Pebble Beach: Time is right for a Golden Age restoration, and repositioning, of America’s favorite resort course - GolfTripX
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Pebble Beach: Time is right for a Golden Age restoration, and repositioning, of America’s favorite resort course


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Few phrases sound as sweet to a golfer’s ear than “Pebble Beach Golf Links.” The 100-year-old course on California’s Monterey Peninsula is a symbol of golf’s grandeur, once again on full star-studded display during this past week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am won (in a Monday finish) by Phil Mickelson, one of the game’s biggest stars. For most golfers, playing Pebble Beach is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience — and it’s been that way for a long time. So long, in fact, that today the course could use a once-in-a-generation overhaul.

As part of centennial celebrations throughout 2019, Pebble Beach will host its sixth U.S. Open Championship the week of June 13-16. And after the final putt is holed and a new champion swings his way into the history books alongside Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tom Watson (1982), Tom Kite (1992), Tiger Woods (2000) and Graeme McDowell (2010), would be a perfect time for the revered resort course to rediscover its architectural roots and let the glory of golf’s Golden Age resurface once again at Pebble Beach.

The setting, the course and the architecture currently come together to form one of the most renowned golf experiences in America. However, there would be a new “gold rush” in California if Pebble Beach were to join the restoration movement led by many prominent clubs and courses across the country. The opportunity to reshape the famed destination’s identity creates new possibilities for Pebble Beach’s second century.

On my once-in-a-lifetime experience at Pebble Beach, I walked the fairways, took in the views and enjoyed the incredible opportunity to play one of the great courses in the world. I soaked in everything about Pebble Beach with joy. But as the round progressed — and now as I reflect on the day as time has passed — I can’t help but wonder what Pebble Beach could be like if the course returned to its fullest potential.

{Editor’s Note: This story appeared in its original form in early 2018 on Jay Revell’s blog at JayRevell.com and G&E Magazine. It has been updated for publication on GolfTripX.com following the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.}

THE SETTING

Pebble Beach Golf Links is widely considered “America’s golf course.” Sure, there are a few other public-access courses worthy to fight for that title — Pinehurst No. 2 comes to mind with its Donald Ross pedigree magnified by the restoration skills of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

But no other course in the United States seems to arouse the daydreaming golfer more than Pebble Beach. The Pacific Coast setting was carved with a chisel held by the hand of God. Only the wild imagination of the creator could shape such a marvelous meeting of land and sea. It’s remarkable that such a piece of property has been reserved for the recreation of man. And it is even more rare that a course of this magnitude in the United States is open to public play. Anyone can tee it up at Pebble Beach Golf Links if they are willing to pay for it (although in most cases a stay at one of the Pebble Beach Resorts properties is required as well). It is a course that inspires players to discover something about themselves while playing a game over one of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth. A day spent at Pebble Beach is unforgettable by every measure.

Pebble Beach Company’s expansive resort encompasses the Del Monte Forest between Monterey and Carmel. And the Monterey Peninsula is draped with hilly forestland that rolls into dunes and seaside meadows before falling onto sand and sea in a stretch of California’s spectacular coastline. The crashing waves and splashing seals in Carmel Bay provide the soundtrack for some of golf’s greatest grounds. Golfers will seldom find a more seductive scene that appeals to their adventurous desires than Pebble Beach Golf Links.


THE HISTORY

Pebble Beach Golf Links was established in 1919 as part of developer Samuel F.B. Morse’s visionary plans to turn the Monterey Peninsula into a world-class destination. He enlisted two of the West Coast’s premier amateur players of their time — Jack Neville and Douglas Grant — to design the golf course. Pebble Beach was the duo’s first design.

Neville and Grant routed the golf course with the distinct purpose of having as many holes as possible play along the coastline. Holes 4 through 10 all play over meadows that hug the edge of the cliff overlooking Stillwater Cove and the bay beyond. In that stretch, along with the closing 17th and 18th holes, were born some of the most iconic golf holes in America.

The course plays inland for the opening three holes before the routing finds its way to the famous stretch at the water’s edge. After No. 10, the routing works inland again for holes 11 through 16 and then returns back to the sea for two of the great closing holes in golf.

Pebble Beach Golf Links is not actually a links golf course under the definition many traditionalists have come to accept. It plays much more like a parkland course than a firm-and-fast links. However, similar to many links in the British isles, Pebble Beach does not follow a routing of nine-hole loops but rather goes out towards the 10th hole, then works its way back toward The Lodge, which overlooks the 18th green.

The Pebble Beach design features small greens and narrow fairways guarded by traditional parkland-style bunkering, and players venturing out of the fairways will find thick rough — both key defenses used by the United States Golf Association when their championships have been hosted at Pebble Beach. Obviously, those elements can be useful for constructing a demanding test for the world’s best players, but for the tens of thousands of players who golf at Pebble Beach each year, small targets and penal conditions can make for frustrating days and long rounds.

