Friday, February 29, 2008

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pebble Beach Golf Links (ranked #7 in the world) is an iconic golf course located on California's Monterey Peninsula. Fact is, anyone associated with golf probably knows all about Pebble Beach, so only a light course description this go around. Because of its high profile stature, Pebble Beach is a difficult course to analyze and put in its proper context. I have changed my view of the course several times as I have been exposed to more of the world's great courses. I have ruminated for the last three years over how good a course it is and have now crystalized my thoughts enough to offer my view.

One of the defining characteristics of Pebble Beach is its small greens. They are, along with Inverness and Harbour Town, some of the smallest to be found among the world's great courses. The first three holes at Pebble Beach are inland and serve as a good warm-up for what's ahead. I think the course routing makes sense at the start. That is, start with some less-than-dramatic holes to get the adrenaline under control and allow a golfer to get into a rhythm before tackling the challenge along the cliffs that lie ahead.

The 7th at Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach has some very dramatic scenery and some wholly interesting golf holes. In particular, I liked the short (less than 100 yard) par three seventh hole which plays downhill with the majestic vista of Monterey Bay in the background. I would be hard pressed to find someone that doesn't like this hole.

I also think that the eighth hole is one of the best in the world. It is a 416 yard par four that is a dog-leg to the right and plays along precipitous high cliffs. From the tee you have no real sense of how difficult the hole is going to be. Your view off the tee is blocked by a slight hill. The eighth hole falls off dramatically on the right hand side where the edge of the hole meets the cliffs and produces vertiginous views if you get too close to the edge. Unfortunately, two people did drive their golf cart off this cliff once and met their demise. Shots that go too far right will find a similar fate. A safer tee shot is down the left side. Your second shot has to carry 170 yards over a giant chasm to the tiny green, with a safer play being to the left. Pebble Beach is such a good course because it offers many of these risk/reward choices during the round.

The next three holes, seven, eight and nine, are some of the most beautiful in the world. We'll get to the middle of the course in a minute as we jump ahead to the finish. The seventeenth hole is a bit disappointing and looks better on TV, since, in reality, it's not actually set that close to the water, and the figure eight green shape is a bit tricky.

The 8th at Pebble Beach

The par five eighteenth is a spectacular hole. This is the ultimate heroic hole in golf, which asks the golfer how much risk they are willing to take hitting over the water and thus potentially they can be rewarded with a shorter shot to the green. I can't think of a better finishing hole in all of golf.

The Other Pebble Beach

One of the reasons why I hesitate to unequivocally pronounce Pebble Beach as one of the absolute top courses straightaway is that the holes away from the water - eleven through sixteen - are not very good or exciting holes. They are in marked contrast to the holes along the water. To emphasize my point I quote Robert Trent Jones from The Complete Golfer: "Unfortunately, the 'inland' holes at Pebble Beach are not in the same class with the holes that follow the bay. The course is, in fact, a complex of ordinary holes and thrilling stretches. The first three holes are adequate. After the tenth green, the course leaves the bay and becomes somnolescent again, for none of the next six holes is above average and their difficulty is not organic. While the architects of Pebble Beach deserve acclaim for the intrepidity with which they seized the opportunities the headlands afforded, it remains an enigma to me why they did not invoke the same shot values for the interior holes."

Jones sums up the weaknesses of Pebble Beach perfectly, getting extra credit for using the word 'somnolescent,' and ten points of extra credit for using it in the same paragraph as 'intrepidity.' His ivy-league repertoire of expressive prose is as vast as his body of work designing courses.

17th at Pebble Beach

Thus, you can begin to see the dilemma of rating Pebble Beach. Is Pebble Beach overrated, or are the water holes so good that even with nine weak holes, it still ranks as one of the top ten courses in the world?

Is Pebble Beach Overrated?

