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.


John Gorman said...

Well said. I haven't played Pebble, but I've played a number of the great ones. Your point of view mirrors the views of golfers who are "in the know."

If given $3000 to take a golf trip to the Left Coast, I would jump at the opportunity to go to Bandon over Pebble (unless I had to bring my wife).

Anonymous said...

Incredible Essay Top100 blogger....very well put. I haven't played Pebble but have had lunch on the bay with my wife. She is now convinced we have to go back so I can play with her walking along. BUT - I have played Bandon (7 rounds in 3 days) and outside of Ireland, I would choose Bandon as the place to go for the rest of my life. One thing I was curious about.....did you like the other courses as much as Pebble - Poppy, Spyglass, etc.....I assume not but I have heard many a preference towards the others.

erova said...

having played both the bandon tracks and pebble, i certainly agree with the sentiment that both places are indeed special. however, I don't think I can rank one over the other as a golf experience--they're both different, and I almost feel like Ty Webb trying to compare the two (i.e. I should just measure them against each other by height).

While my caddy was better at Bandon than Pebble, and my room(s) were much better at Pebble than Bandon, I think there's enough room in my head to say they're both fantastic experiences, and not necessarily one as a #6 and the other a 7 (which, Top100, is exactly why you mentioned you needed to lock in your rankings)...

Anonymous said...

gotta disagree with rating Bandon over Pebble Beach. Having played both, Pebble wins hands down in my view. Better course condition, some of the best holes, and maybe the best shot in golf- the approach at #8. Overall, just blows me away. I understand the concern over some of the ho hum holes- however I'd make the same observation about Bandon- at least when you're not playing in that 8 club wind that seems to kick up every afternoon...

Unknown said...

Top 100, I love your blog, I read it faithfully and have told a few friends about it, but I do have a question. In the "Is Pebble Overrated" section you mention the list of courses that are just as scenic, you mention Kauri Cliffs, yet in your "Courses Played" tab, you say you have never played the course. What gives?

Anonymous said...

Back when I was in high school, I attended a year at Carmel High School (a public HS) and played on the golf team there - at the time Pebble Beach was their home course - so I got to play a couple times every week over the course of 3 or 4 months. At the same time, I was also taking lessons from Laird Small over at Spyglass Hill and he let my brother and I play for free as long as we did a couple hours of work each week chipping range balls from the many trees/shrubs that frame the practice range. I also took one lesson from the pro over at Cypress Point - my only regret is that I didn't ask if he could get me on the course - I'm quite sure he probably would've let me on. This is without a doubt the coolest, fondest golf story I've got - what extreme luck! As the years pass and I see the green fees climb extroadinarily higher (to the point of almost needing a bank loan for the average person), I consider myself extemely lucky to have had such a great experience - which was all free golf on a national treasure!!

mattkeyser said...

I live in Oregon and have done annual boys trip to both Bandon and Pebble. Its one of those arguments that will go on for as long as both courses are in existance.

To me, really its apples and oranges. I have a hard time comparing a true irish/scottish links golf course built on rough and rugged sand dunes of Bandon to that of a more traditional set up and playing style of a plush Pebble Beach.

I would decide like this, and Top100 i believe you even talk about this in several of your blogs. Where do you get that chill down your spine standing on the first tee? For me, even though the first at PB is as blah as it gets, its Pebble Beach. Bandon/Pacific/Trails....nothing. Those 1st holes are just as bad(or worse) than #1 at PB. I am excited everytime I tee off on Pebble and everytime i get that same feeling. Maybe its all the Majors and History, Mabye its the 15-20 people always milling around watching you tee off, maybe its the $500 I just paid for 18 holes of golf. Whatever. Its a special feeling that I have only gotten from a handful of courses. (St Andrews is very much the same).

Matt Keyser

Joe Leenheer, PGA said...

Can you hit a home run at Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, or Fenway? Can you sink a buzzer beater at the Garden (NY or Boston)? Can you come back from a match point at Wimbledon? Can you score short handed on the really famous hockey rink? (sorry, not a hockey fan). Leap at Lambeau?

Why are these places so great? They are all similar to other sports venues. So what's the big deal?

