David Pearson’s new book, “JFK and BOBBY, ARNIE and JACK…and David! (The Unusual PR Career of David Pearson),” pretty much sums up who he was and is. A former United Press International correspondent whose career took him through the JFK and LBJ Administrations, into his own PR firm specializing in golf and resort communities. In that career Pearson dealt with some of America’s great names in golf – and a few in other sports as well as politics.
THE PEARSON STORY —
In a sense I came into the golf industry through the front door. I was a young officer of the early Sea Pines Plantation resort during the building of its first golf course, the George Cobb-designed Ocean Course. Learning the ropes of promoting resorts and real estate through golf, I moved on to handling PR for Laurance Rockefeller’s new Robert Trent Jones’ Fountain Valley golf course on St. Croix, followed by his courses at Dorado Beach and Cerromar in Puerto Rico.
While there we had NBC’s “Big Three Golf” with Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, and I had a chance to get to know them, especially Arnie. He later bought the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, and brought my firm in to do their public relations.
Probably the biggest boost to my entry into the golf world was the Esquire Magazine article I wrote entitled, “You’re Not Playing the Course, You’re Playing the Designer.” It featured six golf course architects, including Trent Jones and his sons Rees and Bobby, Pete Dye, Desmond Muirhead, and Robert von Hagge. From that point on, the majority of my referrals came from them.
In a very real sense, I was one of the first people in golf to help make icons of the course designers, promoting their names at the same time as I was promoting the clients’ golf developments.
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MATT WARD: If you had one “mulligan” you could take for anything that happened in your life — what would it be?
DAVID PEARSON: The one mulligan in my life would be to have taken advantage of the fellowship I had to Indiana University for a Master’s Degree in History.
MW: You spent considerable time with both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. How are they alike and different?
DP: Arnie and Jack were alike in many ways: both were intense competitors, both had complete games although their swing styles were totally different, both had wives — Winnie and Barbara — they adored, and both became entranced by the field of golf course design. Not to mention they both chose to live in Florida. Their differences began at the 1962 U. S. Open, when the young Jack Nicklaus beat hometown hero Arnold Palmer in Jack’s first PGA Tour victory at Oakmont. A rivalry began that day that ended only recently upon Palmer’s passing.
Palmer’s first piece of golf design was the members’ course at Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island, which he built with Frank Duane, a paraplegic Long Island golf course architect. Following that he and Duane designed the first course at The Landings of Skidaway Island in Savannah. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Jack brought Desmond Muirhead in to co-design Muirfield Village, new St. Andrews in Japan, and Mayacoo Lakes in North Palm Beach.
Perhaps the pinnacle of their competition occurred in 1970 when the first Heritage Classic was played at Sea Pines, on the Harbour Town Golf Links which had been designed by Pete Dye and his design consultant, Jack Nicklaus. The pros all screamed bloody murder at Dye’s tiny greens and Scottish pot bunkers, but at the end of the day, it was Arnie who won the tournament with a score of one under. Take that, Jack.
MW: In your book you mention the significance and charm of golf course architect Pete Dye. What’s made him special from other designers you’ve known?
DP: The first thing that made Pete Dye different than previous 20th Century golf course designers with his affinity for the natural. When he and Alice visited Scotland early in his career, they were both entranced by the old Scottish courses they found. After they returned and Pete got a few Midwest commissions – Crooked Stick, The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio – he began using onsite and nearby materials to create an aura of authenticity throughout the courses. For example at The Golf Club, he used an open ended railroad car as a bridge across a creek, and shored up bunkers with creosoted telephone poles.
Expressions he came up with describe a lot about his designs: “Existing grade of ground.” He mentioned this to me when he designed the golf course at Colleton River. There was a swale in front of a green, and I asked him why he put it there. “See how the green is at the existing grade of ground,” he answered. “The swale will give the golfer the impression that the green is elevated, which is the impression I want him to have on his approach.”
The other expression he made up one day while showing golf writer Charles Price and me around the 17th hole at his then-new Harbour Town golf course. He had made a huge sandy approach on the left side of the green. Price asked him if it was a sand trap. “No, you can ground your club in it.” Well if it isn’t a sand trap, Price asked, then what do you call it? “I guess you’d call it a waste area,” he replied. And since that day all those sandy areas are called “waste areas.”
MW: Golf’s growth has stagnated — less people are playing the game and course closures have outnumbered openings for nearly a decade. How would you advise the major golf organizations to grow the game — especially among Millennials, women and minorities?
DP: To appeal to more people, especially young people, women and minorities, who are currently either turned off or ignorant of the game, I have a few simple suggestions:
1. Go back to basics. Way back. I mean, back to where the game came from. Go back to Scotland, and design courses the way they did then. Take a piece of likely ground. Plant some grass native to the area. Cut some of it short and make a green. Put a hole in it.
2. Build more nine hole layouts instead of those I-95 fairway, $15 million-plus big name designed, “championship” courses.
3. Radically simplify the rules.
4. Change the golf etiquette to make it ok to hit when you get to your ball — no matter who’s away.
5. Get some big golf buffs and major companies to sponsor golf scholarships the way they do football and basketball.
MW: You’ve been able to associate yourself with plenty of successful people — what’s the common denominator among them?
DP: Inner drive.
MW: Given all your successes — how should a person handle failure?
DP: Treat it the way Dylan Thomas suggested, “Do not go gentle into that good, goodnight.”
MW: You’ve been in the communications business much of your life — what’s the key in being able to communicate effectively?
DP: There are really only two keys. First, select to whom you’re going to talk and try to understand their point of view. When you know that, you will have an idea of how to approach them. Second, remember what Marshall McLuhan said: “The medium is the message.” Which means if you want to reach the younger crowd — get familiar with Snapchat and Facebook.
MW: You can change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
DP: Mandate golf ball manufacturers to make balls with lower compression, which cannot be hit more than 250 yards by the strongest players. Mandate golf club manufacturers to make clubs from wedge to driver that conform to the 250 yard drive axiom.
MW: Best advice ever received — what was it and who from?
DP: Make believe you’re swinging to a waltz, the way Bobby Jones did. Told to me by my father, Dr. Colquitt Pearson, a 9 handicap, who saw Jones play when they were students at Emory University.
MW: You’ve got one course to play — which one is it and who are the three other people joining you in your foursome?
DP: Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic. In the foursome with me are my son Christopher, P. B. Dye, and in a golf cart heckling us, Pete and Alice.
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* David’s book is available on Amazon.comWHAT'S YOUR REACTION?