Pebble Beach, CA—Beyond the clear interest in personalities, the driving element for sports is tied to specific iconic locations. Places like Lambeau Field, Fenway Park, Madison Square Garden, the Rose Bowl, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wimbledon, Churchill Downs, to name only a few are rightly celebrated for being so distinct—so incredibly tied to the sports that have graced their respective venues. Each provides a certain aura that goes beyond any sport figure that displayed their particular prowess there.
In the world of golf three locations stand apart: Augusta National (home to the annual Masters), The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, and Pebble Beach Golf Links—located on that most incredible peninsula called Monterey.
Each year the PGA Tour comes to this divine location for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Championship—formerly known for many years as the Bing Crosby Clambake. It was Bing who really deserves credit for linking Hollywood celebrities and sports figures by inviting them to play alongside golf’s best known players. Even before Bing’s involvement so much of what makes Pebble special today is tied to its founder—Samuel Finley Brown Morse—a distant cousin to telegraph inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse.
At age 29, Morse was responsible in managing the assets of the Pacific Improvement Company which had extensive real estate holdings on the Monterey Peninsula. Morse convinced his superiors that building a golf course would only add to the value in coming to the area. Most importantly, Morse insisted that key areas of the land adjoining the water would be kept for the golf course—even if such a move resulted in having less dollars to reap for optimum housing locations.
The famed Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson is quoted in calling Pebble Beach “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea” to be found anywhere on earth. When the sun is shining and the wind light and variable there’s hardly a dissenting word can be made with the description. After staging the 1929 U.S. Amateur, Pebble Beach moved into the nearby shadows. After Morse died in 1969 it was his son who pushed ahead in convincing the United States Golf Association to stage its Open Championship at the famed venue in 1972.
Fortuitously, the first winner was none other than Jack Nicklaus and the Golden Bear did so in an emphatic way, nearly acing the par-3 17th in the final round. Ten years later Pebble again hosted the event. The winner? Tom Watson, holing out a chip shot at the par-3 17th and keeping none other than Nicklaus from winning his record 5th Open title. Both men have said that if they had only one round to play they would choose to play Pebble Beach.
Other majors have been at Pebble Beach through the years and none showed such lasting impact than the epic U.S. Open triumph in 2000 by Tiger Woods. Although much was expected of Woods after winning in then record fashion at Augusta in ’97 it was his win at Pebble during the Open—winning by a record 15 strokes that showed a new sheriff was in town and would be a force for years to come.
Over the years, Pebble Beach has been renovated sensibly to keep the spirit of the challenge front and center. Different architects have left their mark over the years but the essential core of the course has always been kept in mind. Nicklaus, as a successful designer in his own right, added his fingerprints to the design in bringing forward a new par-3 5th—which runs parallel to Stillwater Cove. Bunkers have been added and a few tees included. There’s also been some work on expanding some of the greens to provide additional pin locations—the most notable being the hour glass green at the par-3 17th.
Unlike so many of the great courses in America, Pebble Beach has always been open to the public. Costs to play today are prohibitive—approximately $500 so don’t expect to see Pete the plumber strolling the fairways.
Pebble’s greatness takes place in many ways. The opening few holes are merely the warm-up prior to the grand middle portion of the course. The small greens are always vexing—providing small targets to hit—and when the wind is howling are maddening to find with any regularity.
The stretch of golf from holes 6 through 10 is easily among the finest stretch of its kind on the globe. The range of the holes is impressive. The par-5 6th takes you out to the water in grand style. The downhill drop-shot 107-yard par-3 7th can play vastly different when the unpredictable winds pick-up in intensity. And, the trio of par-4’s that follow has no peer in all of golf. Each is quite particular in what is required with Nicklaus proclaiming the approach to the 8th the finest of its kind in all of golf.
The early portion of the back nine is clearly subdued when held against the likes of the preceding holes, but often times the public fails to comprehend the challenges faced by the devilishly severe green at the 13th or the rigors of the approach to the par-5 14th with a green that provides far less landing room than one can ever imagine. Pebble ends in grand fashion—the 17th is a demanding hole when the pin is pushed to the far left, the approach must be gauged with utter precision. And, the finale is likely the most recognized closing hole in all of golf. The par-5 18th hugs the water pushing in from the left. The tiniest flinch and your ball will quickly disappear as the waves pound the sea wall.
Pebble Beach in a major stretch of the truth uses the word “links” in its name but the course is nowhere near being one. In just over three years time Pebble will serve again as host to its 6th U.S. Open in ’19—celebrating the centennial of its opening. This weekend will once again showcase an American treasure no less special than any other majestic sports location. While the others owe their existence to the talents of men who built such structures, Pebble Beach speaks to a higher authority who so blessed this special place of California. The site of humpback whales frolicking in the nearby waters, with sea lions announcing to the world their presence. In sum, Pebble Beach is simply one of a kind.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.