MONTEREY, Ca. – They are professional golfers on the Tour and thus have far different priorities and perspectives than us regular folks. Yet having said that, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone can pass up any opportunity to play the great golf courses on the Monterey Peninsula.
Especially if you can get paid to do it.
This week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am has attracted a field you might see at the Tri-Cities Open. No Tiger, Phil, Bubba or Rory. The big names are healing or training.
It’s not a big deal to them. They’ve played thee three course, Pebble, Monterey Peninsula Country Club and Spyglass Hill, dozens and dozens of times. It’s a business for those guys and they’re not there for the scenery. But can one more time around the world’s most challenging and beautiful tracts hurt?
Just one time sold us, as my son Bobby and I played those courses this past summer, including our greatest day in golf – MPCC and Pebble Beach back-to-back of the same day (with Spyglass the next day).
Across the universe, it’s hard to find a more compelling combo. Augusta would be spectacular, and it’s probably enough. But what course would you pair it with? There are quite a few courses within a short drive of St. Andrews Old Course but none with the same stature. Muirfield is a singular thrill but it’s probably too long of a drive to pair it with North Berwick on the same day. Carnoustie is a fine layout but nothing near it.
Carolina has some wondrous courses but not two nearby on the same level. Relatively new Bandon Dunes in Southern Oregon has four world class courses that could be played in various pairs but they don’t yet have the tradition or prestige of those off 17-Mile Drive.
Maybe Pebble and Cypress Point would rate as a greater combination, but try getting on Cypress. Fortunately, we had people and they had people who completed our dream day. Our friend Lawson Little (his father won the 1940 U.S. Open and is in the Hall of Fame) is a local legend and he got us in the door. Full disclosure – full fare, $520 each for Pebble. You only live once.
We saved some money, striking a deal with the Portola Hotel and Spa, a 379-room hotel with a huge lobby and great location, not far from Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row.
Lawson and another friend Johnny helped get us on Monterey Peninsula CC. Johnny sponsored us and a member, Marty, hosted us. Marty had another member with him, Chris, to give us a fivesome.
We were ready for the back-breaking back to back, MPCC early in the morning, lunch then a short drive to Pebble in the afternoon.
MONTEREY PENINSULA COUNTRY CLUB
There are two courses, the Dunes and the Shore. We played the Dunes, which was originally designed in 1924 by Seth Raynor but he died before completion. Robert Hunter and the legendary Alister MacKenzie, who fashioned Augusta National, finished it. Rees Jones did a remodel in 1998.
It was the second time my son and I played the Dunes, making us well aware of the local rule – pants. For the previous time two years earlier, we showed up in shorts and the starter immediately asked if we had long pants, as required. I spent $160 in the clubhouse on two ill-fitting pairs, worn just once before ending up in the rag bag. We were ready and fully dressed for our second round.
The Dunes course starts out with a straight-forward 410-yard hole (we played from the black tees, 6,434 yards) but it seemed like 510 yards. None of us reached in two. Pros might eat this hole up but it’s a tough one right out of the clubhouse.
The front nine is surrounded by plenty of low vegetation and tall sturdy cypress and eucalyptus trees, part of the Del Monte forest. The back nine is wide open, fewer trees and plenty of ocean exposure.
What’s nice about the course is that there are very few homes or structures along the fairways. The few that are adjacent, are well back and out of play, even for me.
One of the prettiest holes is the par-3 fourth, a 204-yard shot from an elevated tee to an elevated green. Complicating the hole is a green that tills forward and to the left. Par here is a gift.
It just after we finished the fourth that Marty held us up to let a twosome play through. It was a pretty awesome twosome, a father-son duo.
Marty started talking to the father about being the ”richest caddy in the world” and he retorted that he was giving up the duties to concentrate on playing golf again.
Turns out this was Scott McNealy, a MPCC member and former CEO and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, which was acquired by Oracle for $7.4 billion in 2010. Since that sale, McNealy has had some free time for golf – a sub-3 handicap – and helping his oldest son, Maverick, now a 19-year-old Stanford junior, through his U.S. Open experience.
Maverick had qualified as a sectional winner to advance as an amateur for the Open at Pinehurst last summer, just a couple weeks earlier. The Mav, with dad on the bag, shot 74 and 76 and missed the cut. But the pair still got some quality TV time.
