Al Geiberger is clearly the best golfer in Sacramento history. A major championship victory among 21 PGA Tour and Champions Tour wins – and a Land Park upbringing – leaves no doubt. After that, identifying and ranking Sacramento’s best-ever golfers gets tougher.
“Best” leaves room for interpretation when considering men and women whose circumstances varied wildly over nearly a century. The list is not necessarily in order of most accomplished, although it’s hard to deny that a player is who his/her scorecard most often says he/she is.
How does brilliance over a short period rate against consistency at a high level for a long time? At what level did they compete, and how did they perform when the stakes were highest? Relevant questions, all of them.
“Verne Callison said he would be a 5 handicap if not for tournament golf,” said Bill Rider, a local golf historian of sorts, of our list’s No. 2 golfer. Callison won two United States Golf Association titles and the California State Fair Amateur a record seven times when those events had greater importance than they do today and before it made financial sense for most to pursue pro golf.
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Top-level tour pros, as the story goes, used to stop behind Arinno as he hit balls on the driving range, marveling at his fluid swing during his brief forays to the PGA and Champions tours.
Ray Arinno and Steve Taylor are examples of players who were particularly difficult to rank.
Arinno was a local teenage sensation who’s still shooting in the 60s at age 68. Top-level tour pros, as the story goes, used to stop behind Arinno as he hit balls on the driving range, marveling at his fluid swing during his brief forays to the PGA and Champions tours. Yet he had just one top-10 finish in 40 combined tournaments at golf’s highest levels.
Some locals rate Arinno among the area’s very best ever. Yet others think he wasn’t even the best player in his family, that his older brother Phil, a more decorated amateur, was better.
Taylor, whose swing featured an unorthodox wrist-cocking motion, used to knock heads in the late 1960s and early ’70s with Arinno and other top area players in weekday money games at Arbuckle, Sunset Whitney and El Dorado Hills.
John McGregor, who has played alongside and against everybody who’s anybody over the past four decades in Sacramento, recalls a day when Taylor took on him and two other scratch players, his ball against their best ball, at Sunset Whitney.
“He shot a 27 with two eagles on the front side,” McGregor said. “He was so good for a time that he had a hard time getting a fair bet.”
Taylor had a brief run on the PGA Tour, finishing second in the 1977 Southern Open before trading in his clubs for job security as a correctional officer at Folsom Prison.
Adding to the list’s puzzle is the question of geography. Are they, or were they for a significant period, “one of us?” A few deserving players didn’t make the cut.
Geiberger lived in Land Park, where he learned to play, from age 5 to 15. There’s a generation that thinks of him as much a part of Sacramento as the American River. Bob Lunn, Bob E. Smith and Scott McCarron didn’t grow up here and no longer live here, but each called the area home for more than a decade during their competitive heyday. They’re in.
A committee of longtime observers of the local golf scene helped with the rankings. Only playing ability was considered; off-the-course impact had no bearing. For those who like the list, give Dave Bingham, Peggy Dodds, Ken Morton Sr., Rider and McGregor credit. For those who don’t, talk among yourselves.
With the U.S. Senior Open and some of the best golfers of all time coming to town in less than two weeks, here is one attempt at ranking the best from our backyard.
1. Al Geiberger, age 77: Won a combined 21 times on PGA and Champions tours, including one major (1966 PGA); twice finished second in U.S. Open; best known for shooting 13-under-par 59 in 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic as first player to break 60 on PGA Tour; won 1955 State Fair.
2. Verne Callison, 1918-93: Two-time U.S. Amateur Public Links winner (1960, 1967); won State Fair seven times between 1943 and 1960; won two California State Amateurs, three Northern California Golf Association match-play titles and San Francisco City.
Says McGregor: “He was an old-style player who played position and liked keeping the ball on the ground. He tried to get all of us to do that, but we didn’t have the skill.”
Says Morton: “He was Seve-like in his scrambling ability. You would be all square through five holes, and he hadn’t hit the ball on the clubface. And you knew you were in trouble.”
3. Bob Lunn, 70: Six-time PGA Tour winner between 1968 and 1972; won 1963 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Haggin Oaks; on cover of Sports Illustrated in 1969; lived in Sacramento from 1964 to 1987; nicknamed “The Tomato Juice Kid” for local ties.
Says Morton: “The bell would ring for a tournament, and he would improve by four shots.”
4. Alice Miller, 59: Won eight times on LPGA Tour (seven between 1983 and 1986 including one major, 1985 Nabisco Dinah Shore); owns LPGA record for fastest round (1 hour, 26 minutes, 44 seconds); born and raised in Marysville.
5. Nick Watney, 34: Has won five times on PGA Tour, once on what is now Web.com Tour, once on Asian Tour and once on Canadian Tour; reached top 10 in World Golf Ranking in 2011; born in Sacramento, grew up in Dixon and graduated from Davis High School.
6. Frank Toronto, 1914-2009: Two-time State Fair winner and five-time runner-up (three times to Callison) between 1936 and 1958; won seven club championships, five Sacramento City titles and San Francisco City; set 13 course records.
Says Morton: “His goal was to be the club champion at every course three times and then it was time for someone else. I think anyone who played with him would say he’s the greatest putter they’d ever seen.”
