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Two Tall Tales

One of the world’s most powerful clubs. One of MacKenzie’s gems. Where fact ends and myth begins in the redwood forest
Two Tall Tales. Photo by Kohjiro Kinno

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Every family has a Sean Tully. Or should have one if it doesn’t already.

Tully is superintendent of the Meadow Club in Fairfax, California, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco. That means he’s steward of the first American golf course designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the prolific Scottish architect who’s most famous for his work on Augusta National.

Tully is crazy about MacKenzie. He’s one of seven men in the world to have contributed to the most comprehensive historical document regarding the famous architect. These seven men are responsible for the Dr. Alister MacKenzie Chronology. The last edition, the 19th revision, was released in November 2016. You can find it online. It’s an exhaustive PDF that now runs to 195 pages and yet somehow remains fascinating. It began as a response to the fact that, as the chronologists note, “For a man who achieved such a rich and productive career, surprisingly few primary source documents are known to researchers. Some have been lost to fire, some to time.” Tully and his compatriots have spent countless hours trying to ensure that MacKenzie’s history is found and preserved. And their efforts have been rewarded in the richest possible ways.

Like when one of them discovered a note MacKenzie had written to his father in 1901. MacKenzie was serving as a surgeon in South Africa with the 4th Somerset Light Infantry during the Boer War. He was riding on horseback on a beach when he saw a man struggling in the chop. MacKenzie pulled his horse out into the water, only to be flipped, along with his animal, by a powerful wave. It was a brave yet ultimately vain attempt to save what turned out to be a drowning Spanish sailor. “Heroic Conduct of a Normanton Doctor,” read the headline of the newspaper clipping MacKenzie sent his father along with the letter. It’s a story that would’ve disappeared forever if Tully and others hadn’t tracked it down.

Tully cares deeply about the truth. For this he blames his parents—his mother an amateur historian, his father a former special agent with the FBI. Tully hates it when a few untruths mix with the truth to the point where what’s real can’t be distinguished from what’s been invented. “It’s just funny about the human psyche,” he says. “How we pump up ourselves to feel more special.” Sometimes Tully even feels the need to fact check his own family.

His father? The former FBI agent? He was also a really good golfer. Tully grew up hearing a story about his dad and Jack Nicklaus. A really good story. A story centered on the 1968 Greater Milwaukee Open, which was no average tournament.

The organizers, a few city fathers with deep pockets, wanted to put Milwaukee on the map. So they not only scheduled the inaugural tournament opposite the British Open, but also offered $200,000 in prize money, including $40,000 for first place, making it the second-largest purse in golf history. So large that a 57-year-old Sam Snead finished fourth and made more than in any of the 82 tournaments he’d actually won. It was so much money, in fact, that when a few pros went to cash their checks, they bounced. Those pockets turned out not to be deep enough. But that wasn’t what the Tully family cared about.

The story that the Tullys told was a brilliant piece of family lore. Nevermind that Tully’s dad missed the cut. The fact that he was playing at all was what mattered. He had been the low amateur to qualify. Which wouldn’t have meant much had there not been another famous amateur at the time who didn’t qualify: Jack Nicklaus. The story was perfect in its simplicity: The Time Dad Beat the Greatest Who Ever Lived. And just like lots of perfect stories, it was only a matter of time before someone discovered the facts and screwed it up.

Tully wanted to believe his family. “I really wanted it to be true,” he says. But, being a stickler for the truth, he couldn’t just accept that it was. He had to find out for himself. So roughly 10 years ago, one-seventh of the fact-finding team behind the Dr. Alister MacKenzie Chronology project started poking around at his local library in the microfiche archives of old Milwaukee newspapers. And there he found the giant glaring hole in the Tully family’s favorite story: Jack Nicklaus never qualified for the 1968 Greater Milwaukee Open. He didn’t have to; he was Jack Nicklaus! The tournament was desperate to have him and extended him an invite, which he then declined, preferring, along with Gary Player and Billy Casper, to cross the Atlantic and play one of the season’s four majors instead. Tully’s dad didn’t beat Jack Nicklaus. Because he wasn’t competing against him. End of story. 

