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Golf Course Review: Spyglass Hill

The breathtaking third at Spyglass Hill, part of a great opening stretch of golf

The breathtaking third at Spyglass Hill, part of a great opening stretch of golf

Course Review: Spyglass Hill (Pebble Beach, Calif.)

Designer: Robert Trent Jones

There is no doubt that Spyglass Hill is one of the more polarizing courses in the World Top 100. When I told my playing partner that it was among the elite on the planet, he scoffed. “No way,” he told me. “I don’t think it is.”

It is — #88 in the world.

The question is why? Hard to argue with the first five holes — several of which are world class. The first hole, a hard downhill par-5 to a green that hints at the dunescape to follow, is a fun opener, but it is really the next four holes that set the tone. The second, a mid-length par-4 where the course opens up to ocean views and the dunes start to come into play, is terrific, while the drop shot par-3 third with the ocean as a backdrop is smart and trickier than it immediately appears.

Looking backwards from the second green at Spyglass Hill

Looking backwards from the second green at Spyglass Hill

The fourth and fifth holes play in pure linksland, bordered by a sandy ridge that runs along the left side of both holes. The fourth green, which is serpentine in shape and very narrow, can only really be approached from the right side of the fairway, which is sort of a shame since it plays away from the dunes (I, for one, wanted to test the dunes, hooking a ball into their proximity). The fifth, a par-3, offers players a heroic challenge over wasteland and a center bunker to a green that plays falls towards the front. These five holes represent a tremendously good opening stretch of golf, rivaling pretty much any course I can think of.

Watch out for the house -- the final hole on Spyglass Hill's opening linksland stretch

Watch out for the house -- the final hole on Spyglass Hill's opening linksland stretch

But that’s where the sea disappears and Trent Jones turned golfers inland for an experience that becomes decidedly parkland from that point onwards. As the sea dissolves amongst the trees, golfers find themselves on what feels like a different course, full of popped-up greens and uphill par-4s. I suspect this is where the course gets its reputation for difficulty, and one has a sense of that right from the sixth hole, a 400-yard, uphill par-4 to a well-bunkered green. The seventh is a slightly awkward par-5 with a very artificial-looking pond on the left of the green.

The remainder of the course has the same aesthetic — big trees set away from play (with the exception of the 11th, a downhill par-5 where someone thinks it is smart to plant trees down the right side of the fairway. How awful!), uphill two-shot holes played to difficult greens that actually make the holes play longer than their listed yardage. There are a few ponds thrown in (on the Augusta-looking 12th, for example), and there’s a short par-4 that doesn’t really work (the 17th, which could be much better if one didn’t have to hook the ball to try for the green).

That’s not to say there aren’t some fine holes after we leave the sea. The ninth is terrific, a true two-shot test with plenty of width and a large green. My favourites are a contrast — the 15th, which at 125-yards and downhill, is a nice break from the pounding of the long fours, and the 16th, a monster par-4 that plays to a plateau and then bends right to a downhill green.

The difficult and intriguing 16th at Spyglass Hill.

The difficult and intriguing 16th at Spyglass Hill.

There is no doubt Spyglass is a very strong golf course. It might actually be in the World Top 100, though I’d put it at the back of the pack and behind the likes of Hamilton G&CC. It could well be Trent Jones’ best course of the hundreds he built in his lifetime.

The big question is whether it is worth $315 US. That’s a tougher query to wrap your head around. The first five holes are remarkable and from there the course is simply very good. Whether you kick out the cash for the seaside holes is something only your Visa balance can dictate. I probably wouldn’t pull out my wallet, for what it is worth.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Is it appreciably better than London Hunt? (apart from the opening holes).

    I somehow doubt it’s better than Cragburn…

  • Curious RT, do you get comp’d for these reviews? Does the course know of your visit?

    nothing wrong with that perk if it’s extended to you, but if you disclose in your review, it may help give more perspective.

  • The green fee at Spyglass in 1981 was $25 – as long as people are willing to pay, the price will continue to rise. Interesting to see what will happen at all these high cost facilities in the next couple of years.

  • Dixon: The course was aware I was playing it, and I was there in my capacity as a Golf Digest rater.

  • thanks Robert for disclosing. I’m curious if the courses approach you differently as a “rater”?

    Have you reviewed courses incognito before? any difference?

    I guess it’s hard to rate courses when you play a place based on a ‘dream’ to one day play a place (St. Andrews, Pebble, Pinehurse, etc.) or as a rater? The perception must be quite different.

    all the best and keep up the good work

  • Dixon: I’ve had the good fortune to play a bunch of places just as a golfer (St. Andrews, Dornoch, Merion, Pine Valley, Oakland Hills), and I frankly don’t think the experience changes much from rating. I’m always thinking about the course anyway — and it isn’t like they can alter it in any way when I show up.

    I did a stint “reviewing” courses for Toronto Life magazine about a decade ago. Those were simply show up, pay and play. Didn’t really make much of a difference in my mind.

    I guess some guys are easily wowed by the experience. I’m really fascinated by the golf — the experience, with a couple of exceptions, is secondary.

    Thanks for reading.

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