PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. —When the USGA celebrated its 100th U.S. Open in 2000, they chose Pebble Beach Golf Links as the venue. And with Pebble Beach turning 100 in 2019, the USGA will return the favor and bring the nation's championship back.
It's a symbiotic relationship for what many define as the country's greatest public golf day (the first and most regular public U.S. Open host) and most demanding test of tournament golf.
Pebble's mix of beauty, history and accessibility is unmatched. Peruse the USGA's new Roku channel and you can watch past championships at Pebble, like Jack in '72, Watson in '82, and Tiger in 2000. Watching these old broadcasts is illuminating for other reasons, from the hair styles to the alterations in the course design (For example, in 1982, the 5th hole still played away from the ocean and green fees were $70.)
Book your tee time or stay-and-play package and you'll want to enhance your experience by consuming all the Pebble content you can in the weeks prior to putting your own ball in the air. So what's it like to finally play the course you've experienced in video games and watched on TV time and time again?
There are few cooler preludes to a round than cruising along 17-Mile Drive or passing thru the small town of Carmel-by-the-Sea before catching little glimpses of the familiar fairways and ocean on the other side of gated mansions. When you arrive at the lodge check-in or the bag drop, you're in the heart of the bustling compound. But you'll probably start to wander around and mosey down to the 18th green for your first taste of the ocean breeze. Get there early and drink in the whole scene.
The opening holes
I've heard from other golfers on a few occasions over the years that the first hole is one of the worst opening holes in golf. The only truth to that is that hyperbole is a constant shadow in Pebble chatter. The bustling first-tee setting next to the clubhouse, shops and lodge isn't quite St. Andrews but similar. While it wasn't the first hole in my shotgun start, I felt and executed an aggressive, Trevino-esque power fade that wrapped in front the bunkers left of the fairway leaving me 80 yards in while my playing partners were more conservative and didn't challenge the bunkers. What amateur doesn't love a little dogleg right out of the gate, anyways?
The second hole isn't exceptional, straight and flat, with pinched bunkers on either side of the landing zone. It's more exciting for us as a par 5 than when converted to a par 4 for the pros during tournaments. The sharp dogleg left on No. 3 gets you closer to the ocean (it's one of the tougher greens to read with the coast behind it). On the short, bunker-riddled par-4 4th hole ("Hit whatever club off the tee you're most comfortable with," was our caddie's advice) you finally reach cliff's edge. In fact, one of our playing partners went right off the tee and found his ball on the beach. He scaled down the stairs to attempt an ill-fated recovery.
The par-3 5th, added by Nicklaus in 1998, was a treat, with an accessible back-right pin that, thanks to a nice slope on the left, feeds balls down towards the hole. Watching the ball roll and change direction on the green would turn out to be a rare site.
The 'Cliffs of doom'
As iconic as the 18th hole is, the climax of the round for me is the 6th. Is there a more satisfying two-shot stretch in golf? The tee shot, from an elevated perch, with all the peril and splendor of the 520 yards in full view, must be hit well or you're in the ocean right or a row of bunkers left. Then there's the second shot, as heroic as golf gets. Considering the typical layup zone is occupied by a steep slope with no fairway, you essentially have to swing big and challenge the rise, even if the green is blind from view. Imagine a movie scene where a white-knuckled pilot, dog-fighting the enemy in a canyon, has to sharply pull up to avoid a cliff. It's the same emotion watching your brave little orb scale the cliffs.
The wee 7th was downwind on the day we played it and none of our tee shots held the green. It was a disappointing moment as I was hoping for a headwind causing me to pull out a long iron or wood. "Blocked my half-gap wedge right" isn't worth sharing at dinner.
Holes 8 thru 10 were sensational as advertised, a trio of par 4s that hug the cliffs. It was here I realized how silly it is to take a cart. Throughout the round, the path is typically on the opposite side of the coast and well off the fairways, and trust me, on this entire stretch you want to be strolling down the fairway and not as far as possible away from the coast. Walking would probably help you score better, too. On the website, Director of Instruction Laird Small recommends that you should start scanning the green surrounds from 30 yards in front as you approach because it is the best way to read them. Abandoning cart-path-only (or simply making it a walking-only course on non-outing days) might also improve pace.
One other curious policy: pull/push carts are not allowed. But if you're springing for the experience, you may as well go whole hog and get a caddie.
Speaking of the 9th, Pebble Beach, like many historic courses, has received many alterations in its century of existence. There is a call by some to return it closer to its original look. The 9th might be the most obvious place to do it: why not return the native grasses to fairway and allow golfers to get closer to the cliff's edge? But perform that change and nothing else and the wide double-fairway would feel out of character to the rest of the existing layout. Making changes to America's iconic public course - one that hosts pro golf yearly and major championships regularly - isn't to be taken lightly.
The 10th hole was a rare approach shot where I could see and feel a run-up shot into the green that had a nice wide opening in front. Having played so much links golf abroad, I was expecting a little more ground game on a seaside parcel, but Pebble's very small greens (averaging just 3,500 square feet) tend to prevent that. The turf, while not springy British Isles fescue, is still pretty firm. Another comment our caddie made during the round was that some of the better rounds he's seen from his mid- and high-handicapping groups was from golfers who would regularly lay up short of the green complexes (there are 118 bunkers in total) if they weren't confident they could fly it on the green, instead leaving a manageable pitch shot from the fairway and a shot at a putt for par.