Tully wasn’t necessarily surprised that the tale didn’t check out. What did surprise him, however, was what happened over the next decade. 

“My family still tells the same story!” he says. “They just kind of look at me when they tell it, waiting for me to react.” 

*

On a perfect summer Saturday morning, the opening foursome at Northwood Golf Club in Monte Rio, California, is a group of dads whose families rent out the neighboring motel on the same weekend every year. The single trying to sneak ahead of them is a dad himself, escaping the family vacation house for a few hours. The foursome and the single, an expert in water sanitation, are swapping stories about the Russian River, which flows just beyond the boundaries of the course. A news report a few days earlier had warned tourists against taking a dip after a few dogs had been found dead on the river’s banks. The single points out that, as kids, he and his friends used to take their first summer swim in the river and then “we would have the trots for days.” As it was then, so it is now.

Northwood Golf Club is frozen in time in a way that’s more charming than cheesy. In its tiny pro shop is a microwave with a manufacturer’s date of March 1986 stamped on the inside of the door. Superintendent Ed Bales has been here for 38 years. General manager Gaylord Schaap has been here longer. Both men had fathers who worked here too. Both of their fathers held ownership stakes. Now so do Bales and Schaap, and if things work the way they’re hoping they might, their children will one day as well. 

People play Northwood for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the fact that it’s smack in the heart of Sonoma County, miles away from Korbel’s vineyards and any number of other famous wineries. Tourists—whether weekenders from San Francisco or all-weekers from elsewhere—have mobbed the surrounding area, as they do during most of the summer. 

But beyond the lure of convenience are three facts. The first is that the course was designed by MacKenzie, whose stamp on Northwood is obvious the moment you get close to any of its greens. Even if Bales wanted to—and he doesn’t—he couldn’t cut the grass too short. MacKenzie made courses at a time when Stimpmeters often didn’t register double digits. The greens are heavily sloped, which works just fine for Bales. It’s his job to make sure the grass is still around in winter, when the sun barely peeks over the tip of the course’s famous trees. That challenge amounts to “growing grass in a closet,” he says, and the end result is greens that challenge but don’t cheat with a tremendous amount of slope, not speed.

The second fact is that Northwood lies in the heart of a tiny stretch of land that hosts the planet’s largest species of tree, the coast redwood. The course is routed through a grove of second-generation sprouts, trees that came up in the aftermath of the gold rush logging boom that felled all but a fraction of the original old-growth, colossal spires that were old enough to be alive when Christ was in the temple. 

The third fact is the one that will eventually bring us back to Sean Tully, that stickler for truth. Because just across the river from the course is a place called Bohemian Grove. 

Small though they may be compared to their ancestors, the trees at Northwood are still magnificent. They also determine strategy, sometimes forcing players to thread their approach shots through openings roughly the width of an airplane bathroom. Though their trunks might be a fairway apart, their branches often try to connect right about the height of where a decent player might apex an 8-iron. 

Northwood is no perfect course. It has struggled for years to stay profitable. Half a century ago its owners sought to make some money by selling tracts, building roads and doing whatever was necessary to accommodate the new owners of the new houses right next door. Which explains why you can’t hit more than a 6-iron off the tee of the dogleg par-4 fourth—that tee box once stretched 50 yards farther back, before the houses got built. There’s also the matter of its bunkers. When MacKenzie was done, the course had 55 wonderfully natural-looking, high-lipped bunkers in his inimitable style. Today there are 12. The reason? Sand is expensive. A course next to a river will often flood, the water taking those precious grains with it, and it just wasn’t feasible for the owners to keep it up. 

Nevertheless, the trees are what make Northwood. And as long as they’re around, the course will be compelling.

*

On the evening of Jan. 19, 2002, Richard McCaslin launched his attack. Wearing a bulletproof vest, blue fatigues with “Phantom Patriot” spelled out in red letters across his chest, and a rubber skeleton mask, McCaslin snuck into the grove that serves as a summertime playground for members of an upper-crust, all-men’s club, intent on saving lives and possibly even the world. 

