Appeared in May/June 2000 LINKS
Bring out the good stuff – it’s party time. The United States Golf Association is bringing its 100th U.S. Open to golf’s greatest Open venue, Pebble Beach Golf Links. “Pebble Beach is such a great Open site because of the quality of the holes and the location,” says David Fay, executive director of the USGA. “The course cannot be beat. It is the best, at least in this country.”
Throughout its century of hosting Opens, the USGA traditionally has taken its really, really, really big show to our country’s finest courses. Shinnecock Hills, Merion, The Country Club, Oakmont, Riviera and Baltusrol quickly come to mind, for example.
But Pebble Beach, set in the midst of California’s 5300-acre Del Monte Forest on Monterey Bay, radiates a uniquely indefinable energy that puts it in a class by itself. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this rugged, well-worn marine beauty is a miracle to behold, and presents a perplexing physical and mental challenge to any round there. Open or not. Pebble Beach is the ultimate producer of sweaty palms, tummy butterflies and irregular heartbeats, as it constantly bombards players with unparalleled tests of shotmaking. Don’t even bother teeing it up here if you’re weak in the knees, or heart.
The razzle-dazzle holes at Pebble Beach are its wee seventh, the 106-yard downhiller that, depending on the wind, can require the use of every club in the bag: and the final two holes: that daunting 208-yard 17th; and the majestic closer, a spectacular 543-yard par-5 that lines the Pacific.
But it is the par-4s, six of which are less than 400 yards, that form the backbone of the course. The eighth through 11th holes, ranging in yardage from 466 to 380, will test most every important shot a player has in his arsenal. Two other holes are often overlooked because they are less than 400 yards: the third, a dogleg-left of only 390 yards but with a drive that tests one’s nerves and propensity to gamble, and a devilishly sloping, back-to-front green; and the tiny 331-yard fourth hole, with cross and pot bunkers, a well-guarded long, skinny, sloping green and the Pacific Ocean all along its right side, with just five paces from the green’s edge to the red stakes.
This year’s Open constestants will face a somewhat different Pebble Beach, as there are two notable hole changes on the 6,846-yard setup: The par-5 second hole has been converted to a 484-yard par-4 (for the Open only), reducing the total par from 72 to 71; and there is a new fifth hole, designed by Jack Nicklaus. The fifth is still a par-3 and still within steps of the fourth green. But rather than playing inland and uphill, the new 188-yard model is very slightly downhill and nestled right along and above the ocean. The putting surface is petite and well-bunkered, both classic Pebble Beach characteristics.
Recently, the course has suffered from a loss of some of its Monterey pines, the result of a fungal disease called pitch canker. A cluster of pines on No.2 was wiped out, contributing to the decision to shorten the hole, and several other areas have been affected, including the two pines on the right edge of the 18th fairway. One is already dead and is expected to be replaced before the Open, and eventually all the affected trees are expected to be replaced.
Pebble Beach will endure, however—it always has. The original owner, Del Monte Properties Co. (later reincorporated as Pebble Beach Corp.), held on to the course until 1979, when it was acquired by Twentieth Century Fox. In 1990, it was purchased by the first of two Japanese owners, Minuro Isutani, followed by Taiheiyo Club, Inc., in 1992. And in a blockbuster deal last year, Peter Ueberroth, Dick Ferris, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer became the principals behind the return of Pebble Beach to American hands.
The three wise men originally responsible for making Pebble Beach the all-world course and resort it is were one Ivy Leaguer, Samuel Finley Brown Mores (Yale University, Class of 1907), and two California golf champions, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant.
Morse was asked late in his distinguished business career why he had gone west in 1908. “My father wasn’t living and I had a job offered to me in the West,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to Boston where I was born and brought up. It didn’t appeal to me. We lived in a suburb, Newton, and I’d see these old fellows walking by our house on the way to the train, every damn morning, year after year, and it seemed so damn dreary to me; I wanted to go west.
“I first took a job in Africa on a cotton plantation in the Sudan, but I got engaged and that didn’t appeal to my fiancée, so we settled on a job with John Hayes Hammond, the mining man in California. This led in a few years to being named manager of the Pacific Improvement Company, the holding company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. We had 15 ranches, 74 town sites scattered throughout the state and in Nevada and Arizona, three coal mines and several resorts, the Del Monte Hotel being one of them. When I first came west I didn’t know a darn thing about this stuff. The furthest west I’d ever been was, perhaps, New York or West Point. I’d never been anywhere. Hell, I thought Chicago was a sort of oasis.”
Morse, a distant relative of the inventor of the telegraph, fell in love with the Monterey Peninsula the first time he visited. As he got to know the land more thoroughly, he was determined to make it his own. He presented the Board of the Pacific Improvement Company a proposal to buy the hotel and much of the Carmel Valley, and they agreed. By 1919, Sam Morse had arranged for the financial backing of his dream, and Del Monte Properties was formed, the beginning of his own conglomerate.
Morse always had a plan for his beloved Del Monte Forest, and golf was to be the cornerstone of his land empire. He came by his vision of golf-as-savior because of its profit potential rather than from any overriding personal passion for the game. In fact, he didn’t even begin to play golf for another 20 years.