THE ARCHITECTURE

All golf courses evolve over time, and Pebble Beach is no exception. But for the most part, it has stayed true to the routing of Neville and Grant. And yet, in the 100 years that Pebble Beach Golf Links has existed, a number of architects — including William Herbert Fowler (seriously, look him up) and all-time stars of the game Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus — have left their mark on the layout.

A long history of varied architectural styles, theories and tastes have left Pebble Beach in a precarious position. Some would argue (myself included) that Pebble Beach Golf Links today lacks a central design theme and the conditioning is inconsistent with the course’s Golden Age origination and natural settings.

Perhaps the most impressive era of Pebble Beach’s architectural history occurred during the years leading up to the 1929 U.S. Amateur Championship — the first of many USGA championships to be held at Pebble Beach. In preparation for the Amateur, Samuel Morse turned to a trio of architects over a short span of years to craft a renovation of the popular course. And the resulting work [seen in historic photos included in our gallery above] was spectacular.

Those three architects were Alister MacKenzie, Robert Hunter and Chandler Egan. MacKenzie is considered one the greatest golf architects who ever lived. Hunter was one of MacKenzie’s most acclaimed associates and had recently authored “The Links,” the first book on golf architecture written by an American. Egan was one of America’s first great amateur champions and an acclaimed architect in his own right.

Mackenzie was brought in first in 1926 to make changes to the greens complexes and bunkering on holes 8 and 13. Then came the revisions led by Egan and assisted by Hunter — they were commissioned to rebuild all of the remaining greens and bunkers, and also asked to make strategic enhancements including new tees and even the relocation of some greens.

Some golf historians assume the position that MacKenzie collaborated with Egan and Hunter during the renovations as he was building the famed Cypress Point Club just a few miles down the road during this time. The work by this now-historic threesome was defined by a combination of imitation dunes bunkering that flowed seamlessly into new large and challenging green complexes, all of which resulted in an well-regarded course when the U.S. Amateur arrived in 1929.

“I had never seen this type of bunkering done before, but we had faith in the idea and after a few experiments achieved a result that we hope will continue to be as good as it seems at this writing.”
—Chandler Egan

“The new green has been placed as close to the ocean as possible. It is irregular in shape, one hundred feet long from the front to back and from forty-five to fifty feet wide. It is completely surrounded by sand dune bunkering.” —Chandler Egan, referring to the work done by he and Robert Hunter on the seventh hole

Although the dunes-like bunkering was not natural to the site, it gave a much more natural appearance than what exists today. The large greens provided challenge and great interest from players. And the marriage of those features with the national golf spotlight shining on the course helped to define Pebble Beach as one of America’s great championship courses.

THE PRICE TO PLAY

To enjoy the pleasures of Pebble Beach, golfers must embrace the spending of money. In a market-based economy, the resort and its trappings are expensive — and rightfully so. There are numerous options for accommodations, including the famous Lodge overlooking the 18th hole at Pebble and the more modern (and some say even more appealing) Inn at Spanish Bay.

And other courses also add to the resort experience: Spyglass Hill and the Links at Spanish Bay make for wonderful outings, but they aren’t close in comparison to the majesty of their bigger, older brother. And in order to play Pebble, guests must stay at the resort for a two-night minimum, which adds significantly to the cost.

{Want to see more of Spanish Bay Golf Links? Check out Brian Oar’s photo gallery and read Darin Bunch’s essay on why he loves Pebble Beach Resorts’ hidden gem.}

Pebble Beach is open to the public, but using the description “accessible” might be a stretch. Players can attempt to secure a tee time at Pebble without a room reservation, but only within a 24-hour period before the desired day of play. And if you make it through that gauntlet, the green fee (plus required caddie) can climb toward $600 for the round.

Pebble Beach is a phenomenal golf course set in a location that is unparalleled. Numerous aspects of the experience can support its price points in golf fees, lodging and dining — and the success of the Pebble Beach Resorts proves there is a market for high-priced golf experiences that deliver on the promise of beautiful, unforgettable vacations and exemplary service.

However, as the golf resort business becomes increasingly competitive, the Pebble Beach Company must be wary of the shifting tides of golfers’ tastes. Pebble Beach’s resort experience and amenities are world class, but the presentation of the golf course — the most important amenity of all — is falling behind, especially as competitors such as Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, Sand Valley, Streamsong, Gamble Sands and others become new meccas for golf travelers.

THE OPPORTUNITY

Golf course design and architecture is in the midst of a renaissance. The abundance of today’s architects who are students of golf’s Golden Age is impressive. Tom Doak, the team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, David McLay Kidd and Gil Hanse have all been leaders in this movement. Each of these men have contributed significant works to the game of golf in the past 20 years, and their resumes have inspired numerous restoration specialists and younger architects who are now also making their mark on golf design.

