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The golfing paradise that is Pebble Beach, California

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This is from a golf trip I took with some friends to the golfing mecca of America a couple years ago…

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA — My buddies and I had been back home for a week or so when I got an email from one of them talking about our early September trip to famed Pebble Beach.

“Thanks for the trip to paradise,” he said.

I couldn’t say it any better myself.

I’m not one for getting nervous talking to athletes or celebrities or politicians, but I had a serious case of the knee-knocks on the first few holes at Pebble when I took some buddies last fall. It almost seemed surreal; like someone else was playing in my place.

I could feel the ghosts as I walked through the pro shop, checking the cardigan sweaters and high-priced souvenirs with the Pebble Beach Golf Links logos. Behind the number one tee box, in view of the putting green, was a plaque of Bing Crosby, who didn’t design the course but is arguably the most influential figure in Pebble Beach history for having brought his “clambake” tourney here and helping the networks beam back those dreamy photos of foamy surf and impossibly green fairways and (usually) blue Pacific skies to viewers buried in icy snowdrifts.

It’s like a photographic symphony, I thought as we got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean on the fifth hole. The blue Pacific was in front of me, rolling onto a perfect beach. The mountains rose to the southwest across Carmel Bay, purplish and brown in the soft morning light on an unusually cool September morning. And, then, spread out all around me was the most perfect of green pastures, a place of golfing legends and movie stars and history, the place where Tiger Woods put on one of his dominating performances of all time and where Tom Watson reached for the stars on No. 17 with one of the greatest pressure shots of all time.

As fabulous as the middle and finishing holes are, the first two holes are inland and kind of, well, introductory, winding past beautiful homes and gnarly trees. The conditions are as perfect as any golf course you’ll ever see, but holes 1 and 2 probably don’t match the Pebble Beach images most of us have locked in our minds.

Then you make the turn on the dogleg on the par-4 third hole and it all becomes clear. You look up (hopefully on your second shot) and see a row of flashing, white bunkers leading the eye down to the blue Pacific. A giant, deep-green cypress tree on the right side of the green frames the photo, and you can perhaps see the outlines of Monterey Bay’s famous sea lions swimming through beds of sea kelp.

You get up close and personal with the critters on number four, the first of nine oceanfront holes on the course. It’s just 327 yards to the centre of the green from the blue tees and only 295 from the whites, but you’ll want to lay up to avoid the nasty necklace of bunkers that guard the left side of the fairway—not to mention that big swatch of rocks and ocean on your right.

Playing the sixth hole, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed about Tiger’s shot from the thick grass next to the fairway bunker in his record-setting U.S. Open win in 2000, a ridiculous iron shot that carried up the massive hill and nestled some 10 feet from the pin.

Seven is the glorious, downhill par-3 that goes down to Monterey Bay; a great hole but an even greater view. The par-4 eighth takes you over what the yardage guide calls “a deep, oceanic chasm,” and that’s about right. No less an authority than Mike Weir calls it one of his favourite holes in the world.

“Normally when I’m playing, I’m pretty focused. But you can’t help it at Pebble Beach, taking a look out at that bay when you’re playing holes four to 10.

“It’s just so beautiful. My favourite is probably No. 8, that second shot over the ravine. Wow. But there are so many great ones. Seventeen is a wonderful par-3 and 18 is just a great par-5.”

On the ninth, a perfect drive (yeah, right) leads to a shot of 200 yards downhill with Carmel Beach on the right. The green is protected by a bunker with a Cro-Magnon slope and the green is another miniature gem the size of an Irish bank account.

There’s a tiny sliver of land on the right side of the fairway on number 10, just above the perfect beach, and my ball magically settled on one of the small pieces of earth that juts out toward the sand.

“Hey,” my caddy, Eddy Claessen, said with a grin. “Pebble Beach just gave you the finger.”

I laugh. I feel like I’ve known this guy all my life.

While Pebble’s greens are small, I don’t recall a single ball hit by anyone in my group bouncing unfairly. The targets are tiny, but they’re as receptive and soft as a mother’s hands.

The course turns inland again on No. 11, but you’re still riding the high you got from playing four to 10 and, frankly, you need the breather. There are some nice holes, although No. 15 is, to my mind, rather dull. Quickly, however, you find yourself on the famous par-3 17th, with the ocean stretching out in front of you and dangerous rocks beckoning your ball behind and to the left of the green.

