Last year I had one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences when I managed to put together a day that included a round at Cypress Point, a course many feel is the best in the world, with an afternoon round at Pebble Beach, generally regarded among the Top 5 courses in the U.S. It is hard to fathom a combination that is better, and we had sunny, warm weather to go with it. And since I made par on the 18th at Pebble and bogey (without hitting it in the water) at the 16th at Cypress, I consider myself to be among the few that, as the placque behind the 16th hole at Cypress says, “are privileged to pass this way.”
And yes, I have great memories of the experience. Pebble was actually both better and worse than I expected (the highlights are so high, and the houses occasionally very close), while Cypress was everything I’d hoped for (and much more than just a handful of holes on the ocean).
My lasting memory, however, is of a teddy bear. Yep, you got that right. A stuffed animal.
Playing with my friend and golf designer Ian Andrew, we hit the 18th hole at Pebble in the gloaming, with the sun dipping down below the Pacific. There was a concern that we wouldn’t get the round in considering we were one of the last tee times on the course. In fact, the only group playing behind us was a twosome with some employee connection to the course. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been out. Seems for your $500, the fine folks at Pebble would at least like you to finish your round. Very considerate of them.
I hit a drive left of the famed tree in the fairway, while Ian played out to the right. A couple of shots later we were both on the green as the sun rapidly set. We putted out, thrilled with the day and found one of the staff in a golf cart volunteering to take us to the clubhouse. We jumped on and a few minutes later were back at the pro shop. Now Pebble is one of those places you’re likely to spend money at. I knew that from my initial experience at the course in 1999.
I’d first been soon after I was out of J-school, taking in a day at the AT&T tournament while having some down time from a conference I was covering in San Jose. Initially I thought I could play the course, thinking I could sneak in $450 on my Visa (the rates have gone up in a decade, but only slightly) without my live-in girlfriend (now my wife) noticing. I hadto play Pebble. Instead, I followed Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh around for the day (Couples and Singh played in a group in front of Mickelson), and went to the pro shop and spent some of my $28,000 salary on an expensive shirt, which I have to this day. Must have been good quality. I don’t regret buying it, though I’m sure I couldn’t afford it.
A decade later I found myself back in the pro-shop. Only this time I was in one of several. Pebble Beach must be the best course for selling clothing of any in the U.S., and likely the world. There are numerous shops. I main, massive store with more brands than a Dick’s Sporting Goods, and a separate women’s store. I quickly found the shirt/hat combo I was hoping for (partial to sports fabrics in both these days), and as I was paying I spoke with the friendly chap checking me out (and who helped find the sports fabrics — lots of cotton in that store still.)
“I didn’t see any children’s clothing,” I mentioned casually.
“Oh, that’s because there’s a children’s store just down the way,” he replied.
Really? I mean a children’s store? Turns out they were closing, but he called down and assured me they wait for my arrival. I grabbed my parcel and hustled down the walkway next to the shop.
I entered a store full of vibrant pinks and light blues. It was a fraction of the size of the main shop, but full of clothing for babies and kids. Jumpers and bibs, hats and neon outfits that only a 2-year-old, and maybe those who are 72 and on holiday in Miami could enjoy. The saleswoman was especially helpful — or maybe she just wanted to close and go home. Either way, she directed me to what I was looking for — two shirts, one for a 1-year-old boy and one for a 4-year-old girl. A couple of hats were also acquired.
“Oh, and since you’re spending more than $100, you get this free,” she explained, handing me a teddy bear.
I don’t know what was more surprising — the fact that I’d spent more than $100 on tiny golf shirts or that I was getting some sort of kick-back for my extravagant ways.
She carefully wrapped my package as they do in a high-end shop, and sent me on my way, juggling my bags like a bargain hunter on Boxing Day.
When I arrived home, after a week of traveling in California while my long-suffering wife hung out with the toddler set, I displayed my gifts. The kids were underwhelmed by the clothes (not surprisingly as they are kids after all) and my wife didn’t think the pink hat I’d purchased for her compensated for her nights of dealing with crying children while I played golf in the warm Cali air. She was probably right.
But then something fascinating happened. My youngest, Liam Mackenzie Thompson (and yes, he has the middle and last names of famed golf designers), took to the bear that had been tossed in to signify my overspending. The bear was soft, relatively small, with this year’s U.S. Open logo emblazoned on his stomach. Liam, it turned out, latched onto the stuffed toy in the same way Tiger Woods held on to his accident tale. He loved it and embraced it and used it for security. It even had a name — “U.S. Open Bear,” though the way Liam says the moniker, it is more like, “U-ess Oban Beer?” (he also says it like he’s asking a question). He loves the animal, though he can’t quite figure out its connection to golf and has no idea what a Pebble Beach is. He has a favorite golfer though — Bubba Watson — and I keep telling him U-ess Oban Beer? has a link the Watson, however tangential it might first appear. After all, Watson will play at the U.S. Open at Pebble in June, and U-ess Oban Beer? is the representative of that tournament. That seems to satisfy him. What can I say — he’s two.
Yes, when I recall my time in the Monterey sun I think of the birdie I made at Pebble, the drive I blocked into the ocean on the 17th at Cypress and seeing the placque that pays its respects to golf designer Mike Strantz at Monterey Peninsula. I think of Ian and I pounding down a meal and a couple of beers at some local restaurant after a day that included Cypress and Pebble, discussing what made the courses great.
But these days my greatest reminder of that experience is a small, slightly worn stuffed advertisement for the biggest USGA tournament.
And it makes me smile.