They are all great because of what happened there. People dream of just watching a game or match in these places. Can you imagine if you could actually play your sport of choice in the venue of your choice?!

That is why Pebble is so great. It's the fact that you can play on the very same ground where some of the greatest golf/sports history took place. There are thousands of great courses, but only a handful can hang with the history of Pebble. Go play and enjoy!

Golf Pebble Beach said...

Many of the golf pros have played golf at Pebble Beach, and often return for more golf at the award-winning golf course. Pebble Beach provides spectacular views of land & sea, and the fairways are professionally designed, and strategic.

Anonymous said...

you should play the preserve in the carmel valley, an unbelivable fazio course. When I played pebble everyone said to go play the preserve. It is in the top 100 us courses.

ricky said...

I just played pebble beach a few weeks ago and found the course to be unreal. I do not understand how it is ranked behind courses like muirfield!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to disagree you. Pebble Beaches inland holes are not only challenging but 11 through 14 still offer stunning views of Carmel Bay not Monterey Bay. Ive played Pine Valley, Olympic Club and Shinnecock and found Pebble Beach in a league of its own, not only because a one of a kind golfing experience but amazing service before and after the round. Number 17 is an iconic hole if for no other reason than the historic shots that have taken place there from Tom Watson to Jack Nicklaus. I can tell from your blog that your golfing skills are challenged and this is probably a reason why you found Pebble and its difficult greens "overrated"

Anonymous said...

Luckily smarter people than you rank golf courses. Pebble deserves every bit and more of its ranking, sounds like you had a rough round.

Anonymous said...

I have played Pebble Beach a few times, as well as few of the other great courses in the area. I have also played Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails. We flew into Portland and drove to Bandon, then drove back and played Pumpkin Ridge (Ghost Creek) before flying home. It was a great trip and I highly recommend going. But if money isn't an issue, I would choose a Pebble trip, over a Bandon trip. I have been there many times, and I have never been disappointed. But I would say that a big part of what makes Pebble better is what is around the course. 17 mile drive. All of the other great courses. Carmel. The weather. The lodge at PB, and the Inn at Spanish Bay. I hope to return to Bandon, but Pebble is a cut above it in my book.

GChest86 said...

Although I haven't played Pebble, I walked it for the US Open practice rounds in 2010 and I'm not sure I can agree with the back nine (with your exception to 18 since it's on the water) being a snooze fest.
10-Elevation change makes this shorty a much more interesting hole than most people prefer.
11 and 12... maybe they lack some imagination. But they could have brought in Doak or something to make it like precious Bandon courses... but I bet he wouldn't even touch them.
13- With the ocean view, narrow fairway and traditionally small pebble greens... I don't understand how you can say you lose interest.
14- You're telling me this par 5 is boring? Debatable
15- May be bland... I guess... but with the bunker in the fairway making you think twice about driver could give you a longer approach than you want.
16- Absolutely my favorite par 4 on the back 9 giving plenty of interest with the bunkering around the greens and the fairway...
17- History... Just like st andrews... which any random non golfer could see and think "what's so special?" A tough green, Watson's chip... Enough said

That's my debate on why Pebble Beach deserves every bit of praise as they get. Because even with the "boring" holes... It has more history than most courses do...

Anonymous said...

Played Pebble last Tuesday, August 2nd, 2012 with my golf buddies. By far the best course I have ever played. Views comparable to the Makai Course in Kauai, but to play well at Pebble is to play fearless golf. Awesome experience.

Steve Sailer said...

They should build an elevated tee on 17 so you can see a little bit of what you can see on TV from the tower.

Erin said...

Gotta disagree. Pebble is better than Bandon.

Formerly TheForeKatz said...

Had a great experience at Pebble, other than slightly spraining my left LCL going into the bunker on the front of #16 (which still bothers me four years later). It was a beautiful day and the pace of play was about 4/12 hours.

I'm about a 20 handicap and I shot a 95, parring #1 and #18.

I had a better caddie at Pinehurst #2 but it was a terrific experience.

We stayed on the second floor of the lodge right across from #18. A beautiful view.