In our short passing, they came across as two particularly genuine individuals, gracious and humble. And Maverick can hit it a ton. We watched his tee shot on the subsequent hole soar high, far and disappear somewhere in the range of three football fields away. The kid’s going places, with a name to remember (his brothers are Dakota, Colt and Scout. You wonder if Sitting Bull, Ammo and Buffalo Soldier were too common).
Those two represent the club’s special membership.
No. 6, a 419-yard par-4, was a disaster for both of us. It was one of those wish-we-could-do-over holes as we both had trouble with OB drives, trees, sand and putting. I took a 7 and Bobby, despite telling him his handicap would allow no more than a 7, had me write down 10.
The second par-3 on the front is the 136-yard No. 7 gem. It’s a precise shot to a thin, narrow green with a protective hill and bunkers to the left and right. Bobby followed his 10 with a birdie, and went on the finish the front with a 46. I went from a 7 to a 3 and would have a 44.
By No. 9, the course transitions from a woodlands tract to sand/ocean tract. Sand is so tough to avoid on the par-5, 476-yard ninth. To the right, there is a wide stretch of sand from your tee shot landing area all the way to the green. To the left is a long narrow gully, unplayable if entered. Unfortunately, that would be my final par of the day.
We stopped for bite after 11, wandering into a comfortable cafe with an inviting outdoor patio overlooking the green. We could have stayed there all afternoon and let the day and foursomes pass by.
It was here where we witnessed just how special this club is. We let one member go through. He was about 70 and pretty deep into Alzheimer’s. Although he may have lost the ability to recognize loved ones he still had his muscle memory. He played the course with the guidance of a selfless assistant club pro, who made it seem like that member was the most important person in the world.
It was an altruistic act for which the club can be justifying proud. Who wouldn’t want to be treated in such a fashion should we, one day, be similarly afflicted?
For six holes, No. 9 through 14, you feel tight with the ocean. It’s wide open, dunes all around, ocean air, seagulls, distant seals barking, no houses to hit. It’s a joyous feeling, no doubt by architectural design.
All of it builds to No. 14, the signature hole, the one that makes this course worth remembering. It’s a 177-yard par-3 just a splash away from the ocean breakers. Only the mystical par-3 16th hole at nearby Cypress Point is more heralded and dramatic.
For this hole only, Johnny suggested playing it from the tips. Excellent suggestion because you drop down further among the rocks and actually hit over a slice of the ocean, a wavy, rocky inlet, to reach the green. Few holes in the world can rival this one. I was actually nervous looking from tee to the pin, more because its beauty and drama than anxiety over the shot.
To complicate your drive, there are always dozens of bikers, hikers and walkers above you to the left, watching how well you play it.
The natural tendency is to avoid the ocean so you find yourself pulling it left toward a sizable grassy area to the left of the green. In our previous experience on 14, also with Johnny, he missed an ace by two feet, rolling it just past the pin. Once again, he reached the green and parred. Bobby and I both baled left and had to settle for disappointing bogeys. If there is one hole you wanted to par – or birdie – it would be this one. It’s just a great experience to play it.
The course finishes with two par-5s and two par-4s, all moving up and away from the water. It’s a challenging finish for even the professionals.
I finished with a 92, with a pair of 7s. Bobby, despite his 10 and a pair of 7s on the back, still managed a 91.
We had lunch at MPCC’s elegant dining room, hit a few balls at the range – because he wouldn’t have time to warm up at Pebble – then back onto the 17-Mile Drive and arriving at Monterey’s most legendary layout.
We had about an hour and a half from our MPCC finish to our Pebble tee time. We got there with about 40 minutes to go and spent that time on the practice green, in the middle of everything Pebble. The famous Lodge is just a few feet away. You can catch a glimpse of the 18th hole on the side of the building. The foo-fu shops are to your right and the starter is 30 yards behind you.
You feel a little exposed and on stage as everyone pauses to check out your stroke and, for those guys holding packages, wishing you’d change places.
When you get the call that you are next up at Pebble Beach, you get a rush. It’s a feeling you’d like to bottle, cap and keep. You breath in, your chest inflates and the nerves start. You are anxious about your first tee shot, on Pebble with everyone watching. Oh how you want to get one off straight with pace.
We were given a caddy for both our bags. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a golfer and didn’t really help measurably with reads or distances. But he was real nice young man who was about to enter military service. Turns out, he was the son of the head pro and we liked him so much we used him for Spyglass the next morning.