McCaslin was armed with a double-barreled shotgun, a 2-foot sword, a .45-caliber pistol, a crossbow, a knife and a handmade bomb launcher. A resident of Carson City, Nevada, he had spent the previous year preparing for the raid after watching a documentary starring a then-unknown radio host named Alex Jones. The documentary had featured hidden-camera footage Jones had taken at Bohemian Grove, the site of McCaslin’s assault. A journalist accompanying Jones said the footage of a ritual complete with hooded figures and a talking owl statue voiced by club member Walter Cronkite was a little creepy but nothing worth worrying about. Jones disagreed. To him it confirmed all of his previously held beliefs about globalist takeovers and world elites running things from secret hideouts. What’s more, he said the ceremony he had managed to document featured actual live human sacrifice, possibly of a small child. McCaslin, a thick-necked former Marine who had spent years dabbling but never fully diving into the world of conspiracy, felt he had reached a point of no return. 

“I was acting on reports that inside the Bohemian Club were incidents of child abuse and human sacrifice,” he later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I felt if physical damage was inflicted upon them and it got enough attention, the American people would rise up.”

McCaslin entered the pitch-black, wooded property expecting what he called “armed resistance.” Instead he became the star of a silent-film comedy. After his flashlight’s batteries died, McCaslin found himself bouncing off trees and tripping over roots. Tired, he broke into a cottage and fell asleep on a cot. The next morning he tried to blow up the large owl statue. But he hadn’t anticipated that the owl would be made of concrete, not wood, and the explosives he brought were too puny. Frustrated, McCaslin set fire to a mess hall instead. There again his efforts at sparking a revolution were thwarted, this time by an automatic sprinkler. When deputies finally arrived and McCaslin realized he was dealing with actual police officers and not the armed guards of some evil secret society, the Phantom Patriot finally gave himself up. 

“We’ve had protesters and stuff,” one of the deputies later told the newspaper, “but I’ve been here 24 years and I’ve never seen—and I don’t think any of us will ever again see—a guy come here dressed like that.”

Article I of the Bohemian Club’s original constitution, drafted in 1872, states that it was created “for the association of gentlemen connected professionally with literature, art, music, the drama, and also those who, by reason of their love or appreciation of these objects, may be deemed eligible.” A few newspapermen, actors and musicians in San Francisco were its founders. They had a small clubhouse in the city. After a few years, they began taking the rails up north to a roughly 160-acre grove that the Sonoma Logging Company had decided not to fell in hopes the massive trees might grow even more so and therefore provide more profit. 

Eventually the members of the Bohemian Club wised up and realized that inviting much wealthier people to join would mean being able to not only camp on but buy the land itself. So they did, and then they did, starting in 1899 when they began making what would become 28 separate purchases over 67 years until they eventually controlled nearly 2,700 acres of forest—what became known as the Grove. 

As the years went by, the Grove got more secretive as its membership became more exclusive. Eisenhower, Nixon (who was once caught on White House tapes describing the Grove as “the faggiest goddamn thing you could imagine”), Kissinger, Bush, Cheney. Some were members, others guests. In between robed figures conducting rituals and constant cocktail hours, important moments in American history played out amongst the trees, like the time when Robert Oppenheimer sketched out the original plans for what would become the Manhattan Project. And that blend of secrecy and exclusivity invited what would later become whispers of conspiracy. 

In 1994, a Ph.D. student at the University of California-Davis named Peter Phillips looked over the intense mix of curiosity and conspiratorial thinking surrounding the Grove and decided to do something about it. His dissertation, “A Relative Advantage: Sociology of the San Francisco Bohemian Club,” is still the most researched, most objective look at what actually happens among the trees for two weeks every summer. And what he found was incredibly mundane.

Phillips talked to more than 200 people, including dozens of members and eight ex-employees, and went to the Grove on two separate occasions. He took a statistical approach to the membership breakdown and found that it truly was home to the powerful: 30 percent of the 800 biggest corporations in America had at least one officer or director as a member. But the Grove was nothing more than a hideaway for people who often felt as if they were under constant scrutiny. “A San Francisco attorney and elected official described to me his feelings about why men join the Bohemian Club,” wrote Phillips. 

