This year, Club Campestre in Tijuana is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Also, this week the yearly golf tournament is taking place, which gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about the history of this golf course. Let’s begin by saying that this course has a grand tradition and since its beginnings it had two major phases: the first one took place from 1929 to 1935 and the second one took place from 1950 to 1959.
The golf course was part of the Agua Caliente Touristic Complex, which began operations at the end of the 1920s, specifically in 1929 when it was inaugurated with the name Agua Caliente Country Club. Let us remember that the Complex had many amenities such as the Agua Caliente hotel, the famous Casino, the Golden Lounge, the Racetrack, Greyhound Racing, pools, thermal water spa, airdrome, and the golf course.
All of this was thanks to the vision of 3 North Americans, Wirt G. Bowman -President-, Baron H. Long – Vice President - and James N. Crofton – Secretary -, and it was built in the lands owned by General Abelardo L. Rodríguez. This ambitious project had the support of young architect Wayne McAllister, Louis Sherman (interior decorator), and F. A. Bode, landscape artist.
One has to understand that these investments took place in Tijuana because Prohibition had been enacted in the United States, which forbid betting games and alcoholic beverages. It was valid from 1920 to 1933, and it caused great number of visitors to come to our border city.
Wirt G. Bowman had a career in Nogales, Arizona in both private and public areas. He was a great friend of General Álvaro Obregón and General. Abelardo L. Rodríguez, and they were even partners.
The Agua Caliente Golf Course was designed and built by golf course architect William P. Bell, whose office was located at Avenida Sierra Vista 534, in Pasadena, California. Since its conception, it was designed to hold tournaments. Architect Bell participated in the design and construction of other important golf courses such as: El Caballero (Los Angeles, CA), Palos Verdes (Redondo Beach, CA), Royal Palms (San Pedro, CA), Long Beach Municipal (Long Beach, CA), La Jolla Country Club (San Diego, CA), Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA), Arizona Biltmore, (Phoenix, Arizona), among others.
The golf course was a great attraction for those coming to the Agua Caliente Complex such as distinguished sportsmen and cinema businessmen, but above all Hollywood stars. Celebrities such as Jean Harlow, Sammy O’Neil, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, Bing Crosby, Charles Chaplin, Oliver Hardy (Laurel and Hardy), comedians Bert Wheeler, and Robert Woolsey, among many others, all came here.
Regarding golf, this Scottish sport grew in popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It has always been said that a golf course should have 18 holes, because it is the number of drinks that a bottle of scotch can serve.
It is important to note that the golf course in Tijuana was one of the first ones in the country, although the first one in Mexico was built in 1894. It is called Santa Gertrudis and it is located in Orizaba, Veracruz. A group of Scottish men led by Mr. Percy Clifford designed a course with only 6 holes and then with 9 holes, as it still remains. The second oldest one in Mexico is Club Campestre in Tampico, Tamaulipas, which was founded in 1915; originally it only had 9 holes. In 2008, the 9 additional holes were added on two small islands at Laguna de Chairel, which were made by Tijuana native architect Agustín Pizá.
San Pedro Golf Club located in Mexico City opened its doors in 1900, had strong growth which is why its executives decided to buy a bigger plot of land in Churubusco. In 1906, they inaugurated a golf course with only 15 holes, properly made by professionals: Davy Honeman and Willie Smith. They also changed their name to Mexico Country Club. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, several revolutionary factions liked the land and used it as headquarters, which is why the golf course was partially destroyed. One of its executives, North American Harry Wright ordered partners to retake the facilities and reorganize them once the Revolution was over. In this new era, its name was changed to what is known as today Club Campestre de la Ciudad de México. By the way, Harry Wright was founding president of the Mexican Federation of Golf in 1926, and he remained in this position for 20 years until 1946.
Formally, professional golf was born in the United States in 1916, with the foundation of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA), i.e., 10 years before the Mexican Federation of Golf.
Coming back to Tijuana, one of Wirt Bowman’s tasks was to strongly promote golf at the Agua Caliente Country Club in Tijuana. One of his biggest triumphs was to hire Leo Diegel, one of the best golfers in the world back then. He had 28 victories at the PGA Tour and won 2 National PGA Championships in 1928 and 1929. He was also a 4-time champion of the Canadian Open and had just come back from winning against the famous Walter Hagen.
AGUA CALIENTE OPEN
Once the golf course was finished in 1929, some amateur and charity tournaments took place. On January 14, 15, 16, and 17, 1930, the first organized tournament called Agua Caliente Open took place. The tournament had overall prizes amounting to $25,000 dollars, one of the highest in the world; one year prior, the LA Open had had a prize of $10,000 dollars. The winner was Gene Sarazen, who won $10,000 dollars, one part of which was paid with silver dollars, and it is said that he used a wheelbarrow to carry them.
In the same year of 1930, Bobby Jones was amateur champion at the British and USA USA Tournaments, which won him the Grand Slam. Bobby Jones also played in the Agua Caliente golf course and even won a tournament in 1933. For some reason, Bobby Jones decided to retire from competitions to concentrate in building a golf course in Augusta, Georgia. For this, he was helped by British Alister Mackenzie, a medical surgeon who designed golf courses out of conviction and passion. Mackenzie is known as the creator of several courses in California such as Cypress Point in Monterey, Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, and many others, but the one he is best known for is the Augusta National, where the Masters takes place each year since 1934, the best golf tournament in the world.
The last great tournament that took place in the Agua Caliente course was in 1935, due to the prohibition of betting games in Mexico by the President of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, in July 1935. This caused the Agua Caliente Complex to close its doors, and the same thing happened to the golf course.
GOLF COURSE IN AGUA CALIENTE COUNTRY CLUB
There were so many golf players, all from out of town, that rooms were opened next to the country house at the Agua Caliente golf course. When the facilities of the Agua Caliente Complex were expropriated, Casa Club was made into a Civil Hospital from 1937 to 1947. On September 24, 1950, the President of Mexico, Miguel Alemán Velazco inaugurated Tijuana’s Civil Hospital just across the boulevard, where the Plaza Campestre mall is located.
The founding date of Campestre is September 10, 1948, which is the day when Club Social y Deportivo Campestre de Tijuana, A.C. was legally and formally constituted.
The activities of the Civil Association began when the first members gathered to come to important agreements. Among notable partners there were Miguel Alemán Valdez, Abelardo L. Rodríguez, and Alfonso García González. General Abelardo L. Rodríguez was the great promoter of the Club, who gathered a group of businessmen in Tijuana and ordered them to participate and restore the old Casa Club building and set up the golf course. Both facilities were inaugurated in 1950 and the second phase of the golf course began.
March 30, 1950 is an important date for golfers because the provisional inauguration of the 9-hole golf course took place. Here we see that Club Campestre retakes its role as the golf pioneer in the city.
AT THE GOLF COURSE IN CLUB CAMPESTRE IN TIJUANA
In the next article we will speak about the contemporary history of the golf course, which is undoubtedly one of the best in Mexico.
This article uses information provided by Dra. Araceli Almaraz, collector Arturo Arrizón, and architect Gabriel Gamboa.
Álvaro Montaño Rubio
Author of “Welcome to Tijuana”.