The Greens of Sunnylands

Presidents, pro golfers, and similarly high-profile individuals drove, teed, and putted on the private course belonging to Walter and Leonore Annenberg

Tim Sweeney Golf, Social Scene 0 Comments

Fifth in an eight-part series

The list of people who strolled the fairways behind the pink walls of Sunnylands reads like the attendees at a G8 Summit or World Golf Hall of Fame dinner —individuals whose lives were so public that they relished the private time afforded by this invitation-only retreat.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to tee it up on Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s estate, and more political heavyweights followed his lead. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Dan Quayle all played golf on the parkland course. Icons of the sport like Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson also played here — in some cases, in the same groups as the politicians, 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 The Annenberg Retreat 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 … if you went into your back yard and played golf.”

Parts of the course opened for play in 1964, even before the Annenbergs’ house was finished. Leonore hosted a regular ladies game until her death on March 12, 2009, at age 91. Before he died in 2002 at age 94, Walter 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 nine holes. 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 Walter’s next loop.

Star-studded groups like the one on Jan. 17, 1992 — which included golf course designer Ed Seay, as well as Quayle, Palmer, and Floyd — 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 over the years. In fact, the Floyds stayed at Sunnylands whenever Ray was in town to play the annual Bob Hope Classic tournament.

“The golf course wasn’t overly challenging,” Floyd says, “but it was a fun course to play.” He notes that Leonore played more golf on the course than her husband.


President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan also were close friends of the Annenbergs and spent a number of New Year’s holidays on the property. 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 and Reagan had a regular game at Sunnylands every New Year’s Eve for a number of years. If you think the rounds were informal state meetings for two of the world’s most powerful men at that time, think again. 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,” he 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.’”

At Sunnylands 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.”

Nevertheless, Shultz was keenly aware that he was playing golf on a 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,” he says.

Now 90, 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 a spectacular drive up,” he says. “If you drove in at night and it was all lighted, it was a like a fairy-land. In daytime, it was a great scene with rolling hills, and the house fit right into the landscape.”

Watson 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 [PGA] 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 Annenbergs’ great art collection.”

Watson confirms that he offered tips to the president and remembers being impressed with his strength, but says he lacked some proper golf fundamentals. “I’d say President Reagan was a better horseman than he was a golfer,” the five-time British 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.”

The list of important people who played golf at Sunnylands extends well beyond politicians and pro golfers. In 1987, the ambassador invited Warren Buffett and his wife, Susie, to the estate for a weekend with the Reagans. In Alice Schroeder’s book Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, Buffett 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. … 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.” According to the book, the ambassador paired Buffett with the president that weekend as Secret Service agents trailed them.


On his first trip to Sunnylands, Floyd was to play golf after lunch with the ambassa-dor, who told him he would meet him at the 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 Walter 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 Classic, the ambassador asked Floyd to invite Arnold Palmer for nine holes following their respective Friday morning tournament rounds. Vice President Quayle — a two handicap at the time — was there for a fundraiser, but planned to depart 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.’”

More than its history of famous guests distinguishes the Sunnylands course. Now a course architect himself, Floyd sees brilliance in the original layout. “The course architect, Dick Wilson, was a genius,” he 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.”


Golf is an important part of the exciting history of the Annenberg Estate,” says Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. “We are working carefully to restore the golf course to its original design for use by guests participating in retreats at Sunnylands. This course, which was played by presidents; prime ministers; and other leaders in politics, business, education, and the arts, will also be featured on public tours of the estate beginning in February 2012.”


The distinction of the greens at Sunnylands made itself evident to course architects Tim Jackson and David Kahn of Jackson Kahn Design in Phoenix, Ariz., during their renovation of the course (see “A Fresh Approach”).

“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.”

Ken Brooks, former operations manager at the Annenbergs’ estate, collected errant balls during regular maintenance and recognized the value of encasing them for display. That display case has been mounted at the visitor center opening this fall.

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.

On the seventh hole sits a magnolia tree that was given to the Annenbergs by President Richard Nixon, who kept a set of clubs on the property. “The Nixon magnolia grew from a cutting of a tree at The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.,” says Pat Truchan, director of landscape and agronomy. “It’s been on the premises since 1972. Out here, it’s everything it can do to survive in this heat.”

The seventh hole also is home to perhaps the most randomly placed object on the course: a Joshua tree that sits in the middle of a bunker. That tree also was a gift to the ambassador, who had it planted in the bunker after being told that Joshua trees like sandy soils.

