R.J. Harper was the classy, upbeat gatekeeper at America’s most storied course. You cannot convey the spirit and emotion of golf in this country without Pebble Beach, and you cannot convey the spirit and emotion of Pebble Beach without R.J. Harper.
Harper died Nov. 8 of pancreatic cancer, at age 61. His passing was not unexpected, given his 14-month tussle with this ruthless disease. Even so, the news was jarring, a tad surreal and overwhelmingly sad.
But when family and friends convene today on the 18th lawn at Pebble Beach for a celebration of Harper’s life, they no doubt will remember his positive impact on the game and the world. There will be much to contemplate, starting with his perpetually sunny demeanor.
“R.J. was always smiling, always had a twinkle in his eyes – and it was genuine,” said Steve John, chief executive officer of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“He would ask about your family, and he would really listen to your answer. It took extra effort, but that was R.J.”
John is right about this. Harper could have found his spot on some sort of isolated power perch; he was the highest-ranking golf executive at Pebble Beach, after all. He worked with Arnold Palmer, mingled with Clint Eastwood, cavorted with all manner of sporting heroes, rock stars and Hollywood celebrities.
Still, every time I had even a small question about Pebble and e-mailed Harper, he responded promptly. When we crossed paths a couple of times a year, usually at the AT&T Pro-Am, he always greeted me with a smile and exuberant handshake, as if we were long-lost friends.
And, inevitably, we spent as much time talking about our sons’ basketball exploits as we did about golf.
Here’s the thing about R.J.: he truly appreciated his position in the golf galaxy. He grew up of modest means in Memphis, Tenn., started at Pebble as a marshal, earning $5 per hour, and eventually became the company’s executive vice president of golf and retail.
Along the way, he never lost his child-like innocence. He idolized Palmer as a kid and often spoke of his good fortune in joining forces with The King to carefully make course changes at Pebble. Harper once returned my call moments after surveying the links with Palmer, and he talked of the experience as if he were a wide-eyed 12-year-old.
“He revered Arnold,” John said. “Ironically, Arnold passed away the same day that R.J. was diagnosed [Sept. 25, 2016]. I got a call with the news of his diagnosis, and it wasn’t more than a half-hour before Arnold passed. …
“Those two were very similar in some ways. Everybody respected Arnold, and it was the same for R.J.”
John routinely worked with Harper on issues related to the AT&T and First Tee Open, a PGA Tour Champions event held annually at Pebble Beach. They usually were contract matters, the kinds of things on which Harper could have used his power and prestige to his benefit. But he remained acutely aware of the bigger picture, and the value that those tournaments brought to the larger golf world.
“He understood what it meant to be part of a team,” John said. “He easily could have said, ‘Steve, I can’t do that.’ But he always made it work for both of us. I never left there feeling he wasn’t working for me as well as Pebble Beach.”
That’s not a bad legacy, all in all: a Pebble power broker who saw the world beyond and treated people with dignity and respect.
Well played, R.J.
Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ronkroichick