I’ve always thought of California as a place that has it all. Part of that stems from my being a child of the ’60s and growing up when it was famously regarded as the Golden State, with sun-soaked beaches and endless summers of surf. Then, there is the artistic precociousness that makes California seem a cultural step ahead of the rest of the country. That was especially true with the music that flowed from there in my youth, as bands like the Beach Boys and Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors produced songs that evoked all that seemed good and cool in the world.
My sentiments of California exceptionalism only grew as I came to better know that land in later years. I was particularly taken by the state’s natural splendor as I toured its sumptuous vineyards and trekked among its Redwood groves. I became smitten by stylish cities like San Francisco and besotted with eateries like Chez Panisse that set new trends in freshness, technique and taste. And I came to believe even more deeply that in all those ways, California was extraordinarily beautiful and bountiful – and also a little better, a little richer, a bit more special than any place else.
I was recently reminded of those feelings as I ate lunch on the porch of the Stillwater Bar and Grill at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. The cloudless sky was a mesmerizing blue, and the 65-degree ocean air soothed my skin as seals and sea otters swam across the cerulean cove before me. I nursed a glass of Shafer Merlot (from California’s wine country, of course) and relished a Salade Nicoise (with locally caught tuna) as I also admired the verdant fairways of the Golf Links and the stately Santa Lucia Mountains, their tops covered by wispy clouds.
Once again, I was in the California of my dreams. And what made this particular dream better than most was that I was about to play Pebble Beach. Home to the old Crosby Clambake. Host of this year’s U.S. Open. And inarguably one of the finest layouts in the land.
The town of Pebble Beach is one of the most beguiling spots on earth, a scenic supermodel at which no sane soul of can stop gawking. And the resort that was founded there in the early 20th century, with its swank hotels and state-of-the-art spa, is just as fetching.
The main attraction for most is Pebble Beach Golf Links, and the course gently eases you into your round with a trio of modest holes. Then, it gives you one of the most compelling stretches in golf, and some of the most exciting shots in the game. Like the second on the par-5 sixth, up the massive hill with cliffs falling into Stillwater Cove to the right. Or the downhill tee shot at the par-3 seventh, waves crashing against the jagged rocks behind the well-bunkered green. And the anxiety-inducing approach from the bluff on No. 8 that must clear a gaping chasm. Then, there is the mid-iron most players must hit into No. 9, and the Zen-like focus they need to stay down on the ball and not look up too fast to see it rise into – and then tumble from – the brilliant sky, Carmel Beach laid out beyond.
Things drop down just a notch as golfers head inland on the 11th and then begin working their way along a verdant ridge back home. But they rise back up when players get to the par-3 17th and start thinking of Jack’s 1-iron and Watson’s wedge as they also wonder how they are going to hold a ball on that testy, seaside green. Of course, the sweeping par-5 that is No. 18 comes next, all dogleg and danger down the left side, putting the perfect bow on a damn near perfect course.
I could easily play Pebble Beach Golf Links every day I am in Pebble Beach. But I’d also like to tee it up at the resort’s other layouts. The Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed Spyglass Hill is a wonderful course among the sand dunes and the Del Monte Forest, laid out on land Robert Louis Stevenson was said to have wandered as he wrote “Treasure Island.”
Not far from there is the Links at Spanish Bay. Designed by Tom Watson, Sandy Tatum and Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 1987, it never gets the acclaim of the other two. But it is a charming challenge overlooking the Pacific Ocean and 17-Mile Drive.
And if there is time, try to go around the Del Monte Golf Course. Opened in 1897 and measuring only 6,365 yards from the tips, the par-72 layout with small greens and wide, tree-lined fairways is the oldest continuously operating course west of the Mississippi River. It is also a favorite among locals, among them my caddie at Pebble Beach, who invited me to join him for a game at Del Monte during my latest journey there after we had finished on the big course.
I wanted to take him up on that offer but decided to head back to the Stillwater Bar and Grill instead, for a post-round beverage and another chance to savor the spectacular vistas there.
California, you see, had gotten me once again.