Presidio Hills: San Diego’s cradle of golf since 1932
Presidio Hills Golf Course has been a San Diego institution since 1932 and is one of the oldest par-3 courses in the United States. The clubhouse (Casa de Carrillo), built in 1802, is the oldest adobe dwelling in San Diego. The course was opened by George Marston, a key figure in San Diego history who supported Balboa Park, founded the San Diego History Center and saved the surrounding Presidio area from development. Marston was also a golfer and played the first round at Presidio Hills.
The city-owned course was operated by the Abrego family for more than 70 years.
Also in the foursome was a professional golfer Marston had hired to run the driving range in 1931: Al Abrego. The choice is too remarkable for fiction. His grandfather, Don José Abrego, was one of the founding fathers of California (he was treasurer of the province from 1839 to 1846). In 1880, Al was born, and he was raised in Don José’s adobe house on Abrego Street, now a historical landmark in Monterey. Leo Carrillo, the actor who played Pancho in The Cisco Kid, was Al’s second cousin. Their ancestors form a direct line back to the original Carrillo family on Presidio Hill.
In the 1930s, he established a Tiny Tots junior program at Presidio Hills. He was the first local pro to give group lessons. “Four years old isn’t too young to begin — youngsters learn fundamentals easily and remember them better.” From his classes, he encouraged students to move on to larger courses and other teaching pros.
In the 1956 edition of San Diego Junior Golf Magazine Abrego reported that 500 children had cycled through his summer classes at Presidio.
His philosophy was simple:
“I just talk their language and they love it. Kids have a great imagination — they associate things with pictures — so I do, too, when I’m teaching them. For instance, when they first pick up a club, I just tell them to waggle it like a dog wags its tail and then swing back. That gets them started right and after that it’s easy.”
Presidio is where any kid who aspired to grow up to be Billy Casper or Gene Littler or Phil Rogers could learn the game under the watchful eye of three generations of the Abrego family — Al (Presidio’s first pro), Don and, finally, Donna, who reluctantly gave up her lease with the city in 2003.
Billy Casper began at Presidio Hills, then moved to the San Diego Country Club. Ben Hogan said Mary Kathryn “Mickey” Wright had the best swing he ever saw.
She went from Presidio Hills to La Jolla Country Club. Another youngster was so shy he wouldn’t take lessons: Gene Littler. His mother would ask Abrego for tips about the boy’s swing. Abrego taught feel: swing the club as naturally as “a dog wagging its tail.” No golfer achieved this goal better than Littler, who won the U.S. Open in 1955.
Al Abrego died in 1976. He was 96. He passed down another tradition: three generations of Abregos, each a “master instructor,” ran the course for 71 years. Don Abrego, Al’s son, began teaching in the 1940s and took over in the ’60s. Don’s daughter, Donna (whose mother “was picking up range balls on the night I was born”) began teaching in 1972; she ran the course from 1986 to 2003. During her tenure, Presidio Hills was the only local course with teachers exclusively from the LPGA: Donna, Debbie Skinner, Jennie Hinkle, and Rosanne Isom — all students of Al and Don Abrego.
Just some of the golfers who learned the game at Presidio Hills: Craig Stadler (Masters champion) and son Kevin, Scott Simpson (U.S. Open champion), Lon Hinkle and sister Jennie, Mark Wiebe, Chuck Courtney, Morris Hatalsky, Chris Riley, Pat Perez. Phil Rodgers, the 1958 NCAA champion, aced #16 when he was ten years old. Not long before, Al Abrego ordered him to tape a pencil down the brim of his baseball cap, then “point the pencil at the ball and never take it off there.”
Phil Mickelson played the 18-hole pitch-and-putt course for the first time in 1977, he shot 144. Par is 54 (56, in those days, for juniors). In 1977, the seven-year-old lefty birdied #18 and broke 70 for the first time. A former pro at Presidio said Mickelson still brings his children out to play the course now and then. Memories no doubt bring Mickelson back, but the relaxed pace of play is what appeals to many golfers.
From 1968-2002 Presidio Hills would test the skills of some of the best junior golfers in the world via the World Junior Golf Championships. Winners at Presidio Hills include: William “Billy” Mayfair (1976), Phil Mickelson (1980), Tiger Woods (1984, 1985) and Lorena Ochoa (1990–1992). Mickelson in particular spent a lot of time at the course and says, “My parents would drop me off there every day around eight o’clock and pick me up around six or seven. I loved it, I just loved it!”
At one time or another, every great local golfer honed his or her game at Presidio Hills. Junior golf began here; Junior World Championships were contested. Many call Presidio Hills the “cradle of golf in San Diego.”