From the Golf Journal Archives - An Open Along the Ocean

Feb 19, 2010

By Pat Ward-Thomas

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1972 issue of Golf Journal.)

Ask any British golfer, who has never crossed the Atlantic, to name a golf course in America and the odds are that Pebble Beach will be the first to come to mind: and why? Not only because Bing Crosby has spread its fame the world over with his tournament there every January, but because it is known as a spectacularly beautiful place, one of very few on the shores of the United States that could be classed among the great ones. It was high time that the USGA took the Open Championship there and when first I heard the good tidings my heart leaped, and down went the date in my diary as one that somehow had to be kept.

This is an historic occasion. Unless my researchers are amiss, the Championship has never before been played within sight and sound of the ocean. To the British way of thinking this is good because all their hundred Opens have been on the old links by the sea, not simply to serve an ancient tradition but because they are the finest tests of the game in the islands, offering a challenge to the golfer’s skill, patience and intelligence that is unique in the world.

Pebble Beach is referred to as a links, but in the true meaning of the term it is not. Links land as such is rare in the United States, but abounds on the coasts of Britain. Whatever the origins of golf may have been – shepherds swiping at stones with their crooks, Roman soldiers playing paganica with a feather stuffed ball – its earliest recognizable form took shape on the flat, sandy wastes of land known as links.

These relics of the Ice Age became fertilized over thousands of years with seeds borne by birds and the wind, until huge areas were sparsely grassed with fine sleek turf. For centuries they were used only for grazing and then golfers appeared, found ready-made fairways, greens, and vast sandy hazards and a strange joyful kind of madness was born. The links were a precious heritage and nowhere does golf owe less to the bulldozer, the sower of seed and the designer. Some in fact, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, simply evolved with the passing of time. The Robert Trent Jones of those early years was a celestial being.

Although the links invariably are close to the sea, the water plays little or no part in the golfing scheme of things. There are exceptions, like Turnberry, and Porthcawl in South Wales, but elsewhere the golfer rarely has more than a glimpse of the water. Whereas at Pebble Beach you are always aware of its presence, visually, and at times physically, if you happen to be a persistent type like some of the golfers in the Crosby who take pride in never quitting, for all the tide around their ankles and rocks around their ball. Pebble Beach does this to a man who, in other places, would pick up and cut his losses.

Most of these adventures happen when the winds are howling over the Peninsula, but even in the height of summer a few hapless creatures are likely to become more intimate with the Pacific than they would wish. Therein lies the ultimate distinction of Pebble Beach; its greatest challenge and its greatest beauty are entirely natural. To a square old purist like myself a few hundred yards of ocean coming into play are worth more than, for instance, all the pretty ponds and palms of Florida.

For all the quality of America’s most illustrious championship courses, Baltusrol, Merion, Oakmont, Olympic, Pinehurst, Scioto and the rest, their background is similar, undulating, wooded parkland, as the British would describe them, but Pebble Beach is not of their company. It may not be the greatest examination of golf in the United States – some believe that Cypress Point, its distinguished neighbor, has greater architectural merit – but many well founded in the arts of the game claim it has no peer.

No course is perfect, everything to all golfers, and Pebble Beach has holes which do not live long in the memory. They could not be described as weak but they have no particular distinction and are of a kind with numerous others on inland courses. Perhaps this is as well for they act as an introduction, a prelude to the magnificence that begins on the sixth. The golfer is not plunged in at the deep end at Pebble Beach, but a hint of what is to come may strike him if he slices from the fourth tee.

Throughout a world in which man’s capacity for blighting the landscape is infinite, golf makes a small but invaluable contribution to the preservation of natural beauty. Few finer examples exist than the shores of the Peninsula, which make an almost matchless setting for golf. What view can surpass that from the green breasted hill to which the sixth hole mounts, and where the course becomes earnestly involved with the Pacific for the first time. It commands the whole sweep of Bay from the charming little town of Carmel, clustered in the woods, to the distant 18th winding its sinisterly beautiful way above the ironbound shore to the Lodge. Near at hand the seventh, a green oasis cradled in rock, makes a tiny target even for a pitching club from the tee, and a terrifying one when winds thunder in from the ocean as they can in wintertime.