You hear often that Pebble Beach is the most beautiful setting in the world for golf because of the dramatic views. I have found in my travels that there are many courses that have as good or better views than Pebble Beach. I can name ten courses that are as scenic without much thought: Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Kauri Cliffs, Old Head, Cape Kidnappers, Turnberry, Kingsbarns, Sand Hills, The National Golf Links of America and Royal County Down. As you can see from the pictures here, the scenery is breathtaking. My point is not to disagree with this obvious fact, but simply to point out that it is not unique in this regard; and thus, beauty alone is not justification for a top ten world ranking.

14th at Pebble Beach

Saying that Pebble Beach is the most beautiful course in the world is like saying that the best looking girl in your home town is the best looking girl on the planet. As far as your world goes, it may be true. The problem is, once you get out and see the wider world, there are prettier girls and dramatically more beautiful golf courses. So it is with Pebble Beach; once you've seen Royal County Down or Turnberry, it's hard to go back and say that Pebble Beach is the prettiest in the world.

My view of Pebble Beach has evolved over time. I used to think that Pebble Beach rates so highly because for many people it is the greatest course they have ever seen. If only more people had seen some of the other world-class scenic courses, Pebble Beach wouldn't rank so high. I used to think that my well-honed view gave me a superior position to judge these courses appropriately, since I have seen a lot of the world's top public and private courses. Essentially, my view is more informed than the un-educated swine masses who have only seen one dramatically beautiful course, Pebble Beach, and naturally think it's the greatest in the world. The problem with this position is that once you actually put it down on paper, it is intolerable. Since my aspirations in life don't include sounding like Prince Charles, I have moderated my position.

8th hole looking backward

One gaping hole with this "pompus ass" theory of Pebble Beach is that the Golf Magazine rankings, which are done by some serious, learned and experienced people, including many professionals and architects, rank it the seventh best in the world. This group has seen the world's best and have a good basis for comparison, so it's hard to argue the point and have a sense of superiority over this group. One's upper lip can only be so stiff, after all.

I used to tell people, when asked, that I thought Pebble Beach was overrated. However, when I actually put pen to paper and try to rank courses myself, it's hard not to put Pebble Beach near the very top. In fact, looking at the top 100 list, I would move only Merion, Royal Portrush, The National Golf Links and Sand Hills ahead of Pebble Beach, but not many others. So, ok, maybe it should rank as #12 in the world, but the basic point remains, despite its flaws, Pebble Beach is one of the best places on the planet to play golf.

The reason the course is so highly ranked is that the holes along the water are so well designed and strategic, in addition to being so visually dramatic. By way of comparison, the land at Old Head in Ireland is equally as dramatic as Pebble Beach; however, the design and routing of the course puts Pebble Beach ahead of its peers.

The Pace of Play

It can be difficult sometimes to separate out the experience of playing the course from the course itself. Pebble Beach is not the fastest place in the world to play golf, and it is a bit touristy. Pebble Beach used to be famous for its annoyingly slow pace of play, with a six hour round being not uncommon several years back. It now has the opposite problem: an annoyingly fast round. An annoyingly fast round is one where a marshal tells you to play fast every two holes even though there are groups all around you. It does help improve the pace of play to a more tolerable level, but it is annoying. The problem here is everyone wants to stand around and take pictures, and that slows down the round. This is not the type of golf I like. Because I have a grandiloquent and boastful manner, I much prefer playing in isolation at a place like Somerset Hills, Morfontaine or Woodhall Spa, where you are playing fast because you are exhilarated and because you can, and not because someone is pushing you.

To separate out the course from the experience, it can be helpful to imagine for a minute that Pebble Beach is a private course. Visualize yourself teeing off at 7:00 am in the mist and you are one of only a handful of groups playing the course that day. It completely changes your perspective of the place. Now, it takes on an entirely new view. Also, to fairly judge the course's place in the golf world you also have to understand the history of the the epic struggles contested there (go, Tom Watson!) and the quality of the champions that have played on it, and how this impacts its ranking. For this reason, when you collectively look at Pebble Beach on a variety of criteria, it truly is a special place to play golf.

