PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- For a century, Pebble Beach Resorts never closed for a single day.
From 1919 to 2019, nothing could stop the game's most famous resort. Not world wars, recessions or natural disasters. Then came March 2020 when the coronavirus forced the resort to close for roughly three months. So much for the momentum from a successful sixth U.S. Open last June that celebrated Pebble Beach's centennial in style.
"It was the right decision to do," Pebble Beach Company President David L. Stivers said last week. "It was in the best interest of everybody. I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision."
After the dormancy, on June 15 Pebble Beach reopened its accommodations, restaurants and the Links at Spanish Bay with new safety measures in place. Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill had been operating since May 4 when Monterey County deemed it safe for golf to return. Currently, the Del Monte Golf Course; three restaurants, including the popular STICKS at the Inn at Spanish Bay; Casa Palmero and several shops are still closed. Their return dates remain uncertain.
To be honest, I was expecting Pebble Beach to be a ghost town when I set foot on property June 24. I was shocked at the steady stream of players on the tee sheet and the full tables seated outside for a post-round lunch at The Bench restaurant overlooking the 18th green and Carmel Bay. Eventually, as the day wore on, it began to feel like I had the place to myself. Stivers said he's been "pleasantly surprised" regarding business since reopening.
"We are doing everything in our power to make the experience equal to what our guests have come to expect over the years," he said. "It is a little different, but they (the golf and dining experiences) are not worse. Just different."
A Day at Pebble Beach
So what is Pebble Beach like in a pandemic? Is it worth coming? My instincts originally thought no, especially when California Governor Gavin Newsom made masks mandatory a few days prior to my tee time. My experience, however, proved otherwise. It was the most fun I've ever had on the course and the best condition I've ever seen it.
I had a preconceived notion that wearing a mask and social distancing would ruin the Pebble vibe. Wrong. Maybe it was because I had been cooped up at home like everybody else. I was giddy just being there. I'm sure others felt the same way.
“The golfing public has been excited to get back out. You can feel the excitement in people’s voices when they are here," Stivers said. "Pebble has always been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we have a lot of repeat customers who couldn’t wait to come back again."
Stivers said most of the golfers since May 4 have been California residents within driving distance. The ability to book an advanced tee time further out than 24 hours in advance without an overnight stay has opened up opportunities for locals not previously available. My foursome consisted of two women who belong to the same club in Fresno and a single from Sacramento. This open-door policy of booking tee times without accommodations will run through the end of July. The $525 rate my playing partners paid was a discount from the $575 rate announced earlier this year that is back in effect.
Push carts are now welcome on Pebble Beach. Both women brought them, and it was cool to see them roaming the fairways. I hope this policy continues, although I doubt it. By using a pushcart and not taking a caddie, golfers can actually say they're playing at a discount. Taking a caddie adds at least $125 more to the experience between the fee ($95 double bag-$145 single bag) and tip ($30+). Forecaddies are available for $47.50 (three-player minimum), but they can only read your putts, not touch your clubs. They don't rake your bunkers, either, because there are none to use.
I'm a fan of putting with the flagstick in, so that's never been an issue for me. Pebble Beach was actually the first course in California out of five I've played since the start of the pandemic that actually allows golfers to putt the ball in the hole, instead of at a raised cup. A pool noodle keeps the ball from dropping in too deep, but golfers must still sink it. The change was so welcome that I had my best putting day in a long time. I one-putted the last three holes for a nice round.
One noticeable difference is the property's policy of no group photos. We took a couple "social distancing" photos on the 7th tee box and some selfies on the 18th. A small sacrifice for staying safe.
Wandering around the property was a very pleasant experience. Gone are the crowds of buses that park in the visitor's parking lot. I had the Visitor's Center and putting green in the afternoon all to myself.
There is a fair bit of construction going on around the resort's main campus. Coming up the famous 18th, I was surprised to see that two wings of the Lodge complex were gone, replaced by the framework of a single building. By turning two buildings into one added space for three extra bedrooms. These new accommodations, scheduled to be completed by mid-2021, have been angled to provide better views of the water.
Bulldozers and diggers were also hard at work reshaping the old Peter Hay par 3 into a new routing by Tiger Woods' TGR Design. This new 670-yard layout will also stare more prominently out to sea. An exact replica of the 106-yard 7th hole from Pebble Beach - the same elevation change, bunkering and green size - will be an exciting feature. A putting course and a food-and-beverage venue with a large porch will be major improvements. It's all expected to debut by next May.
The biggest difference from past visits were all the safety precautions to encourage social distancing and wearing a mask. Twice, I witnessed an employee step in to remind guests to wear their masks - once on the shuttle ride from the lodge to the range and later, I was guilty of switching tables at The Bench for a brief chat with my playing partners, who came in near the end of my meal. The waiter told me that guests are not allowed to join other tables, especially without a mask. He was right in what he said and how he said it. I apologized and returned to my spot.
There are many other examples of this extra effort to give guests peace of mind about their surroundings without being too intrusive ... a starter who goes through a check-list of dos and don'ts on the first tee, a single-file line to get in and out of the pro shop, signs everywhere recommending social distancing and hand sanitizer set on tables outside of the pro shop, restaurants and shops lining the putting green. Golfers are encouraged to put on their masks back on while interacting with the food-and-beverage stops on the course as well.
The most interesting change was the menu at The Bench. Guests simply point their smart phone camera at a scanning code on the table to bring up the menu via the resort website. It was easy and will save time having to constantly clean the old menus or print disposable ones. I could see this technology sticking around permanently.
When I asked Stivers why people should consider coming to Pebble Beach during this uncertain time, he responded by saying: "There are few outdoor activities to enjoy time with friends and still social distance. That makes golf a compelling activity during this crisis. Our goal is to provide world-class service. Our team is excited to be back, and it is a great time to come. We want you to feel comfortable and feel safe. We are doing the things we can to help."
Package rates offer incentives like resort credits to entice guests to stay longer than just one round.
Golf updates elsewhere on the Monterey Peninsula
Like Pebble Beach, the rest of the Monterey Peninsula is trying to spark interest in tourism again.
The Quail Lodge & Golf Club just recently reopened its dining June 26, but moved it to the Lodge instead of the clubhouse. Carmel Valley Ranch had kept its Pete Dye course members-only until June 22 when it reopened to the public. This, coupled with the continued closure of Del Monte, and limited tee times at Poppy Hills, has benefited other local courses such as Pacific Grove Golf Links, the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach" on the sea. Bayonet & Black Horse is always a popular 36-hole facility.
Matt Pennington, the general manager at Pacific Grove, indicated that most of the course's play is from "driving tourists versus traveling tourists", specifically from residents in the Central Valley and Bay Area looking to escape the summer heat.
"Rounds are definitely above the norm, consistently due in part to two other public courses which (were) closed," he wrote in an email.
Poppy Hills is only offering tee times up until 4 p.m. Scott Adams, the club's head golf professional, said now that 17-Mile Drive is open, he's seeing more "tourist" play. "With us being the Governing Body for Golf In NorCal, we have implemented a slightly stricter set of COVID guidelines and the golfing guest has been very helpful and positive," he noted by email.
Stivers isn't sure what to expect the rest of the year at Pebble Beach. Nobody is.
"There is so much uncertainty with travel in general," he admitted. "We have been happy with the response from individual travelers. It is not like it was a year ago when we were hosting the U.S. Open and everybody was excited to come and play Pebble Beach. Group business is not back. There is no group business. When that returns remains to be seen. That's an important segment of our business. It is wait and see. Our number one goal is to make sure we have the right policies and procedures in place to keep everybody healthy and safe."