The visitor to Pebble Beach climbing the eighth fairway for the first time can have little conception of what awaits him. The green lies across a savage chasm, maybe 100 feet deep, but only the frail could resist the challenge and take the safe route. Failure to make the carry means disaster, success a soaring sense of triumph for the ordinary golfer, but for the great ones the next two holes are as likely and more to cause apprehension. They are classics of the premise that anxious shots fade away to the right. Both holes are on ground gently tilting towards the ocean; the greens, too, fall slightly that way and shots for the flag must be brave and true.

This is oceanside golf of a superb order, without exact parallel even on the old links of Britain, except possibly at Turnberry, but there the sea is on the pull side, and nothing like as menacing in its closeness.

Thereafter calmer pastures follow, past the curve of the mighty 14th and its high table green; and the 16th where cypress, living symbols of eternity, writhe near the green. Then all is majesty once more with the green of the short 17th standing out towards the ocean, shaped like an hourglass with its Victorian waistline, a hole where even the strongest may need a driver, and even the most accomplished, from Palmer downwards, have been known to flounder on the rocks below.

It is hard to imagine a greater finishing hole than the 18th, a monument to the blessing nature can bestow on a golf course. How Douglas Grant and Jack Neville must have rejoiced when they first trod the land over 50 years ago and realized that a masterpiece was there for the making. Although I understand that the rapacious ocean, gnawing away at the coast, has made the hole severer than it was originally.

In this age of the power golfer the par five is in danger of becoming a country cousin amid its brethren holes, simply a stopping place for the picking up of birdies: too often the green is large and the golfer can blast away at it without fear. This is mainly the fault of equipment and improved techniques, but design is also to blame. Par five implies the taking of three shots to reach the green, and to be worthy of the name all three should pose problems. Frequently they do not, and one shot at least demands only forward propulsion; not so the 18th at Pebble Beach.

From tee to green the ocean is there, cutting into the very vitals of the hole, ever haunting the mind and prompting all manner of defenses against the lethal pull. It tempts the block, the fade, even the slice to avoid the brutal beach and waves. But if the hole be played too conservatively bunkers and trees can punish, and short hits to right field can make the hole a long labor. The beauty of the hole is that the man who is down or behind can get out if he has the skill and courage, but nothing short of two great golf shots, or a fluke around the green, will make a four.

So close is the green to the beach that even a short approach cannot be treated with scorn; the slightest drag on the shot and it can race down the green towards the rocks. In the United States Amateur Championship of 1961, when first I visited Monterey, Joe Carr, the imperishable Irishman, did just that. He was one down to Dudley Wysong in the semifinal and had to make four to survive. The pin was back left, he overhit fractionally, the ball vanished and so did his hopes of meeting Nicklaus in the final.

As Carr was about to play his third shot, Nicklaus, who had long since won his match, and was watching the finish, remarked that Joe had 117 yards to go, or some such figure. He showed me his card with distances to the flags marked upon it, a routine practice nowadays but rare then and an early indication to me of Nicklaus’ ruthlessly methodical approach to golf. This was the last major event he won as an amateur – the end of one era, the beginning of another, and both belonging to the same man.

As Nicklaus received the trophy that brilliant September evening I remember thinking that there were no worlds he could not conquer if he had a mind to do so. Fortunately for golf he had. Long ago people thought the same of Bob Jones but in 1929 Pebble Beach was the scene of a rare failure when at the height of his powers. Mary, his wife, recalled once that she and a gathering of friends made the long journey from Atlanta for the Amateur Championship he had won four times in the previous five years. Apparently they left Bob to his own devices the morning of the first round; the match appeared to be a formality but John Goodman, a brash young man from Omaha, thought otherwise, was unafraid, Jones was beaten on the last green and the golfing world, believing him invincible, was incredulous.

From Jones to Nicklaus is a long time in championship history; in the life of Pebble Beach I hope it is but an instant, and that a noble golfing place will endure always.

Therein lies the ultimate distinction of Pebble Beach; its greatest challenge and its greatest beauty are entirely natural.

The eighth hole, with its demanding carry across an arm of Carmel Bay. It is a favorite site of spectators who line the cliff's edge and watch for the errant shot to sink beneath the blue waters below.

The tilting, tumbling fairways of the 450-yard ninth hole. The green is bounded by the cliffs on the right and back, and protected in front by a bunkered ravine.