pebble Beach: The Official Golf History."

Published in 2009, the coffee-table-sized book also features the photography of Joann Dost. It complements Hotelling's first major work, "Pebble Beach Golf Links: The Official History," the result of 10 years of research and two and a half years of writing.

"I think most people would be surprised to know how women played an important role in the development of Pebble Beach golf," Hotelling said in referencing Hollins, a champion amateur golfer, horsewoman and businesswoman.

A major design contribution to Cypress Point

In fact, Hollins got the Vanderbilts to Carmel Valley. She also gets credit for building Pasatiempo Golf Club, just north of Pebble Beach in Santa Cruz. And Hollins suggested to architect Alister MacKenzie the layout of the famous, par-3 16th at Cypress Point; he initially balked at the idea.

"Hollins dropped a ball on the ground and hit it across (the water)," Hotelling recounted. "That's when MacKenzie said, 'All right, we'll build it.'"

Hotelling's passion for history, though, extends beyond golf and started long before he moved to Pebble Beach. He knows a little history of Michigan, too. Bet you didn't know the Japanese attacked the state during World War II. Yep, that's right; the jet stream carried enemy balloon bombs all the way to the Midwest after Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's strike on Tokyo. Look it up.

Shortly after Hotelling moved to Monterey, he and wife Bettina attended a one-man show on author John Steinbeck. Hotelling sunk his teeth into that, too, and he's now one of the world's foremost authorities on Steinbeck and his work - as well as the history and preservation of Monterey's Cannery Row. Hotelling, whose earned his college degree in business administration, has served as the president the Cannery Row Foundation and Monterey County Mensa. So he's pretty smart.

Hotelling is also the executive editor of Pebble Beach - The Magazine, and he manages the Pebble Beach Co.'s historical archive as the company's official historian. He also has amassed an impressive personal collection of books and artifacts related to local history. Over the years, he met and interviewed many of the individuals who contributed to the area’s past.

A fundamental Pebble Beach question

When Hotelling joined the Pebble Beach Co., in 1991 as its golf operations manager, he was surprised to learn that nobody seemed to know an essential part of the history of Pebble Beach Golf Links. Who served as the golf course's first head pro in 1919?

"Nobody knew the answer," he said.

And that was perplexing, given the rich golf history at Pebble Beach. So Hotelling dug, interviewing old pros. The answer, as it turns out, is Harold Sampson. The American-born pro came from the Del Monte Golf Course, which opened in 1897 and ranks as the oldest golf course in continuous operation west of the Mississippi River. He found this out by "putting enough things together" through research that included trips to the library to pore over old newspapers.

Record keeping on Pebble Beach golf wasn't up to snuff, in part because it tended to focus on the Bing Crosby years, Hotelling said. Most people, for example, didn't know that Pebble Beach hosted an LPGA event - the Weathervane Transcontinental Women's Open in 1950-51. The first winners were Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg. Several pages in Hotelling's new book are dedicated to the event and include historical photos.

Hotelling also dispelled a commonly held belief that Pebble Beach officials converted the 18th from a par 4 to a par 5 in preparation for the 1929 U.S. Open. The hole was actually changed in 1922, Hotelling discovered by reading longtime Cypress Point pro Henry Puget's 1923 "Green Book of Golf." The famous finishing hole was already 555 yards, some four years before amateur champion and architect Chandler Egan supposedly spearheaded changes.

With all his projects, it's no surprise Hotelling has little time to play golf. He is sought as a speaker and guide and has been interviewed by the Golf Channel, CNN, the History Channel, SkySports and others.

Among many honors, Hotelling was awarded the 2005 Preservationist of the Year by the Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists for his significant role in preventing the demolition of the former Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. His family also occupies a large chunk of his time. He and Bettina, who is originally from California, have seven children from previous marriages, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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