Bobby started it off, hitting one solid, long and straight. I blocked mine. Although it traveled a decent distance, it drifted right and ended up behind a tree. I gambled with my second shot, hitting the tree then barely cleared the rough with my third. Finished with a scrambling six on a hole that wasn’t that hard. Had hoped (and envisioned) a better start.
We were paired with another father-son duo. The son played college golf at Rollins College in Florida and was decent. His father clearly didn’t teach him. He hacked early but actually played much better on the back nine.
The third hole, a 334-yard, par-4 dogleg left, I played well by accidentally. I pulled my drive left and it somehow cleared the brush and trees, rolling nicely down the fairway. Cutting the dogleg like that gave me less than 100 yards to the green. I pitched it to within 18 feet and lipped the hole, missing my best birdie chance of the day.
Don’t do what we did on the short, 295-yard par-4 fourth. We both foolishly used driver. Bobby barely missed flying over the edge onto the beach, but I didn’t. Use a 3-wood or less here, stay in the middle with a short pitch to the green.
Then we came to what I think is the greatest stretch of holes on the course, as good as I’ve ever played. We know that 17 and 18 get all the pub, but 6, 7 and 8 are sensational. They are worth the green fees. Just spectacular.
No. 6 is a par-5, 467-yarder. Your drive should end up in a wide valley but your second shot is daunting. You have a blind shot, up a hill so massive, it seems it blocks out the sun. You’d not sure where to hit. Bobby went one way, I went another, way to the left and settling next to the seventh tee. I had a 40-yard approach, over bunkers, cart paths and people. You just want a second chance on this one.
Same with No. 7 (pictured at the top), one of the shortest holes in existence, just 94 yards, looking down hill with Monterey Bay swaying in the distance. You can’t use a club short enough here, gap wedge perhaps. Distance control is key but so is accuracy. Bobby hit the green and rolled back into a bunker. I sailed left, just missing a foursome on the 8th tee. Seems to be a pattern here.
No. 8 is another dramatic hole. It’s just a 393-yard, par-4 but your drive is paramount. Good players need to lay up about 240 yards to a steep drop. I had no idea it was there, hit my driver and ended up in a perfect spot overlooking the drop. Then my approach caught the wind and the ocean had another dimpled orb. What a demanding shot that is. Bobby, however, hit a beauty, sticking it in the back of the green.
When we made the turn, our caddy pointed out the house behind the No. 9 green. It belonged to Gene Hackman. And I thought I was the only hack man in the area. We learned later that the house was up for sale for $37 million.
Bing Crosby also once had a home nearby, just to the right of the No. 10 fairway. But the home to see is the one on the right side of the par-5, 548-yard 14th. It’s a massive mansion, seemingly as long as the hole with a great view of the 6th hole and the bay. As I passed by close to the black iron fence, there was a man on the patio. I wanted to yell some crack but he was on the phone. As we found out, it was Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors who was in the process of hiring coach Steve Kerr.
Finally, we reached the two iconic holes, 17 and 18. The par-3, 163-yard 17th is where Tom Watson’s chip-in for birdie helped him win the 1982 U.S. Open. It’s not the same. Ocean storms have wiped out that green. It’s been rebuilt and reshaped, protected by at least 1,000 bunkers. I found two, plus a couple nubs in the thick rough for a 7. Quite disappointing after all the mental buildup.
But 18th made up for it. Bobby and I both got off the tee long and to the right, taking the left-side rocky ocean wall out of play. We both had solid second shots, into the wind, leaving us within 150 yards from the green. That’s a view everyone should see. It’s such a narrow approach, between the huge tree on the right and the bunker/seawall on the left. Maybe 30 yards wide.
With my head down and eyes closed, I hit my best shot of the week, straight and just enough to reach the front edge of the green. Bobby found the sand and with an awkward stance against the wall, he lifted his pitch to within 15 feet. How I wanted that birdie but my 20 footer just slide past. Par is good on the fabled 18th.
We finished our day with plenty of red wine and a great meal in the Lodge’s Tap Room, as Johnny and his wife Gina joined us. Next to us were Joe Lacob and his new coach, Steve Kerr. A toast to one of the great days in one of the greatest places in golf. Everyone, even professionals, should play these courses once and often.