I fired an iron into a stiff wind and, with a bit of bad luck (no, really), just caught the rear bunker. It was a tough second shot to a tight pin but I managed to get my sand wedge steady enough to get within three feet. Facing my first legitimate shot at par for the round, I yank the putt wide for a bogey, my knees pounding out a Charlie Watts/Rolling Stones riff.

The 18th hole at Pebble Beach.

The 18th hole at Pebble Beach.

Number 18 is simply one of the great holes of the world; a par-five that’s guarded on the left by the rocks and an ocean wall and on the right by lovely bunkers and a couple of well-placed trees. Everyone wants to try to tame the corner by drifting their shot out over the Pacific and onto the soft, green fairway grass for a shot at birdie. Few succeed.

The sea lions could probably retire Canada’s national debt with the number of Titleists found on the rocks and sea kelp.

The Monterey Peninsula would be world famous if it just had Pebble. But, of course, there are tons more options in this gentle land of waves, water and wind-blown cypress trees.

Just down the road, The Links at Spanish Bay is a terrific option. While Pebble gives you a chance to warm up a bit before whacking you upside the head with its ocean holes, Spanish Bay gets you tingling right off the bat with a hole that runs down to the glassy Pacific; a tough dog leg at the end with a green guarded by thick gorse; a true “linksy” look you don’t get at Pebble.

The views at Spanish Bay aren’t as dramatic as Pebble, but it’s a lovely property in absolutely pristine condition. Several holes are along the water, and you’ll probably spot some surfers darting in and out of the frigid waters at some point in your round.

IMG_0918The patio at the Inn on Spanish Bay is guaranteed to get you in the mood for something serious, with fireplaces and great views out over the bay, not to mention outstanding seafood and other treats at dinner and a bagpiper at sunset.

Spyglass looks a bit like Ontario’s Muskoka region or maybe B.C., with towering pines marching in orderly fashion down the sides of the fairway and small groups of deer scattered about.

“The first six holes were awesome,” one friend told me after his round. “The next 12 were unbelievable.”

I sit back home in Toronto on a winter’s day and recall how I ran into long-time CBC reporter Terry Leibel at Pebble. She was playing with her husband in the group in front of us and we spotted each other in the van on the way to the practice range. Sitting in the 19th-hole bar after her round, nursing a drink, I asked her what she thought.

“It’s like the course reaches out and gives you a big hug,” she said, sighing a warm, contented sigh. “I’ll never watch the TV coverage the same way.”

Neither will I.

Famous Pebble Beach Quotes

“If I had only one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach. I’ve loved this course from the first time I saw it. It’s possibly the best in the world.” — Jack Nicklaus

“Pebble is a piece of sacred ground. They say it’s the greatest meeting of land and water in the world. This course was heaven designed; just the way it fits on the land.” — Johnny Miller

“When you build a golf course, I always use the example of Pebble Beach. If you took the ocean away from the 18th hole, it’s a good golf hole. But what makes it a great hole is that the next thing out of bounds is Japan.” — Pete Dye

“I don’t think you can get a better venue any place in the world.”
— Ernie Els

Just The Facts

ARRIVING: The Monterey Peninsula is roughly two hours south of San Francisco International Airport.

EXPLORING: Folks looking for a warmup might try Bayonet/Black Horse in nearby Seaside. It’s a pretty course up in the hills above Monterey and it’s in great condition, but the greens aren’t as receptive as Pebble and it’s a tough track for anyone with a handicap over 15. Perhaps the best scenic golf value on the planet is Pacific Grove Golf Links. It’s not the least bit fancy, but most of the back nine is right along glorious Monterey Bay.

SLEEPING: If you can’t afford nights at Pebble or Spanish Bay, there are a million options in and around Monterey, which is generally far cheaper than Carmel. The Embassy Suites in Seaside is a good option for folks who want a little space.

TOURING: Definitely take the famous 17-Mile Drive the whole way to enjoy the fresh air and the beautiful views, including the famous Lone Cypress. Don’t miss a walk on powdery, long Carmel Beach. The tony shops and atmosphere of Carmel are precious but worth checking out. Pacific Grove has lovely B and B’s, more casual shops than Carmel, a lovely waterfront park and a great seafood restaurant called Passionfish. Don’t miss the fabulous views and marine life at Point Lobos, south of Carmel. Monterey has Cannery Row and a world-renowned aquarium.

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