An excellent theory holds that you should have just one thought in mind when you're hitting a golf ball, one soothing precept like "Nice and easy" or "Low and slow." My caddie at Pebble Beach, Ryan, reinforced this idea by staring at me like Svengali and urging me to "think solid" on my irons to the small greens and to "barely brush it" on downhill putts, alarming journeys on which the ball galloped off like a runaway stagecoach.
This monomania worked for me through the first seven holes, which are surprisingly yielding (though on the first tee one of my partners, unnerved to be playing perhaps the world's most famous course in front of 30 waiting golfers, yanked three straight balls onto someone's patio). But on the eighth hole, the real Pebble Beach suddenly smashed the single-thought ideal.
The eighth is the fourth of Pebble's legendary seven water holes — that water being the Pacific — a 431-yard bruiser that Jack Nicklaus has called the best par-four in the world. That's because Jack Nicklaus can play it without succumbing to the screaming fantods. From a cliff beneath a lone cypress, you drive uphill toward a rolling backdrop of Monterey pines and live oaks. Fair enough. But upon arriving at your ball, you realize that your next shot must go across Carmel Bay, to a postage-stamp green 185 yards away. As I took my three iron back I was trying to "think solid." I was actually thinking, "Those cliffs are steep; those waves are loud; look at those otters playing in the kelp; aim left, but not too far left; allow for the wind; I'm going to have to kill it; I'm doomed . . . goddammit."
My ball sailed gorgeously wide toward a white-sand fillet 60 yards beneath me, hit a boulder — terrifying two nearby picnickers — bounced 100 yards into the air, and plunged into the ocean forever. I dropped a new ball, took a deep breath, and foozled it even farther from North America. After this spectacular display of ineptitude, my round fell apart and my companions began edging away, fearing swing contagion.
Still, there's no more glorious place to be playing dreadful golf. You can see why Bill Murray loves doing his Caddyshack routine at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am every spring, and why in the clubhouse's golfing photos Clark Gable and Bing Crosby and Dean Martin look so cavalier, so glad to be there. The Monterey Peninsula is simply Golf Mecca. Many golfers who stay at the Inn at Spanish Bay Lodge or at the Lodge at Pebble Beach take advantage of Pebble Beach's four-night golf package and play all three great courses within the 5,300 acres owned by the Pebble Beach Company. Pebble Beach itself is number one on Golf Digest's list of America's 75 Top Upscale Courses; Spyglass Hill is number three, and the newer Links at Spanish Bay is number 48.
I played Spyglass Hill with three jolly Georgians, Pat, Clark, and Jack, all of us blithely anticipating northern California's toughest layout, the one that sportswriter Jim Murray has called a "300-acre unplayable lie." The first five holes were open, bumpy, windswept, and brutal. After we'd butchered the fourth, a dogleg left with a thimble green hidden amid an Elizabethan collar of ice plants, the joshing waned, and Pat muttered, "Those are some tough-ass holes." The last 13 holes unspool through groves of Monterey pine and are long, punishing, and somehow always uphill. On the absurdly quick and undulant greens our putting strokes gave us the look of men stabbing at a scorpion. Somewhere along the way one of us rolled a downhill putt way off the green (it might have been me) and Pat said, "This is a tough-ass COURSE."
Playing Spanish Bay the next day was a relief, and a genuine pleasure. On these immaculate links you try to run your approach shots up low, under the wind, hoping they aren't knocked awry by the numerous subtle mounds. The signature hole is the par-four fifth, a 459-yard dogleg right that snakes toward the ocean. The fairway is wide, but three cavernous pot bunkers yawn in the middle of it, right where your drive would naturally land. And downhill putts on the slanting green tend to fall off the edge of the world.
Spanish Bay is marginally easier than Pebble and Spyglass, but you'll probably lose even more balls because almost every hole is bounded by "environmental stakes" that mark off preserves of cattail marsh or dunes patrolled by voles and red-winged blackbirds. You get a free drop — indeed, on some holes canny golfers aim purposely for these areas — but the voles keep the ball.
While hiring a caddie is almost a necessity for scoring well at the other two courses, Spanish Bay has the futuristic Pro-Score system, which links carts to global-positioning satellites, keeping you updated on your distance from the green. As the round progresses, the screen grows increasingly chatty, yammering on the par-three 13th, "Severely sloping green; putts toward ocean are extremely quick! Good luck!" At the 18th, Big Brother notes that on opening day in 1987 Tom Watson, one of the course's three designers, shot a 67, then adds, "How did you do?" I had a 67 too, at one point.
In my few non-golfing hours, the Inn at Spanish Bay was a sybaritic retreat. The restaurants are festive, the fitness center top-notch, and the grounds punctiliously landscaped, even if there are signs warning, BLACK BIRD PARENTING CAUTION — PROTECT YOUR HEAD. At dusk, a bagpiper in full regalia walks down Spanish Bay's first fairway, skirling a salute to the day.
Everything is taken care of for you, down to a $17-a-day tipping charge added to your bill. Seventeen dollars is more than I've tipped in the nineties, but then I'm a cheap bastard.
Pebble Beach's golf package has only one problem: it includes just a single round at each layout. It took me two rounds to appreciate the risks and rewards of Spanish Bay. And it wasn't until my second round at Pebble that I felt in tune with the course's demands. I was in the day's final foursome, which included a large fellow who drank a lot of Coors and hit some prodigious drives, and two cheerful Filipinos, Hermie and Peteman. The day was clear and mild, no one was behind us, and we ambled peacefully through the balmy, golden afternoon. My putts kept curling out and Peteman would cluck, "You are licking the lips!"
But my sand shots, usually furtive disasters, were waxing paraboloid. I dunked only one ball in the ocean. And I parred a number of holes, including the hardest one, the 565-yard 14th, where I floated a wedge to five feet. Buoyed by a wave of good golf as the day waned, we came to the legendary par-three 17th, where the pin abuts the ocean and where Tom Watson sank an impossible birdie chip from the tall grass to beat Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open.
I'd earlier spent some time in the Tap Room, Pebble's denlike 19th hole, studying a photo sequence of Watson concentrating, feathering his swing, and exulting. As if destined, I hit a five iron into the same tall grass. I concentrated, feathered my swing — and I too made the chip! And became the U.S. Open champion!
Actually, I chunked my wedge to 15 feet and missed the putt. But I knew I'd nail it next time — Pebble Beach is a license to dream.
A four-night package at the Inn at Spanish Bay costs $1,130 — $1,365 per person, double, and includes transfers; shuttle service to courses; one round each at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and the Links at Spanish Bay; and a welcome gift (which I never received — an outrage my lawyers are looking into). For reservations, call 800/654-9300.
TAD FRIEND is a contributing editor for Vogue and an editor-at-large at New York magazine.