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Monday, December 8, 2014

Reflections on Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach Golf Links has nine truly spectacular holes and nine perfectly mediocre ones that somehow seem spectacular because of the company they keep. Add them all up, and playing there is a religious experience--which is the main reason you must do it at least once in your life. I've played the links several times, but it had been fifteen years since I last made the pilgrimage when I played Pebble last month. Regardless, every hole brought back memories of previous rounds. That's the way it is with mystical shrines.

Let me get one thing out of the way: Is Pebble Beach expensive? Ridiculously so. Who cares? How can you put a price on magic?  Forget the $495 greens fee. It's not like you're paying it every week, is it? Consider the price per memory and Pebble becomes one of the most inexpensive courses you can play.

While you're at it, forget your score, too.  You're not going to break the course record, so why ruin your memories by focusing on it?  (It's 62 for tournament play, held by Tom Kite and David Duval) Instead, just remember what it was like to stand on the seventh tee with the surf crashing around the tiny green below.  Or how it felt to take dead aim at the same pin as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson on the historic seventeenth hole. And how can you put a price on playing perhaps the best finishing hole in America with the ocean to your left, OB right, and always a small gallery of onlookers hovering around the 18th green?

Pebble Beach should be one of the most fun rounds of golf you'll ever play, but what I find fascinating about it is how badly most of us score there considering how playable it actually is.  Most of the greens have generous approaches, the fairways are generally wide, and the bunkering tough but not impossible.  The greens are tricky, of course, but perfectly readable and usually role at resort-course speeds rather than the linoleum-fast Stimps you see on TV.

So what makes it so hard to go low on the course?  It's all psychological.  First, of course, there is the fame factor.  You've seen Tom Watson's chip-in on endless highlight reels, you've watched Ernie Els fall apart on the beach and Dustin Johnson die a thousand deaths in the bunkers, not to mention Tiger Woods lap the field in the U.S. Open.  Put yourself on that stage and see if you can stay relaxed!  There's always a crowd around the first tee, too. It's surrounded by golfers, tourists, caddies--all watching you try to hit less than a driver far enough to clear the dog leg.

Then there is the tour pro problem.  We think we play the way they do, so we inevitably bite off more than we can chew. If you have an honest course handicap of 13 or greater (which includes 90% of the golfers in the world), you should be playing from the white tees (6,116 yards, rating 71.3, slope 132) not the gold (6,445/72.6/136) and certainly not the blues (6,828/74.7/143).  Guess what? The scenery is just as spectacular and the truly iconic holes (6 through 9 and 14, 17, and 18) are just as breathtaking when you're hitting a mid-iron or a wedge instead of a three-wood into the green.

You also don't have to reach (and probably can't) the par fives in two or even the long par fours in regulation.  If you split the fairway on #2 (a short par 5 at 460 yards from the gold tees), you might consider it, but the penalties for a miss are severe. Number 8, the iconic 400-yard par four with the dramatic second shot off a 100-ft. cliff will murder your score if you go for the pin and hit less than a perfect shot. I once hit the flagstick with my approach and still ended up with a bogey!  And #9? At 460 yards for a par 4, it's a three shot hole--period.  If you want a better score at Pebble, practice your layups, not your long irons.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Pebble is a visually intimidating golf course.  From the fairway bunker through the dog leg on the first hole to the surf crashing along the entire length of the eighteenth, there's at least once frightening feature on every hole.  The stretch along the ocean from #4 to #10 is the scariest, of course, and that's also where you're going to battle the worst winds (until 17 comes into view). But if you look dispassionately at each hole, you can find a way to avert disaster and play it somewhere near par. Take an iron off the tee at #4, aim for the fat part of the green on #5, swing easy on your first and second shots of #6 (you can't get there in two anyway!), knock down a wedge on #7, play #8 and #9 as three-shot holes, and stay left all the way on #10. Easy-peasy!

Audra Kepler
One last piece of advice about enjoying Pebble Beach: hire a caddie.  It's a glorious, leisurely walk and you're going to have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, so why spoil it by sitting on your fat arse in a golf cart?  The caddie will guide you around the trickier holes, regale you with stories, and save you at least five strokes on the greens.  What's that worth? It will cost you $80 plus a generous tip ($35 to $55 minimum suggested), but you're already paying a king's ransom to play, so what does a few more bucks matter?

The caddies at Pebble Beach are generally excellent. Audra Kepler carried my sticks this year. She was filling time between her All-American college golf career, her appearance in the U.S. Women's Amateur, and her win in the NCGA Women's Am and the start of her professional career on the Symetra Tour. She was great company and a total professional so I asked her to loop for me the next two days at Spyglass and Spanish Bay--a no brainer.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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