The idea of the totem pole came from Canadian Ambassador Jack Hamilton Warrant during his 1976 visit. The Annenbergs commissioned the sculpture from First Nations artist Henry Hunt in 1976. Over the years, the underground portion of the pole rotted; Hunt’s son has restored it.

A Fresh Approach

Just as Sunnylands is no typical family spread, the estate’s nine-hole golf course — built in 1964 — stands apart.

Dick Wilson designed it as a parkland course, unlike desert-style courses found today throughout the Coachella Valley. Though lacking the marketing power of his contemporaries, Wilson was a highly regarded course designer during the post-World War II era, creating widely respected tracks like The Blue Monster at Doral and Cog Hill’s Dubsdread (the latter with Joe Lee).

The goals in renovating the course at Sunnylands were twofold: to bring out the original character that Wilson instilled and give it modern playability. The responsibility of leading that facelift fell on golf course designers Tim Jackson and David Kahn, who were well aware of the delicacy of the project and made it their mission to recapture the intent of Wilson’s original design.

The design partners used aerial imagery of the course taken just after its original construction, researched other Wilson designs, and even tracked down Tony Cuellar, the original golf course superintendent at Sunnylands.

“Tim Jackson and David Kahn did a tremendous amount of research on the course,” says Pat Truchan, Sunnylands’ director of landscape and agronomy. “They also visited a number of Dick Wilson properties around the country that have maintained their original design.”

When played as a double-looping, 18-hole par 72, the original design stretched 6,600 to 6,700 yards. The course had been shortened to less than 6,000 yards as the Annenbergs aged, although Walter reportedly played 27 holes most every time out. The revamped version of Sunnylands will be playable at more than 7,000 yards (looping it twice), enough to handle today’s modern equipment.

Five new tees have been added to the layout, but Jackson says you’d have a hard time discerning which ones they are. “It was decided among the golf team that we should provide as much flexibility to meet whatever end the [Annenberg] foundation would like,” Jackson says. “David Kahn found over 150 golf holes that could be played out there by using different tee and green combinations.” One example is the first hole, where Jackson and Kahn created a par 5 out of what had traditionally been a par 4. “The first-hole corridor can be played as a par 3, 4 or 5,” Jackson says.

The entire project emphasizes environmental responsibility. At the heart of the course modernization was upgrading the irrigation system. In fact, only when it was determined that the irrigation system would be overhauled did the opportunity arise to “redetail” Wilson’s original design.

Jackson estimates that prior to the course reconstruction, there were roughly 120 acres of turf grass on the western two-thirds of the property where the golf course sits. “One of the goals of the project was to move forward with an eye toward water as a precious resource in the desert,” he explains. “So we removed roughly 60 acres of turf grass without affecting the golf course.”

The greens at Sunnylands are bent grass, which is certainly not native to any desert region. (Jackson estimates that the next course in the desert to feature bent grass greens probably came along 20 years after Sunnylands.) The rest of the golf course, however, is Bermuda grass, which posed a problem for the greens. “When you have bent grass greens in a Bermuda grass climate with Bermuda on the rest of the course, the Bermuda encroaches into the bent grass,” Jackson says. “So the greens had become much smaller than what we found in Dick Wilson’s original plans. We came in and reconstructed the greens to a modified USGA construction.”

Recapturing the size of the greens, which now average a generous 8,000 to 9,000 square feet, makes it possible for the types of pin placements found in Wilson’s original design — that is, tucked behind bunkers or on the edge of the greens. With the course being looped twice to play 18 holes, the green sizes also allow for maximum variability; holes play as differently as possible with changing pin placements. The bunkers at Sunnylands had also shallowed out over the years, partly because they were refreshed each year with the white sand that Walter Annenberg desired. Jackson and Kahn returned to the bunkers’ base material, re-establishing the original design of the hazards, which means they are more penalizing than they had become over the years.

Still, the gravity of working where high-profile guests have spent time was not lost on Jackson and Kahn. Though golf course designers by trade, both were fascinated and respectful of what has taken place behind the estate’s walls.

“We keenly felt how important the project was for the Annenberg Trust at Sunnylands and their desires in undertaking the restoration,” Jackson says. “This was [Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s] home, and this was not something we had encountered before in golf course design. We took that to heart. We felt honored to have that trust and achieve that goal for them.”

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