Pebble Beach: America’s Grandest Links on Nature’s Greatest Stage

“There are few experiences in sport that can compare with the thrill that the average golfer or the skillful golfer receives when he plays a famous course for the first time.” –Herbert Warren Wind

In a fitful burst of youth more than 20 years ago, I wrote, “There can’t be a golfer worth his straight left arm who believes by round’s end that there’s a better place for golf in America than Pebble Beach.”

This was long before Bandon Dunes was a twinkle in developer Mike Keiser’s eye. Before Silicon Valley tycoons and financial titans like Charles Schwab built their outlandish mansions beside many of Pebble’s fairways. Before an investment group headed by Arnold Palmer, Clint Eastwood and Peter Ueberroth acquired the storied links 10 years ago for a figure just as stratospheric in its way ($820 million) as the current green fee ($495).

Pebble Beach welcomes its fifth U.S. Open this week, and in many ways, I believe the golf course is better now than when I first played it in the late 1980s. The USGA’s decision to push the fairways on the clifftop holes closer to the sea will create more potential disasters for the world’s top players. Palmer, while never one of my favorite course designers, has done a fine job of preparing the course for the national championship by reinstating lost bunkers and adding new strategic bunkers at a couple of others. The tiny tilted greens, under the care of superintendent Chris Dalhamer, appear to be perfect.

While I was convinced after one heart-stopping tour of the links that the elongated figure-8 routing was the finest on earth, I remember asking Rees Jones several years ago what made the course so special, beyond its majestic coastal scenery.

“The course has six good holes, six great holes and six average holes,” he said. He went on to explain that like a classical symphony, Pebble has harmony and balance, with a pleasing blend of notes at both ends of the register. If Pebble were all crescendos, it would not be a head-banger, not a masterpiece. The inland holes tend to get a bad rap, but they serve to build anticipation for the thrilling seaside holes. More than any other course I’ve ever played, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts at Pebble Beach.

As good as it gets: Pebble's par-3 seventh

I also like the way a golfer experiences the sea at different heights at Pebble Beach. Players stroll 30 feet or so above Stillwater Cover at the fourth and fifth holes. Then it’s up the flank of the par-five sixth, its fairway akin to the deck of an aircraft carrier listing to starboard, the flag usually flapping in the wind 60 feet above the cove. Then the drop-kick shot at the seventh to the brink of the sea. A blind drive to the crest of a hill at the eighth, there to play the most dramatic second shot in golf, a shot that must cross a gaping chasm in bluffs that rise to 100 feet. Players then descend to the incomparable par fours at nine and 10. Each has a vast fairway sloped gently to Carmel Bay. Fifty feet below, folks oblivious to the drama above stroll the golden sand beach.

Because it’s tucked among Monterey pines and not hugging the ocean, the biggest surprise for the players this year might be the par-four 13th, which has been stretched to 445 yards and will require a long carry to a tightly guarded fairway. The only true breather hole on the back nine is the short par-four 15th, but if the pin is tucked to the right on this slippery, canted green, par is not a given.

Players return to sea level at the par-three 17th, which occupies a slim promontory and presents a barely visible hourglass-shaped green girdled by sand and rough. Capricious winds often lash this corner of the links. Depending on the placement of the pin and the velocity of the wind, the 17th can be the cruelest and most exacting hole on the course.

My memories of Pebble’s 18th are sensory. Standing on the broad shelf of weathered rock that holds the tee, I need only to pivot in my mind to remember what I’ve seen and felt there over the years. Looking back, fog like gunsmoke clinging to the coastal mountains in Big Sur. Directly behind the tee, floating canopies of kelp swaying in rhythm to the ebb and flow of the sea. Sea otters peeking their whiskers from among the thick strands of kelp. Leopard seals like mottled cigars basking on the rocks. Once, a whale breaching, a blast of vaporized water on the horizon. Ahead, the broad sweep of Carmel Bay, the combers rolling to shore.

After I completed my first round at Pebble Beach and stepped off the 18th green, I felt a jolt of exhilaration. It had nothing to do with how I played. Only Ballybunion in Ireland has given me a comparable rush of emotion. Both are exalted landscapes in a class of their own.

We’ll hear a lot of superlatives from commentators covering the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but words don’t do justice to the experience of playing the course. Expert or hacker, birdies or bogeys, the consensus is the same: Pebble Beach is the greatest place for golf in America.

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