“I had the greatest opportunity anybody ever had,” he said. “What a break it was to have golf with which to dedicate the waterfront. When I first laid out Pebble Beach, it was an amphitheater and we laid out the whole forest in zones. Cypress Point was obvious: It was a golf course that allowed us to preserve that grove of cypress trees and the whole shoreline. The same with the country club [Monterey Peninsula CC] and then finally Spyglass [Hill].” Morse died in 1969 before Poppy Hills and Spanish Bay, the other courses in the Forest, were built.
Although Morse had his own master plan for the development of the Forest, his original idea for Pebble Beach was to sell lots right along the coast, where the golf course is today, and to build the new course further back in the forest. Fortunately Morse changed his mind and began to see the value of putting the course along the waterfront. Once the location of the course was determined, Morse began buying back the ocean-front lots he had already sold. He was able to re-purchase all but the first one, a 5.5-acre parcel that the old fifth hole played around, and on which the new hole is located today.
In April 1917, a lengthy article appeared in a magazine Jack Neville published, Pacific Golf and Motor. The author, presumably Neville explained the evolution of Pebble Beach: “During 1915, the year of the World’s Fair at San Francisco, the Pacific Improvement Company first took the matter [of a new golf course] under consideration. …Golf course architects, professionals and amateurs of standing from all over the United States, England and Canada, who came to Del Monte, were invited to go over the ground and lay out plans. There were not less than six complete courses laid out and innumerable single holes planned before the present course was adopted.
“The two golfers chosen for its final layout and construction were Douglas Grant and Jack Neville. Grant was lately returned from six years’ experience and study on the championship courses of Scotland and England, and had fresh in his memory the latest types of bunkering and the methods of greens construction. Jack Neville, who has planned six of California’s golf courses, combined his efforts with Grant and the two, after spending many weeks over the site, worked out a most admirable plan for the 18 holes, together with the necessary bunkering.”
About the same time the article appeared, the course was being tested under tournament conditions for the first time. Dubbed the “April Fool’s Day tournament,” the course was not overwhelmingly appreciated during its “soft opening.” Players complained of little or no turf on the fairways, rocks everywhere and greens with just a few too many hoof indentations from the sheep who were employed to mow the course. As Neal Hotelling says in his brilliant and well-researched new book, Pebble Beach Golf Links—The Official History, “No one argues the point, especially after only one golfer came within 20 strokes of finding par in a 36-hole event. Mike Brady of Massachusetts led all contenders…with a 79–75–154, he bested the rest of the field by 13 strokes.”
After much work to improve the playing conditions, Pebble Beach officially opened on Feb. 22, 1919. Over the years Morse was a tireless and natural promoter of his beloved Pebble Beach. He knew one of the best ways to attract the type of clientele he wanted was to host tournaments, so he was thrilled when the USGA announced in December 1927 that it was bringing its Amateur Championship to his course two years later.
Morse wanted to have his golf gem in tip-top shape for the best amateur golfers, so he brought in another nationally known and respected golfer, two-time U.S. Amateur champion Chandler Egan, to fine-tune the course. Egan, a Chicago native who lived in Medford, Ore., and Pebble Beach at the time, designed courses full-time from the late 1920s until his death in 1934.
Egan outlined his task: “Our main conclusions were two. The first nine needed stiffening and, if possible, greater length; and secondly, 16 of the greens needed returfing, reshaping and retrapping. Some of the old greens were rather old-fashioned, unattractive and dull, some were a bit unfair in their slopes and lack of visibility and almost none of them offered a real target for an iron shot.” The course played 6,661 yards within some 200 yards of what it will play this year.
It’s quite possible that only Harrison R. “Jimmy” Johnston’s relatives remember that he was the man who won the 1929 U.S. Amateur. That’s because the real news at Pebble Beach that first week of September was what happened in the first round to the defending champion, Robert Tyre Jones Jr. After finishing as co-medalist in the 36-hole stroke play portion of the championship, Jones did something he had never done in the U.S. Amateur: He lost his first match.
Jones was going for three Amateur titles in a row and was by far the favorite on the 162 contestants who had come from all over the world to test themselves. Johnny Goodman, a young caddie from Omaha, Neb., who made his way west by hopping trains, defeated Jones 1-up in their 18-hole match. The vagaries of match play allowed the lowest score to be fashioned by the loser, 75 to Goodman’s 76. Egan, who won back-to-back Amateur titles in 1904-05, lost in the semifinal round to the runner-up, “Doc” O.F. Willing of Portland, Ore.
One of the most enthusiastic spectators of the 1929 Amateur was the reigning Women’s Amateur champion, Glenna Collett. Writing in the tournament program, she eloquently summarized the Pebble Beach experience: “From the minute my dream was realized and I set eyes on the Monterey Peninsula, I knew there could not be another place as beautifully magnificent as this. …To sit and gaze out over the quiet brilliant waters and hills and reflect on the wonders of nature – that’s life! Playing rounds here brings with it the realization of what golf is doing for this country and what an inspiring game it is. We are no longer human beings when we are out there – we are treading on air with our heads in the clouds.”