Course Overview: Pebble Beach Golf Links (Pebble Beach, California)
Designer: Jack Neville and Douglas Grant.
Interestingly, while it is difficult to actually write a review of Cypress Point, it is much easier to debate the merits of Pebble Beach. For one thing it is public, though with a green fee of nearly $500, it is only open to those with deep pockets or corporate connections. But you can get access — the club even has a website that allows golfers to check open tee times up to a month in advance. Secondly, everyone sees Pebble on TV each spring, but frankly you don’t really have a sense of the experience from your 52-inch flat screen, even if you’re running hi-def.
So let’s start with the issues practically of which everyone is aware: Many of Pebble’s holes are away from the ocean. That’s point one. The same is true with Cypress, and frankly the interior holes there didn’t bother me at all. The main difference between Cypress and its neighbor down 17-mile Dr. is the housing. Pebble was built as a real estate play, meaning much of the course is surrounded by houses. That’s true on the opening holes and happens again on the closing stretch. And occasionally the housing is quite tight. My playing partner hit one OB on the opening hole, only to have it bounce off a fence and back into play. Houses are tight to the right of 18, and are found on the left of 1, 2, and the right of 12, 13, 14, and 15. That’s a lot of homes that are in play.
What’s the issue? Well the experience of playing the ocean holes is so pristine, so remarkable, that many don’t expect the rest of the hole to be playing through a subdivision or along a roadway. But that is the case. However, it doesn’t mean those holes are as sub-par as some have suggested. Though I think the first two holes are relatively mundane, the first does have an exceptional green site and gives you a strong sense of just how small the putting surfaces at Pebble Beach are. And holes like three, a slight dogleg to the left that is well bunkered, and four, an exceptional uphill par-4 to a tiny green, are intriguing and challenging despite their length.
Nicklaus’ reworked fifth hole was generally regarded as a big step forward for the course. The previous par-3 fifth had turned inland, but the new fifth plays relatively close to the cliff and gives golfers a sense of the sixth hole, which hugs the cliff as it heads upwards to the green. Could the hole have been configured more closely to the cliff to increase the drama? Probably. What Nicklaus created is interesting, but not as fascinating as it could have been. All of which means, for most people Pebble Beach begins at six and offers one of the most incredible runs of golf through to its 10th hole that can be found anywhere in the world.
Six has been hurt by Arnold Palmer’s awful bunkering on the left side of the fairway, an attempt to JB Holmes-proof the hole. While the scale of Pebble Beach’s bunkering is large, Palmer decided to add a series of small bunkers along the side of the fairway. It is a decision that makes little sense and is completely incongruous with a majority of the bunkers on the rest of the property.
Most know the rest from here — the incredible short par-3 seventh, which was a gap wedge from 125-yards the day I played it, but was a driver from Gary McCord only days previous when he was playing it as part of a telecast. The eighth has an exceptionally awkward tee shot, but Brad Klein is correct when he says the mid-to-long iron approach over the cliff to a sliver of a green is one of the best in the game.
The ninth and tenth holes are all-world par-4s that hug the cliffside, and both sport tremendous greens. The ninth, at 462-yards from the tips, is surely one of the best long holes in the game, and the 10th isn’t far off. That ends what I think is the most dynamic stretch of golf holes anywhere in the world.
From there the course turns inland. I actually really enjoy the 11th hole, which isn’t long, at 349-yards, but is toughened by a difficult green that forces players to challenge the left side if they hope to approach the length of the green. The 11th is followed by a group of holes that will underwhelm many, but are still subtle and challenging. The 14th, a big par-5 that has a tremendously difficult green, is interesting, and 15, which plays along 17-mile Dr. could be fascinating if they’d hack the awful trees down that sit in front and to the right of the tees.
The ocean reappears on 17 — as the backdrop to the downhill par-3 with its narrow green well guarded by bunkers front and back. And that leaves the 18th — clearly one of the best closers in golf. The tee shot is daunting, forcing players to hug the coast to have the best angle of approach or hope to try the green in two.
Our round took 4 hours and 50 minutes and was concluded at dusk. We had ample breaks to chat, since Pebble is generally a slow round, as it was during our tour. We talked about courses that were comparable to Pebble. Turnberry in Scotland? Royal Dornoch? Royal County Down? Would you rather play Shinnecock Hills or Pebble Beach, noting that Pebble Beach was No. 5 in the world on the last Golf Magazine rating.
That’s the debate the course elicits. Is it too pricey at $485 per round? Hard to argue that. However, it also strikes me as a status symbol. If you’ve had a fair degree of success in life, you may get the chance to play Pebble. It is a course that transcends golf — even non-golfers recognize it is the pinnacle of the sport. Sure there are better courses, but there are few that golfers would rather tell their friends they’ve played.