The closing stretch
After putting out on 10, I exhaled. What a stretch. I almost felt a sense of relief it was over, and relaxed and enjoyed the interior holes. From Nos. 11-thru-16 I feel like I was actually looking at the golf course and thinking about my shots more than the previous holes where I was rubber-necking with my jaw dropped trying to process such remarkable landscape.
On the 17th tee, I hit what I thought was a perfect strike to the number I wanted just right of the back-left flag only to see a puff of sand as the ball hit the earth. Bunker. The diagonal hour-glass green requires an exacting shot, even if it was recently increased from 3,600 square feet to 5,000.
Then there's the 18th hole, full of drama the entirely of the way, and if you can maintain your composure, is a very real birdie opportunity. Give me par 5s over long par 4s as finishing holes any day! After getting lucky on my drive, I took my most forgettable swing of the round, a quick top, and sent my first ball of the day into the ocean and ultimately ended up ball-in-hand on the hole. Hey, reason enough to come back in a few years or decades and play it again.
Playing Pebble Beach prior to the U.S. Open
I expected a severe test playing the course leading up to the U.S. Open, but I never felt overwhelmed about the narrowness of fairways (I hit eight of them), the thickness of the rough (I had one "hack-out" lie) or the severity of the greens. The course was set up fairly. The poa annua turf on the greens certainly didn't bump around for me (I didn't have the benefit of slow-mo, surface-level video either, and how much slicker the USGA decides to go tournament week remains to be seen). I was frankly in awe of how consistent and blemish-free the putting surfaces were. I'd just assumed minuscule greens and over 60,000 annual rounds could be recipe for stressed turf. But staff has nevertheless maintained them magnificently.
Want the challenge for yourself? Staff plans to maintain the course at a similar U.S. Open conditions until transitioning to an easier setup this fall when the Champions Tour's First Tee Open begins.
Pebble Beach vs. Pacific Dunes: Which is the best public golf course in the country?
Since Pacific Dunes debuted in the early 2000s, the frequent debate amongst panelists is which is the ultimate public golf experience in America? Golf Digest and Golf Magazine both have Pebble-Pacific 1 and 2. So does our own Matt Ginella in his Top 50.
It's a question without a clear answer because the businesses and expectations are so different. At Pacific Dunes, Tom Doak had a singular mission: to deliver the finest links golf experience in North America for the traveling amateur player. The trek is pure. There are no mansions to drool at or buses full of tourists watching your shot. The green fees at Bandon Dunes are priced seasonally and in shoulder-season months like April you can play it for a steal: ($175-210). Gorse is everywhere and the dramatic dunesland from start-to-finish is as dramatic as anywhere in the world. Probably the starkest difference in the two rounds are the greens: Doak loves big, thought-provoking greens, where balls don't typically settle very close to where they originally land.
The remote Bandon Dunes Resort is priced so that golf groups can more likely come here more than once in a lifetime with a per-day stay-and-play closer to $500 than the $900-1000 you should plan on spending per day at Pebble Beach.
Pebble's task is more multi-purpose and the stakes are higher: serve as host to yearly elite tournaments, plus recurring U.S. Opens. Then between these events, deliver on sky-high expectations to a clientele, many of whom are expecting quite literally the most fulfilling day of golf in their lives. Even though it's pricey, middle-class golfers will save up their whole lives to experience it.
I consider Pebble's responsibility when I hear calls to alter policies or close down for a full-scale renovation ala Pinehurst No. 2 prior to the 2014 U.S. Open. If holes were to change too drastically all at once, it might make the highlights of recent tournaments staged there less vivid to the player who spent a fortune to let those memories flood in during their own round. Continuing a piecemeal approach may be the only way forward. It's a delicate, practically impossible dance, especially as the chasm between the recreational and elite golfer widens.
The greens, shrunken as they are, are a tremendous defense for elite tournaments. If management were to enlarge more greens or widen the fairways, it might be accommodating to the resort and corporate golfer's skill level (and the historian) but compromise the desired severity of a U.S. Open venue where as late as 2010 even-par won. It remains one of the shortest layouts on the PGA Tour. For the U.S. Open, these small greens may very well play into the hands of one of the greatest iron players ever, Tiger Woods.
Pacific Dunes' layout has the greens and the ground game but it doesn't have as dramatic of a shot as the tee shot or approach on Pebble's 6th. Nor does it have a "reveal" anywhere like the rise up the hill from the 8th tee. Is Pebble Beach worth the money? Even at $550 to peg it, a $25 increase this year, the round represents a "value" because its closest U.S. peers - Cypress Point and Augusta National - wouldn't even take your money. (St. Andrews, at half the cost of Pebble and not even the most expensive golf course within seven miles, is an even greater value.)
Ultimately, the better experience is defined based on what your personal bucket list entails. To the golfer who values the rare opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jack, Watson, Tiger, etc. in a distinctive place, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach are 1a and 1b. To the average golfer who values the vibe and creativity that true links provides, Pacific Dunes can't be beat this side of Lahinch (or maybe Cabot Cliffs).
I would like to return to Pebble Beach someday, perhaps with my children or celebrate a milestone with friends and play Spyglass and Spanish Bay, too. It's hard to say when or with whom for certain. But I can tell you we won't take a cart.