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Golf's Bogeyman

Meet David Dilworth, the crusading golf course hater who helped ruin Clint Eastwood's day and turn the manicured Monterey Peninsula into an environmental cause celebre

August 19, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times staff writer Paul Lieberman, a competitive golfer for 43 years, has a five handicap.

We are passing the most spectacular stretch of 17-Mile Drive, where the waves crash on Seal Rock and the seals loll on Bird Rock, when David Dilworth brings up the man who died after licking his golf ball, or some such thing.

Dilworth has not been having the best of days in his bid to convince a golf lover--me--that we are treading on habitat so endangered that it's time to stop building new courses here. His impromptu tour could not be expected to turn up any of those famous and elusive California red-legged frogs, but we've found no pools of water either in what are supposed to be wetlands. And we're not even sure we're seeing any rare Yadon's piperia orchids amid the towering Monterey pines. Except for those trees, he's basically been whiffing, in the parlance of the game, in his bid to demonstrate the environmental hazards that he and like-minded souls are hoping will block the course being proposed by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer and their partners in the Pebble Beach Co.

So he finally mentions the late George Prior, the 30-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant who in 1982 played for three straight days at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., and developed headaches, nausea and a rash across his stomach before his organs failed. "His golf ball," says Dilworth, "was covered with pesticides. And that's sort of symbolic of the hidden harms of golf--it was invisible to him and it killed him."

There are many other golf haters in the world, of course. Dilworth just happens to be one in the place aficionados consider their mecca, the Monterey Peninsula, whose waterside courses include two of the top-rated ones in the country, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point. If the Pebble Beach Co. has its way, 18 more holes soon will be added.

A computer software developer-turned-full-time environmental activist, Dilworth has been fighting that prospect since 1992, when a Japanese group had the land, and now with its American celebrity ownership led by Eastwood, Palmer and Peter Ueberroth. When we first met in December 2004--and he offered a tour--he already had filed a 990-page objection to the county's environmental impact report, and soon after would go to court when the local county commission, as expected, sided with Pebble Beach Co. He also was readying his forces, and a Mark Twain impersonator, for the most crucial confrontation, before the California Coastal Commission.

"I don't hate golf," he insists. "I don't like golf courses."

So I give him the test, questions about whether he views caddies as exploited and about astronaut Alan Shepard's golf shot on the moon. That's when he tells me about "GAGM," as in "gag 'em," the Global Anti-Golf Movement.

"Yeah, you're a golf hater," I say, though, in the back of my mind, I can't help thinking that, given enough time, I might save him from his golf-hating ways.


You know 'em when you see 'em. They're the ones who "Amen!" comedian George Carlin's rants about golf as "an arrogant, elitist . . . meaningless, mindless . . . boring game" and about turning golf courses over to the homeless. Their hatred is visceral for all that senseless chasing of a silly white ball by, as Carlin calls us, "dorks in hats and checkered pants."

The enmity grows exponentially when you add environmental zeal. I once was at a conference of wildlife filmmakers in the Tetons that included a reception at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. As we peered out at the first hole and the snow-capped mountains, one of the filmmakers went into a rage. "Do you know what I see out there?" he said. "I see poisonous fertilizer seeping into the water, I see animal passageways obliterated, I see . . . "

"You know what I see?" I said when he was done. "A three-wood off the tee, then a soft nine-iron to the green."

The bystanders had to separate me and that hater, who could not fathom that I might get as much pleasure on this manicured landscape as he does in the untamed wilderness. At play was an ideological divide over the varying meanings of "green," the rightful perks of wealth and to what degree others should be able to dictate what we can do with our own land.

I was telling this story much later at a course back East when a sympathetic player told me if I really wanted to experience such passions I needed to check out the "grand slam" of golf disputes. "It's got trees, it's got water, it's got plant life--some kind of orchid--and it's got wildlife, if you can call frogs wildlife," the guy said, "and it's got fanatics like you wouldn't believe."

And that's how I first heard of Mr. Dilworth.

I do not exactly lie to him before our first encounter. I simply omit a detail about my presence on the peninsula--that I'm here to play a charity tournament on Pebble and two other courses. I fear he may suspect something, however, when I say I have to be back at the Inn at Spanish Bay by 9 a.m.

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