NCGA Golf

Winter 2018

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I knew it was coming. We all did. Pancreatic cancer spares no one, not even the princes among us. Yet even when I heard RJ Harper had been placed in hospice care, my emotions were muted. Fourteen months after the diagnosis, I was still in denial, refusing to believe that a man with so much life-force could ever be taken from us. But on Nov. 8, Harper died, at the age of 61. Thirteen days later, I attended his cele- bration of life behind the 18th green at Pebble Beach Golf Links, the course where he had presided for more than three decades as a beloved figure who came to embody all that is good at America's greatest course. The ceremony began with hundreds of his former Pebble Beach Co. co-workers gathered at the famous tree in the middle of the 18th fairway. They were led by a bagpiper toward a stage with seating near the green. The mournful notes of the bagpipe, the crashing of the waves, the solemn faces of that army of RJ supporters —well, that was when my tears flowed. RJ was once my boss, when I was a cart boy during my college summers, but he had always been my friend. Funny thing is, everyone in the golf world called him a friend, too. That was the magic of the man. Before his death I talked to a number of people in the game about RJ and their raves offer a glimpse of his impor- tance to a place where he began as a $5-per-hour mar- shal and worked his way up to a senior management position. "He's part of the persona of Pebble, the culture of Pebble and the feel of Pebble because he's always been there and been so visible," said former PGA Tour com- missioner Tim Finchem. "RJ is an institution. He's Mr. Pebble Beach." Hall of Famer Johnny Miller, a resident of Pacific Grove, added, "A guy like RJ could have had any job in golf, but his heart has always been here. It's not a job to him; it's a love affair. So because of that he does the job so well. I've been around this game for a little while and I've never seen anyone who is as good as RJ at making people feel special, feel welcome, making them happy." Saying goodbye to RJ is not the only reason there have been heavy hearts in the Northern California golf community. We lost another adored, charismatic figure in October with the passing of Chris Thomas, at the age of 54. He was the longtime executive director of the local chapter of the PGA of America, and Chris used that position to champion junior golf, the women's game, water conservation and many worthy initiatives. As good as he was at his job, it was the per- sonal connection that made Chris so popular. "He led with a smile," says friend and colleague Frank LaRosa. "You were immediately attracted to this guy because he just had an aura. Chris was a star quarterback in high school; he was the homecoming king; he just had something special about him. That positive, can-do attitude is part of what made him such a good leader. He knew what drove people, what excited people, what fulfilled people, and he found a way to help them succeed, which is why the NCPGA was such a success." Chris did the unheard of: While serving as executive director, he went through the PGA's exhaustive pro- fessional golf management program. That's how deep his commitment was to the organization. Chris de- lighted in friendly money games at El Macero Country Club, and his arrival at the course was always an event. "You heard him before you saw him," says LaRosa. "Hey Danny, how the hell are you? Doc, you got a game? George, you're looking good, did you lose some weight? He had an amazing ability to connect with people." Ultimately, that is the legacy of these two towering individuals. RJ spearheaded the new practice facility at Pebble Beach, and Chris birthed The Langley Pro- Am, the wildly successful fundraising event that pays tribute to former Cypress Point head pro Jim Langley. Each man is responsible for many more accomplish- ments that will live on, but that's not really what matters. They were good people, with big hearts. They touched a lot of lives, and every day they made the world a little bit of a better place. For all of us who are feeling melan- choly about the void left behind, RJ offered some wise words, as always. Before his death, he said to me, "Why would anyone feel sorry for me? I've spent the last 32 years in the greatest place in the world, doing what I love. I've had a helluva life." So did Chris. They will both be missed, dearly. Alan Shipnuck is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His introduction to golf came as a cart boy at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He lives in Carmel. 18 WINTER 2018 | NCGA.ORG O N T H E B E A T Remembering Two Princes Among Us BY ALAN SHIPNUCK

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