May the Golf Be With You: How Star Wars Paid for Pebble Beach

December 17, 2015

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — actually, it was California — one of golf’s most iconic properties acquired a new owner. This set into motion the only story I’ll ever write that features Herbert Warren Wind, Lanny Wadkins and Chewbacca in the same sentence.

The year was 1977 and on March 30, the Del Monte Properties Company reincorporated as Pebble Beach Corporation and found itself listed on the American Stock Exchange. It had been eight years since the death of Del Monte Properties founder and visionary Samuel F. B. Morse and things turned chaotic after his passing.

Pebble Beach had always enjoyed public access and it remained so after Morse’s death, but post-Morse changes were not for the better. As Herbert Warren Wind wrote in The New Yorker, “Under the new management, the role of Pebble Beach was altered. It was regarded primarily as a source of income. The cost of a greens fee rose sharply, as did the cost of renting a golf cart. The golf course was also looked upon as a principal attraction for luring visitors to the Del Monte Lodge — which, inevitably, was renamed the Lodge at Pebble Beach — and for selling lots on the peninsula.”

There were years in the 1970s when 56,000 golfers battered Pebble Beach, tromping around at nine-minute tee time intervals and taking six hours to play. The course couldn’t withstand the pounding.

Morse’s dream was to host a U.S. Open, which Pebble did in 1972, three years after his death. In August 1977, Pebble Beach followed up with the PGA Championship, which saw the first sudden-death playoff in major championship history, when Lanny Wadkins downed Gene Littler.

During that same time in the summer of 1977, America’s Number One movie was Star Wars, already well on its way to breaking all-time box office records. Featuring a cast of little-known actors, the science-fiction film merged a bit of romance, a bit of comedy, a bit of fantasy and a ton of special effects into an unprecedented success. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo became household names. Darth Vader redefined evil for a generation. By summer’s end, even adults could spell Obi-Wan Kenobi. Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO entered the vernacular. “May the Force be with you,” replaced “Take it Easy” as a substitute for “goodbye and good luck.”

Star Wars raked in $307 million in domestic gross in 1977, breaking the 1975 record set by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It earned $775 million worldwide. Film studio Twentieth Century-Fox hauled in 60 percent of the proceeds and creator and director George Lucas took home 40 percent. It earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning six Oscars in all. Flush with cash in 1978, Twentieth Century-Fox went looking for investments.

Samuel Morse’s widow (and Pebble’s largest stockholder), Mrs. Milton Coburn passed away on December 31, 1977. Prior to her death, she was displeased with the direction the company had headed and that included the public stock listing. Somehow, the company had remained very profitable, between its resort business, its national mining operations (that had started with their sand plant at Spanish Bay, which shut down in 1973) and its real estate offerings. Yet, experts recognized that Pebble Beach had been underperforming on the stock front, given its steady profits and stellar holdings that included approximately 3,800 acres of undeveloped land.

According to Pebble Beach Golf Links: The Official History, by Neil Hotelling, Pebble stock had been trading at $10 per share in 1976 and $15 per share in the summer of 1977. By the time interested suitors such as Marriott, United Airlines and Twentieth Century-Fox came calling, the price had climbed to $33 ¾ on August 23, 1978 before trading was suspended the next day. Days later, Twentieth Century-Fox took some of the colossal profits from Star Wars and purchased Pebble Beach. The deal was finalized in May 1979 for $42.50 per share, making the total cost to acquire Pebble Beach Corporation $81.5 million.

Not long after, Denver oilman Marvin Davis entered the picture, and so did the Inn and Links at Spanish Bay, as well as Minuro Isutani of giant Japanese conglomerate Cosmo World and Arnold Palmer. Those are stories for another time. When Star Wars is involved, sequels can’t be far behind.