At the same time, many of North America’s most prominent clubs and courses have begun to undo much of the misplaced renovations that found their way into golf design during the latter half of the 20th century. There are numerous examples of courses that went astray during the decades in which golf design lost its way. Today, as those scars are healing, gone are the trees, narrow fairways, small greens and vicious rough. Playability and strategy are returning to the game one course at a time.

Golf’s Golden Age was defined by wide fairways and large greens complexes. Players were asked by architects to choose a line and a shot. Options were granted for players of varying skill levels as to not unjustly punish those of lesser ability. Good players and good shots were rewarded, and the game was fun.

Pebble Beach could become the national spokesmodel for Golden Age restoration. Certainly, the Pebble Beach Company has the money. And Pebble Beach Golf Links also has the history, the layout and the public interest needed to embark on a restoration of unparalleled proportions.

And they wouldn’t be the first resort to take the gamble. As mentioned previously, Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina has not only accepted the challenged, they’ve very much embraced the need to stay current with their golf design in a variety of ways. Coore, Crenshaw and team took on an ambitious restoration of No. 2 and the results were spectacular, returning the championship course to its rightful condition and opening to rave reviews when No. 2 hosted both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2017 (and the men’s national championship will return to Pinehurst in 2024).

And then, in 2018, Gil Hanse reworked the No. 4 course with what the architect called his “retrovation” not long after building such other fun golf outlets as The Cradle par-3 course and Thistle Du putting green for visitors and resort guests to enjoy. Pinehurst is an example of how an historic golf destination has increased its relevance and appeal to golfers across various markets by rethinking its approach to 18-hole courses as well as the needs and desires of customers who want to play entertaining golf in all its many forms.

But with all due respect to what Pinehurst has achieved in recent years, its success would most likely pale in comparison when measured against what a restoration would mean for Pebble Beach. After all, as great as the Pinehurst courses are, they are still landlocked and no match for the spectacular setting of golf’s signature course at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

The crop of architects who would throw their blueprints into the hat for a chance to work on Pebble Beach would be both impressive and overwhelming. Every major designer would battle for the chance to shape the future of “America’s golf course.”

Pebble Beach should be as timeless as it is beautiful. The course that Pebble Beach deserves to be is hidden in plain site. It just needs a new artist to peel back the layers of time and reveal the rendition that was left to us by the masters of the Golden Age.

Pebble Beach is a special place. The course occupies a high bucket-list spot for most golfers around the world. In these days when golf is again returning to the principles that made it great in America, Pebble Beach is filled with promise. And there’s no better time than now to start thinking about the transformation — imagine what the U.S. Women’s Open would be like in 2023 on a newly reimagined Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Of course the Pebble Beach Company doesn’t need to conduct a massive restoration of its crown jewel in order to capture more market share. In fact, the packed tee sheet and maximum-occupancy room nights might be the No. 1 reason the course will remain as it is now for years to come — temporarily closing down a cash-cow such as Pebble Beach Golf Links would require tremendous financial fortitude. However, if the company were to look at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the context of history, they would find that the “Pebble” they are selling is not the best Pebble Beach they can offer.

Pebble Beach Golf Links could be the ultimate time machine — returning golfers to a rich architectural history that should be allowed to shine but has been largely grassed over and forgotten.

The promise of Pebble Beach lies in its possibilities. Imagine what could occur if the great architects of golf’s Second Golden Age were offered the opportunity to restore the work of masters from the first. The grandeur of Pebble Beach’s architectural past could once again shine, and every golfer who dares to dream of Pebble Beach would seek to stand in her light once more.

My experience at Pebble Beach was unforgettable. I had a great walk through one of the most wonderful golf courses on Earth. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if the course is ever restored to its fullest potential, I’ll be making it a once-a-year experience. And I’m pretty sure I won’t be alone.

“The course as completed offers on many holes an optional route and in every case the risky route can appeal only to the long hitter of championship caliber when play is from the back tees. Mr. Average Golfer will do well to avoid the risky route for in any case he is better off on the safety route unless play is from the front tees. Then he, too, can have the same thrill that the long hitter may get from the back tees by taking the risks involved in the effort to “short-cut” the hole and possibly save a stroke.” —Chandler Egan

• • •

Editor’s Note: Chandler Egan quotes used in this story come from the book “Pebble Beach: The Official Golf History” written by longtime Pebble Beach historian Neal Hotelling (and illustrated by the photographic work of Joann Dost). The book is available for purchase at Amazon.com.

About the author

Jay Revell

Jay Revell

Jay Revell is a golf scribe based in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a lifelong golfer and loves to write about history, course architecture, and the people and experiences that make golf a game worth pursuing around the globe. Jay is the publisher of jayrevell.com and his work has been featured by sites such as GolfTripX, Golf Advisor, G&E Magazine, Sugarloaf Social Club and MacKenzie Golf Bags.

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