Standing on the first tee box, we are downright giddy, giggling and snapping photos like two school kids who’ve just arrived in Disneyland. We try to be cool, nonchalant, but it isn’t easy. After a lifetime of anticipation, a dream is about to be fulfilled. Within minutes, my husband, Terry Cassidy, a passionate, fanatical golfer, will play a round at Pebble Beach and I’m tagging along for the ride. Our only hesitation: Will it be worth the $450 price of admission?
Like notches on a belt, golf addicts endeavor to play all the great courses and Terry is no exception. Give him the chance to name drop and he’ll tell you about his round at Augusta National or the Old Course at St. Andrews, or Royal Troon or Prestwick, the site of the first British Open Championship. Or Doral’s Blue Monster or Pinehurst No. 2, or a few holes he once played with Jack Nicklaus in Scotland. And so on. But no other course in America, or perhaps the world, activates a golfer’s salivary glands more than this venerated golf resort community 120 miles south of San Francisco.
Normally my golf-a-holic husband keeps his nerves in check, but today he is a basket case. He paces. He perspires. He repeatedly fidgets with the buttons on his new Bobby Jones golf shirt and flicks some grass off his pristine FootJoy golf shoes, both bought months ago in preparation for this blessed event. Jay, the 70-ish tee captain clad in a dapper black jacket and matching cap, gives Terry and his playing partners— an equally keyed-up father and two 30-something sons from Tucson— their marching orders. Jay’s job is to make sure everyone knows the ground rules and he takes it seriously. “Keep a half hole behind. No carts on fairways,” he says in a better-do-as-you’re-told voice.
That’s great news for us. I may be a fair-weather golfer compared to my English husband’s fanaticism, but I’m equally psyched at the thought of walking in the footsteps of golf’s greatest legends. “Make sure your handicap equals the tee box,” Jay growls. It’s clear that he doesn’t want hackers playing from the back tees, holding up play. In the best weather, only a maximum of 236 golfers can play in a day; this course is not for duffers. Golf’s mecca is for those who adore the game, relish its history and know the rules. After four movie-mogul types with slick hair and dark glasses toting Louis Vuitton golf bags move on, Jay gives our group the green light.
Terry slowly presses his tee into the earth. With a course index of eight, the first hole, a 376-yard, par 4, is by no means the most difficult. But it is the most daunting since the tee box is in full view of the Pro Shop and dozens of people are watching. If that isn’t enough intimidation, the fairway is a slight dogleg right, so from the tee he can’t see the green. To the left is an out-of-bounds area, to the right a forest of trees.
Terry tries to focus on a good first shot, but a hodgepodge of golf history flashes through his mind, fighting for attention: This is where Tiger Woods scored a 15-stroke U.S. Open victory in 2000, where the famous “Dual in the Sun” for the ‘82 U.S. Open title happened between Nicklaus and Watson. Where Tom Kite won his first and only major. Bobby Jones could have stood right here, right where I’m about to hit this bloody ball! “Please, Lord, let me hit it straight and not embarrass myself in front of all these people,” he mumbles to himself.
The ball goes as the crow flies, about 220 yards right down the middle of the fairway. The fear of making a fool of himself subsides, at least for the time being.
To the inhabitants of this planet who are not intoxicated by golf, the idea of traveling 3,000 miles to Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula and paying hundreds of dollars to hit a little white ball around 6,737 yards of grass would be absurd. A round on these sacred links is one of the most expensive in the world— $425 plus a $25 fee for me to ride along, an extra charge we think is a bit tacky.
Pocketbook shock No. 2: While it is a public course and technically anyone can play, in order to get a confirmed tee time, you have to stay a minimum of two nights at any one of three Pebble Beach resorts. We choose the “cheapest” one. Our room at the Inn at Spanish Bay is $505 per night, plus a daily $20 “service fee” and $53 tax.
Fulfilling a dream has its price. Even at these rates availability can be tricky, especially from September to April when days are shorter and fewer golfers can play. They accept reservations up to 18 months in advance, and with a little flexibility they usually accommodate most requests, except during major tournaments, of course.
Opened for play in 1919, Pebble Beach was the vision of Samuel F.B. Morse, a distant cousin of the inventor of Morse code. He hired Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, two amateur but avid golfers, to design the course based on their experiences playing around the world. It’s been tinkered with over the years by golf course architects and is considered a masterpiece of design. In Golf Digest’s list of Top 100 Golf Courses that includes Pine Valley, Augusta National, Cypress Point and other exclusive private clubs not available to the public at any price, Pebble Beach is the only public course to have been in the Top 10 for more than 35 years. It is perennially ranked the No. 1 public golf course in America and in 2010 it will host its fifth U.S. Open Championship.
And at $25 per hole, we relish every splendid moment. There is hardly a divot in sight. Heart-pounding elevations offer postcard-perfect views of roller coaster greens that look about the size of large serving platters, and bunkers so deep they could camouflage a Mini Cooper. Each hole is a masterpiece, a golfer’s Renoir, but none of the inland holes can compete with those along the mighty Pacific Ocean, where foaming waves pound against massive coastal rocks occupied by a party of sunbathing seals. Showing no sign of panic about the possibility of getting knocked in the head by a golf ball, friendly deer roam the course as if they live in the safe confines of a national park. One of the golfers in our group points out the house once owned by Bing Crosby, the crooner who adored the course and called it “Alcatraz with Grass.” Multimillion-dollar homes line many fairways, but fortunately they’re far enough away to be out of striking range.