7. Kevin Sutherland, 50: Won 2002 World Golf Championship Match Play Championship; was fully exempt on PGA Tour for 16 consecutive seasons; was first player to shoot a 59 on Champions Tour at 2014 Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y.; won 1984 State Fair; in field for this year’s U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso; born, raised and lives in Sacramento.
8. Barbara Romack, 82: Won 1952 North and South Women’s Amateur, 1953 Canadian Women’s Amateur and 1954 U.S Women’s Amateur; in 1955, finished second in British Ladies Amateur; on cover of Sports Illustrated in 1956 for her amateur golf prowess; won LPGA Tour events in 1960 and ’63 in a 20-year pro career; born and raised in Sacramento and a graduate of McClatchy High School.
9. Scott McCarron, 49: Won three times on PGA Tour between 1996 and 2001; born in Sacramento and lived in Rancho Murieta from 1990 to 2003.
10. Carole Jo Whitted, 77: Won four times on LPGA Tour in 1973 and 1974 as Carole Jo Skala; won 1955 U.S. Girls Junior; won Oregon Junior Girls twice and Oregon Women’s Open four times; didn’t turn pro until age 32; has lived in Sacramento for 40-plus years.
11. Bob E. Smith, 72: Two-time Western Amateur champion; two-time Porter Cup champion; California Amateur champion; 1964 State Fair winner; second-ranked American amateur in 1967; spent 15 years on PGA Tour (top 60 on money list 10 times); twice finished second on PGA Tour; seven years on European Tour; Sacramento native who lived here during most of his competitive career; graduate of La Sierra High School and Sacramento State.
12. Natalie Gulbis, 32: Won once on LPGA Tour, in 2007 Evian Masters; has a top 10 in every women’s major; was sixth on LPGA money list in 2005 without a win; has 37 career top 10s; exempt on LPGA Tour since 2002 rookie year; born in Sacramento and graduated from Granite Bay High School.
13. Pat McGowan, 60: Made 393 starts over 15 seasons on PGA Tour with three second-place finishes and 21 top 10s; was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1978; grew up in Colusa and lived there for most of his competitive career.
14. Artie McNickel, 69: Finished second three times in 11 years on PGA Tour; was NCGA Player of the Year in 1971; a Roseville High School graduate who lived in Sacramento for 20 years, through the end of his PGA Tour career in 1983.
15. Spencer Levin, 30: Won California Amateur and Porter Cup; fully exempt for past six PGA Tour seasons, with one playoff loss, two third-place finishes and 14 top 10s; won two NCGA Match Play titles; born in Sacramento and has lived in Elk Grove or Sacramento since.
16. David Sutherland, 49: Made 215 PGA Tour starts in 13 years with one second-place finish and eight top 10s; won once (2001) on what is now Web.com Tour; won Western Amateur.
17. Ray Arinno, 68: Won State Fair three times; had one top-10 finish in 16 PGA Tour events and played in 24 Champions Tour events with five top-25 finishes; lifelong Sacramentan.
18. Steve Taylor, 67: Owned multiple area course records in 1970s; had a brief fling with PGA Tour, finishing second in the 1977 Southern Open; started final round of 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (in which Geiberger shot his 59 and eventually won) in second place before finishing 14th.
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19. Phil Arinno, 70: Won State Fair, Sacramento County and Sacramento City four times each; born in Sacramento and spent much of his life here.
20. Bill Ogden Jr.: Won two State Fairs (1942 and ’49) among myriad local titles.
21. Vic Loustalot, 68: Didn’t lose a high school match while attending McClatchy and Burbank; twice the runner-up in California Amateur; played from 1970 to 1973 on the PGA Tour, his best finish a tie for third in the 1971 Coral Springs Open.
22. Robert Meyer, 54: Two-time NCGA Player of the Year; won 1982 State Fair; won 1980 NCAA team title at BYU, where he was a two-time All-American; holds course records at Auburn Valley (63) and Sierra View (62); competed professionally for 13 years with modest success; long-hitter reputedly first to consistently drive ball over fairway bunker from back tees at Ancil Hoffman’s No. 11; lived in Sacramento for 30-plus years and graduated from Jesuit High School.
23. Brad Bell, 53: Two-time All-American at UCLA; won once (1990) on what is now Web.com Tour; played two seasons on PGA Tour with best finish a tie for 14th in Buick Southern Open; lifelong Sacramentan.
24. Bob Niger, 55: NCGA Player of the Year 2004-05; won 2006 State Fair; qualified for 16 Champions Tour events over past five years with one top-25 finish; has qualified for this year’s U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso; longtime El Dorado Hills resident.
25. Robert Hamilton, 37: Won two State Fairs (2000 and ’01); second in 2001 U.S. Amateur; competed professionally for more than a decade with modest success; holds course records at Coyote Moon (66) and Winchester (63); lifelong Sacramentan.
26. Pat McDonald, 65: Earned fully exempt Champions Tour status in 2003, making $249,604 in 22 events; owns course records at Rocklin and Whitney Oaks (both 61); has lived in Rocklin since 1986.
27. Roly Lamontagne, 75: Won two State Fairs (1966 and ’75); won California Senior Amateur in 2001; lived in Rancho Cordova from 1964 to 1981.
Part of the conversation
Lou Alvarez, Dave Carr, Lynne Cowan, Bud Dufour, Pete Gutierrez, Jamille Jose, Don Levin
Didn’t make the geographical cut
Ricky Barnes, Bob Eastwood, Dick Lotz