“He felt that the Grove is one of the few places where men can go for ritual and bonding experiences. In the Grove something mythical occurs that allows ‘white males (who now feel under siege) to gather and celebrate themselves.’”

Since he wrote his dissertation, Phillips has kept an eye on the Grove, though his research led him to believe it really wasn’t worth paying nearly as much attention to as the thousands of protestors who descended on it annually thought it might be. “There’s nothing sinister going on at all,” he says today. “You’ve got a lot of really rich people. One out of five is someone of major significance, running a major multinational corporation. And then the rest are just ordinary club members who are well off or own a chain of retail stores, or big farmers.”

Of course, a dissertation isn’t even needed to figure all this out. You could simply talk to Northwood general manager Gaylord Schaap’s son, Trevor, who works full-time at the course but, for three weeks out of the year, is an assistant manager at the Grove. “The best way I can describe it,” he says, “is it’s a frat party for old guys.” Most frank talk about the Grove is about a lot of older men getting absolutely soused. When the author of a book on the Grove was asked about the claim that global policy is determined by what happens in the forest, he told a newspaper that “most people are too drunk to remember any policy things let alone make them.” One former employee, when faced with the idea that something nefarious might be happening in the trees every summer, summed up the conspiracy talk thusly: “After working at the Grove, I really do believe that Area 51 is a boring Nevada test site full of nothing.”

All this information, of course, meant little to professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Nor did it mean anything to misguided Richard McCaslin, who spent six years in prison as a result of his failed assault. The truth, as so often happens, is kind of boring. 

Which brings us back to Sean Tully. He knows Bales and Schaap and the rest of the crew at Northwood well. He likes them all, and wants nothing but the best for them. But he can’t help but get a little frustrated by what he sees as a general looseness with the truth, just like what happened inside his own family.

According to Northwood history, the course wouldn’t exist without Bohemian Grove. The story goes like this: Pebble Beach Golf Links co-designer Jack Neville was a Grove member and friend of MacKenzie. He’s the one who convinced the great Scotsman, at the behest of the club, to come to the redwoods and build a course for the membership. This is the story repeated on the Northwood website. It’s the story repeated by the Russian River Historical Society. It’s the story that sells, because it ties what is already a reputable course due to its designer to the broader, more interesting history of Bohemian Grove. And, according to professional buzzkill Sean Tully, it is thus far completely bunk.

“Myself and another researcher have gone through Bohemian Grove’s entire library,” he says. “We could find nothing that indicates the club was involved in building the course.”

Just like with his dad’s story about besting Jack Nicklaus, Tully wants to believe. The Northwood folk are his friends. MacKenzie really did design the course. And it would seem possible, maybe even logical, that a powerful all-men’s club in the middle of nowhere might have some interest in seeing a little golf course get built just across the river where Eisenhower and Nixon supposedly first met in person, while taking a dip. The problem with the Bohemian Grove story, though, is the same problem Tully had with his dad’s story: The facts just don’t back up the conclusion.

If it were up to Tully, Bohemian Grove wouldn’t matter. MacKenzie was a fascinating character, one of the most fascinating in golf history. That he was there, that he built the course, should be enough. In fact, it should be, Tully believes, what Northwood focuses on instead. Bring back the missing 33 bunkers. Bring back whatever else marked the course as MacKenzie’s nearly 100 years ago. Forget about the stuff that can’t be proven. Tully thinks people gild the lily because they think it makes the flower look even prettier. But he also thinks it blinds them too. Juicing these stories when we don’t really need to, he believes, means “we start to lose our true sense of self.”

No one can accuse Bales or Schaap of downplaying the association with one of golf’s greatest course architects. They feature MacKenzie’s name prominently, as they should. The course is true to itself. It’s just that there are people like Tully, who are preoccupied with getting at the real truth, who think it should be a little truer.