It was a glorious October Saturday in L.A. when oil trader Rob Keating decided, on a whim, to play Pebble Beach. He called up the clubhouse. Any chance, he asked, that I could get on the course today?
A few years before, such a call might have been absurd. The waiting list for Pebble Beach tee times was a legendary eighteen months, assuming one had ponied up for a night's stay at the Lodge. Greens fees, in other words, were essentially a grand for a round of golf that you might never live to see.
That was then; this is now. Five hours after Keating's call he was standing on Pebble's first tee.
The state of America's economy has provided many benefits to the traveling golfer, perhaps the greatest being that the game's marquee courses are now far more accessible than ever before. Like a lineup of homecoming queens who find themselves without dates, they're suddenly eager for attention. All of which makes this the optimal time for a pilgrimage to a mecca like Monterey. Its handful of storied public-access courses are there for the taking. The hidden gems—and they are legion—are less packed with frustrated overflow. And the resort courses of nearby Carmel Valley are open and pristine.
During a recent stretch of eight rounds on the peninsula, only once did I encounter a backup on a tee. Add to this languor the otherworldly aesthetics of Monterey golf: the crashing surf and romantic fog, the barking seals and panoply of wildlife. Then nestle it all amid the bucolic, postcard-perfect towns of Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove. Rarely has economic uncertainty made for such a lovely time.
As far as Monterey is concerned, the golf course building boom of the nineties might as well have never occurred. In the past thirteen years, not a single new public course was built on the peninsula. Then again, no more were truly needed. As perhaps the first great golf destination in America's history, Monterey has had a century to compile an array of oceanfront legends, resort stunners and solid municipal tracks. And recent across-the-board improvements at each have brought them all up to snuff.
PEBBLE BEACH GOLF LINKS
1700 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 831-647-7500, pebblebeach.com. Yardage: 6,737. Par: 72. Slope: 142. Architects: Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, 1919; renovated by H. Chandler Egan, 1928. Greens Fee: $380. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
In years past, Pebble could rightly be accused of coasting on mere majesty alone. The divine vistas, champagne-like air and joyful choruses of barking seals were good. The often spotty conditions, bumpy greens and six-hour rounds?Not so good. All of this changed in 1999, when local heroes Clint Eastwood, Peter Ueberroth, Arnold Palmer and Richard Ferris purchased the Pebble Beach Company. And indeed, my latest round revealed a course benefiting from their guidance (and their cold hard cash). Pace of play was downright brisk; we got around in four hours and fifteen minutes, despite actor Kevin James duck-hooking a drive into our foursome. Fairways and bunkers were splendid and firm. The new seventy-foot-tall cypress guarding the eighteenth green has returned the finishing strategy to an otherwise flawless hole. And the addition of the new cliffside par-three fifth by Nicklaus in 1998 has made the oceanside stretch from four through ten seamless and nonpareil. There is now, in other words, nothing to distract from a layout so stunningly gorgeous that its mere existence proves God is a golfer.
Spyglass Hill Road, Pebble Beach; 831-647-7500, pebblebeach.com. Yardage: 6,862. Par: 72. Slope: 148. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1966. Greens Fee: $265. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
By now, we're all familiar with Nicklaus's contention that if he had one last round to play, he would play it at Pebble. A surprising number of locals, however, call Spyglass the course they're dying to play—and would play if they were dying. Some cite as proof the layout's opening five holes, a links-like collection whose aesthetics play Pebble to a draw. The revered par-four fourth defines this stretch, with an amoeba of a green, flanked by ice plant-covered mounds, that is approachable after only the most thoughtful drive. But from the sixth on, the character of the holes dramatically changes as the routing turns inland and upward through the Del Monte Forest. These thirteen are often brutish, like the all-uphill eighth, a par four requiring a softly landing long-iron draw to an elevated green guarded on the right by a surly long-faced bunker. Every hole here demands golf shots—nothing but golf shots.
BAYONET GOLF COURSE
1 McClure Way, Seaside; 831-899-7271, bayonetblackhorse.com. Yardage: 7,117. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Architects: Gen. Bob McClure with Ken Venturi, 1954. Greens Fees: $70-$97. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
The military is great for many things—fighting Middle Eastern despots comes readily to mind—but designing world-class golf courses isn't usually one of them. Bayonet is an exception. It's so good the AT&T considered adding it to its rotation, and the PGA Tour still discusses making it part of a TPC. Credit for this and for its defining characteristic is owed to designer Gen. Bob McClure. Legend has it that McClure, a left-hander with a vicious slice, routed many Bayonet holes to the flight of his ball. Thus the most challenging stretch here, from eleven through fifteen, is distinguished by three blind, brawny dogleg lefts. Known as "Combat Corner," these holes also feature the long sweeping tree-lined fairways and the slippery greens that have endeared Bayonet to the public since it was opened to all in 1994, then lovingly renovated in 1997 with the aid of the PGA Tour. Local tip: Owing to the slope of the land, those greens all break toward Santa Cruz—which is great so long as you know where Santa Cruz is.
BLACK HORSE GOLF COURSE
1 McClure Way, Seaside; 831-899-7271, bayonetblackhorse.com. Yardage: 7,009. Par: 72. Slope: 137. Architects: Gen. Edwin Carnes and Gen. Bob McClure, 1964. Greens Fees: $70-$97. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
If Bayonet is the WW II of the peninsula, Black Horse is the Korean War. Not quite as long. Not quite as legendary. But still a damn hard fight. McClure was merely a consultant on this design, perhaps explaining the relative dearth of dogleg lefts. The hillier of the two layouts, with ocean views that surpass its sister course, it boasts burly oaks, cypresses and pines that guard the fairways like sentries, and an arsenal of elevated greens. Black Horse, like Bayonet, has hosted stages one and two of PGA Q-school. And in 1998 it received its own PGA Tour-sanctioned makeover, a renovation that lengthened and toughened it but unfortunately did little to improve a collection of par threes too mediocre to pass muster. Were it not for those, Black Horse might indeed match Bayonet in the battle for the hearts and minds of golfers.
POPPY HILLS GOLF COURSE
3200 Lopez Road, Pebble Beach; 831-625-2154, poppyhillsgolf.com. Yardage: 6,833. Par: 72. Slope: 144. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1986. Greens Fees: $50-$160. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Perhaps it was built on a sacred Indian burial ground. Or maybe the land harbors a mysterious magnetic anomaly. Whatever the cause, playing Poppy is a uniquely unsettling experience. The sidehill lies, the sweeping doglegs, the tightly wooded fairways, the severely sloped greens—they all combine to create the sensation of golfing in a log cabin with badly warped floors. It's a testament to the strength of Jones's work here that, despite this unbalancing act, highly skilled golfers in search of a challenge keep coming back for more. The pristine greens, the finest we encountered in the area, and the course's overall splendid condition surely help. Still, spin around three times and hit a three-iron; if you don't hit it flush, don't make this tee time.