9th at Pebble Beach

The lodge, food and resort at Pebble Beach are all world-class, especially the Tap Room overlooking the bay. It would be tough to argue there are many better places for an apres-round cocktail. I note that in the November/December issue of Links Magazine, 43% of the respondents in a survey said that if they could only go to one golf destination for the rest of their lives, they would go to Pebble Beach. This ranked ahead of the other three choices offered: St. Andrews, Pinehurst and Bandon Dunes. No surprise to me that I'm again in the minority.

If you are planning a golf trip to the Western United States my advice is to go to Pebble Beach if you haven't already, and if you want to stay in plush surroundings, eat well and be pampered. If you're really into great golf and want to experience the game as it was meant to be played, walk at a good pace, and be surrounded by beautiful scenery and solitude, I suggest a golf trip to Bandon Dunes instead. Bandon is closer to the soul of the game, and its less commercial feel appeals to me more.

Pebble Beach's web-site has a cool feature of live web-cams.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Golf in Japan

There are three courses in Japan ranked in the world's top 100 courses. Kawana (ranked #80), often described as the Pebble Beach of Japan, is a resort course. Unless you consider the 8,000 mile flight a hindrance, it is not that difficult to get on the course and play. The other two include Naruo (ranked #75) which is located in Osaka and is a private club and Hirono Golf Club (ranked #35) also a private club, located in Kobe.

I had fun last year trying to get on the #47 ranked course in the world, Morfontaine in France. It was a learning experience to try and play a course in a foreign land without any contacts. I received a lot of good feedback about my many aborted attempts to play this ideal French course and I was ultimately successful. So, I'm at it again.

This time, I am trying to gain access to the top ranked courses in Japan. As usual, I am aiming high, trying to get onto the best private courses in the land of the rising sun. I did a Google search for both Hirono and Naruo and found the phone numbers for both. I figured a good first try would be to just call them up and see if I could schedule a round. I was steeling myself for a tough time. My odds of this being successful are low, however, given the language barrier. I'm not too worried about breaking through eventually, since I've been rebuffed, turned away and put in my place by some of the best private clubs in the world. I have become very resilient and feel that when I put my mind to something I can achieve it.

With my calling card in hand, I decided to ring them up and give it a try. Since so much can be lost in translation, I have included an actual audio transcript below of my first attempts to play a round at Hirono and Naruo. Well, as you'll hear, the language barriers between Japan and English are high.

I'm still not quite sure whether she told me 'no' or whether it was 'no problem' and I actually have a date and time when I'm supposed to play. My guess is the former. Japan is a country with a lot of customs, traditions and protocols. Perhaps asking directly for a tee time was the wrong approach at Hirono. Maybe I need to be more polite and respectful of their customs first.

My phone call to Naruo took a different tact. Naruo is one of the oldest and most distinguished private clubs in all of Japan, so I thought rather than asking for a tee time directly, I would ask to be introduced to a member. Still a disaster. A total breakdown in communication, even though they could hear me.

Apologies about the herky-jerky nature of the recording. I went to the Richard Nixon school of tape recording management.

Clearly, I've got to find someone who speaks Japanese for my next attempt. I think having someone who better understands the nuances of Japanese cluture better would be in an easier position to help me arrange a round.

As I continue on this quest, I'm getting excited as I learn the differences of playing golf in Japan: the multi-tiered driving ranges, the white-hooded female caddies, a long break and massage after nine holes, and learning how to yell "fore" in Japanese.

I've also decided to learn some basic Japanese so I can at least show some respect when trying to ask to play the course. I've already learned that Japanese people tend not to say things directly. For example, it is impolite to directly say "no," so they have developed an elaborate ritual and process around saying no. They are much more obtuse and circuitous than Americans. I see that there are actually ten ways to say no in Japanese: "iiya, non, ina, ie, iie, ieie, no-sankyu, nain, hi, iya." What's curious is that two of the words, "iiya" or "iya" also mean yes. My new goal is to at least get an "iiya" and "iya," instead of the more serious sounding "no-sankyu" and hopefully I can turn the ambiguity into a round of golf. I'll keep eveyone apprised as I continue my attempt to golf in Japan...