Santa Barbara’s Unknown Golf Course

The first golf course in Santa Barbara was laid out in 1895 by the Santa Barbara Country Club, established on Channel Drive in 1894, becoming the second country club in California. Joel Adams Fithian, whose fortune derived from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, built a clubhouse and tennis court, and leased land from the Montecito Land Company to create the nine-hole course.

Today, it is called the Montecito Country Club, and it has moved twice during its 104-year history. In 1908, it moved to the site of the present-day Music Academy of the West, and for the past 83 years, the course has covered the slope of hills north of the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. The fourth clubhouse, the 1918 Bertram Goodhue-designed structure with its 1921 George Washington Smith modifications, though much altered, still rises above the greens.

The Third and Fourth Golf Courses

The third golf course in Santa Barbara, the Potter Country Club, was laid out in Hope Ranch by hotel developer Milo Potter in 1908. Besides a clubhouse, polo field, racetrack, and tennis courts, Potter created a nine-hole, unwatered golf course with fairways of natural meadowland and oiled sand greens. Caddies smoothed the “greens” with swatches of carpet. The course was bounded on the north by today’s Via Presada, on the east and south by Las Palmas, and on the west by Via Tranquila. The clubhouse stood at today’s 800 Carosam Road.

Potter’s links lay on land leased from the Pacific Improvement Company, a large holding company affiliated with the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had purchased 20,000 acres from Thomas Hope’s widow in 1887. They originally planned to build a luxury hotel similar to the Del Monte in Monterey, but a change of policy in 1899 caused them to abandon such plans. Between 1900 and 1904, they divided the land into villa-sized lots, piped water from streams and tunnels in the mountain wall, and built a reservoir.

Water and Potter’s recreational improvements didn’t help them sell lots, however. Despite a massive advertising campaign in 1908, not one lot sold. Potter’s course, which had opened to much fanfare, fizzled in August 1913 when the lease expired. Through the efforts of H.G. Chase, the La Cumbre Country Club was organized between 1914 and 1916, and it leased the old Potter Clubhouse and links for a while after the lease of the Arlington Country Club, which had taken over from the Potter, was terminated.

In March 1916, the La Cumbre Golf and Country Club was offered the McNulty tract of 120 acres east of Las Palmas Road for $40,000. (The deed was transferred in 1919.) On January 5, 1917, the Morning Press announced that La Cumbre Golf and Country Club was in excellent condition and intended to open two new holes. That Saturday, a dinner was to be held at the clubhouse (the old Potter clubhouse). Near the end of 1917, La Cumbre Golf and Country Club completed its new clubhouse and held an official opening on January 1, 1918 with an afternoon “tea dansant.” The new site included an 18-hole course, making it the fourth golf course in Santa Barbara. Later, the new clubhouse burned to the ground, and George Washington Smith was hired to design a clubhouse, which was completed in 1927. Though it too has been much modified, Smith’s clubhouse continues to serve La Cumbre’s members today.

The Second Golf Course in Santa Barbara

The second golf links in Santa Barbara was created by owners of the Arlington Hotel in 1900. Bordered by Padre, State, Santa Barbara and Constance streets, the course boasted no clubhouse and lasted only a few years. In 1901, the Daily News reported, “The Country Club and Arlington courses are really fine places for playing the game. The Arlington course may be reached…easily; the street cars run right to it.”

To promote the two courses in Santa Barbara, city boosters brought Willie Smith, winner of the 1899 U.S. Open, and David Bell, another upcoming professional, to Santa Barbara in January 1901. The purpose of their sponsored visit was to popularize golf, advertise the local links, and teach local players. They spent a week and drew huge crowds that were cautioned not to interfere or take photos.

Willie Smith was a native of Carnoustie, Scotland, where golf has supposedly been played since 1527. Such an illustrious heritage did not prevent the lad and his two golfing brothers Alex and McDonald from crossing the pond to greener fairways. When Willie Smith won the fifth U.S. Open in 1899 by a margin of 11, he set a record that wasn’t bettered until Tiger Woods won the 2000 championship by 15 strokes. That same year, Smith also won the first Western Open in a playoff against Laurie Auchterlonie. Altogether Smith played in nine U.S. Opens and in 1904 moved south of the border to become the pro at the Mexico City Country Club.

David Bell was also a pond jumper from Scotland. He placed third in the 1900 U.S. Open and second in the 1901 Western Open at Midolotian Country Club near Chicago where he lost to Laurie Auchterlonie.

Promotional Matches

Daily News headlines for January 22, 1901 screamed, “Magnificent Golf Set Audience Cheering.” The report read: “Few people in Santa Barbara ever saw better golf played anywhere than was to be seen on the Arlington course yesterday afternoon. Smith and Bell, the eastern cracks, were over the course for the 18 holes and the crowd following them were simply carried away with the play.”

The details, however, show the two pros, neither of whom had previously walked the course, encountering some difficulties. At tee-off, Smith’s ball sailed 110 yards to land on the other side of a fence. Bell drove successfully over a bad barranca, but both “cracks” earned sixes for the first hole. To reach the fourth hole, the ball had to cross a deep ravine and go up a long hill. Smith and Bell drove 175 and 200 yards respectively but .63 inches of rain the previous day left the ground heavy and balls didn’t roll.

On the second round of the nine-hole course, Smith caught fire and “did the best work he has done in the West and applause followed almost every stroke.” Bell was having a bad round. When his second ball landed in a hole just off the edge of the green, he dug it out “with a powerful mashie stroke but was rattled by the ill luck and could do no better than five by the hole.”

On the second hole, a corking mashie shot took him past the green and under a fence. In playing it back, he struck the fence; eventually, he scored a six on the hole. At the seventh hole, Bell shot into a barranca and did not play out the hole.

The next day, Smith and Bell played against the local golf pro, Professor Robertson. On Thursday, they played against “local lights” at the Santa Barbara Country Club. RB Fithian, local realtor and part owner of the Club, and Captain J.L. Armit, a winter resident from Colorado Springs, took on Willie Smith. Frederick Hamsh and S.W. Stillwell played against David Bell. Smith emerged victorious, winning $50, the same amount he won for winning the U.S. Open. Bell won $25.

On Friday, play returned to the Arlington Golf Course, and Bell teamed up with Hamsh, They scored 93 and beat Smith and Stillwell and Reddington and Wilshire. Mission accomplished; with golf-mania instilled in the local populace, the pros took the next train south to Riverside for yet another exhibition. It had been such a successful event that in February, the Daily News was able to report, “The popularity of the golf course is growing. Yesterday the links were crowded all day long.”

The Arlington course faded from view by 1904. When the Arlington Hotel burned in 1909 and the new mission-style Arlington arose from the ashes, a small course was laid out for a time in the former vegetable gardens on the lot just east of the hotel. Sometime between 1914 and 1916, the Arlington held the lease on the old Potter Course, but the second golf course in Santa Barbara was not destined to make it into the 21st century.

(Sources: contemporary news articles, city directories, Stella Haverland Rouse articles, golf websites, PIC files at Stanford, Harold Chase files at UCSB)