Despite the pressure, Terry is playing well, parring the first hole followed by a few bogeys before a seven on the sixth. Ouch! The drama (and scores) mount from hole to hole, but no one expects a low score. After all, this is one of the toughest courses in the world. Terry takes a deep breath before striking the ball on the seventh, a short par 3, 106 yards. The elevated tee looks down onto a small green surrounded by sand, and the Pacific Ocean is just longing to take his ball for a swim. Terry notes that this is the hole where Kite won the ‘92 U.S. Open title with a birdie chip from the tall grass. He also recalls that Nick Faldo took a five from the same spot a few minutes before Kite’s chip shot. Sometimes knowing too much golf history can be a bad thing. Terry takes a four.
None of the golfers in our group lament about high scores. Frank, the white-haired dad, is not playing well but he couldn’t care less. Normally when paired with strangers everyone engages in idle chit-chat about what you do or where you live. Today the subject is golf and nothing but. The foursome analyze every hole, each shot, every club choice; there’s no time to waste time talking about careers.
The euphoria continues for more than four hours. There are no ordinary holes at Pebble Beach but the last two— a par 3 at the 17th and a 543-yard, par 5 at the 18th— are touted as the best finishing holes on any course in the world, and they deliver the goods. Imagine a wind with a bad temper blowing off the sea. Add an intimidating ocean and more sand in sight than at Ocean City. Terry takes a six on the last hole, feeling quite proud that he didn’t lose one ball on the entire round. We mark the milestone with a photo on the 18th green before slowly making our way to the clubhouse as one passionate golfer’s dream-come-true comes to an end.
So was it worth it?
All I can say is, ever since our trip to golf heaven, Terry has played Pebble Beach in his mind a dozen times more. Every tee shot, every fairway and every green. That’s the mystery and wonder and joy of the game. So if we amortize the outrageous cost of one round over the times he’s played the course in his head and told the story to anyone who would listen, our round at America’s most famous course may just turn out to be a bargain.
There are three resorts in Pebble Beach and all are accessible via the scenic 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula, about four miles from downtown Monterey. Guests at any resort can book tee times at all four courses in the Pebble Beach complex. 800-654-9300, http://www.pebblebeach.com
The Inn at Spanish Bay rambles along the Pacific Ocean and Scottish-style links land golf course. Just 270 guest rooms and suites in this three- and four-level luxury hotel. Four restaurants. Rooms from $505 a night.
The Lodge At Pebble Beach houses 161 luxurious guest rooms and suites with views of the famous seaside fairways or sunsets over Carmel Bay. Most have fireplaces, patios or balconies. Four restaurants, spa, tennis courts, heated outdoor pool, shops and boutiques. Rooms from $580.
Casa Palmero has the look and feel of an intimate 19th-century Mediterranean estate. With just 24 elegant rooms and suites, many with private patios and whirlpool spas, this posh villa is perched on the first and second fairways of Pebble Beach golf course. Communal areas include a grand courtyard, living room, library, billiard room, bar and lounge with complimentary evening refreshments. Estate rooms from $705 a night.
Travel Tip To recover from jet lag before our two-day splurge at Pebble Beach, we arrived on the Monterey Peninsula a few days early and stayed at Quail Lodge, a Carmel Valley classic where we relaxed, unwound at a top-notch Wellness Center and played a few rounds of golf at down-to-earth prices. Room rates from $225. Greens fee, $160. 888-828-8787, http://www.quaillodge.com
While Carmel’s charming restaurants are just 15 minutes away, we opted to dine at a few of the many Pebble Beach restaurant choices. Our favorites: Sticks is best for breakfast, lunch or drinks after a round or very casual dinner. The awesome view of the Spanish Bay links course is breathtaking. For a classier, fancier alternative, Peppoli pairs rustic Italian dishes with world-class wines in a Tuscan villa setting. Stillwater Bar and Grill is contemporary, classy casual with an amazing view of the 18th green of Pebble Beach Golf Links and Carmel Bay. Excellent seafood, lively bar and the perfect outdoor terrace for lunch.
Play (besides golf)
Rent a car and cruise 17-Mile Drive, a magnificent scenic road that hugs the Pacific coastline before winding deep into the 5,000-acre Del Monte Forest. Pack a gourmet picnic lunch and enjoy it along the way. Or, shop till you drop in downtown Carmel for exquisite but pricey art and unique jewelry. Check out Cannery Row, one of America’s most famous streets that’s full of shops, restaurants and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the nation’s largest. Big Sur and its jaw-dropping rugged coastal views is just a 30-minute drive away.
Fly direct into Monterey from Los Angeles or San Francisco. The resort provides courtesy transportation to/from the Monterey airport. We flew Southwest from Baltimore into San Jose, the nearest major airport, with a change in Phoenix. Round-trip fare: $426. From there we rented a car and drove 62 miles to the resort.
The cost of a round, in season, at 10 of the most expensive golf courses in the country. (Many resorts also require a hotel stay.)
Shadow Creek, Las Vegas $500
Wynn Country Club, Wynn Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas $500
Pebble Beach, Pebble Beach, Calif. $425
Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C. $350
The Greenbrier Course, Greenbrier, W.Va. $350*
The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C. $290*
Spyglass Hill, Pebble Beach, Calif. $290
The Blue Monster, Doral Golf Resort & Spa, Miami $275
Harbourtown, Hilton Head, S.C. $250
The Seaside Course, The Cloisters, Sea Island, Ga. $240
*non-guest fee; guests are $185 at The Greenbrier and $245 at Kiawah