Off the back of the eighth tee at the Pebble Beach Golf Links, where the Pacific Ocean and the headland meet just above the teeming waters, an otter floats on its back, banging a rock against an abalone shell. Playful mammals like this one have sought their dinner here for millennia, without regard to who is passing by, just a sand wedge away. For the past century, those visitors have included Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who have all come this way in search of trophies and championships. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood, Jack Lemmon and Sean Connery have come this way, too, stars in search of a bauble or two and a few laughs along the way.
Amateur players of all calibre, whether they aspire to swing a club like Nicklaus or Woods or showcase the talent of Crosby or Hope, flock to Pebble Beach by the thousands each year to play what is fairly called America’s national treasure of golf.
Tom Kite, a winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 1983 and the U.S. Open at Pebble in 1992, spent his career marveling at this stretch of 18 holes on the Monterey Peninsula where ocean and land embrace. “Even when you are playing in a tournament, I don’t think there is a player who doesn’t just look out over the course and ocean and go ‘wow,’ ” says Kite. “Of course it’s a distraction. But what a distraction.”
This year, Pebble Beach celebrates its 100th birthday, and what could be a more fitting party than the playing of the U.S. Open there this June, the sixth time the national championship will be conducted on this glorious ground.
“It’s got to be a national treasure,” says Mike Davis, CEO of the United States Golf Association. “Even if you ask non-golfers in this country to name a place or two in golf and they know nothing about the game, I’m hard-pressed to believe that Pebble Beach won’t be one that comes up.
It’s an historic course. An absolutely aesthetically gorgeous golf course. It’s a wonderful test of golf.”
Samuel F.B. Morse, the Duke of Del Monte, may not have seen this stretch of headland along Stillwater Cove and Carmel Bay as a test, but he did see it as a treat, and because of his foresight Pebble Beach ultimately took its place in golf’s Valhalla.
When things were going from bad to worse during World War I for the Pacific Development Co., the entity that owned this precious land and had originally sought to build homes there, Morse was brought in to liquidate its holdings. Realizing what a special place it was, he eventually took control of the properties himself with the idea of building a golf course and selling lots to build bigger homes that overlook the area, hoping to attract vacationers to the log lodge that already existed. When Morse couldn’t get iconic American golf course designer C.B. Macdonald to do the course, and the prolific Scottish architect Donald Ross was in the English army, he settled on two top California amateurs, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, to lay out the course that opened in 1919. There have been changes, principally by Chandler Egan in 1928, who turned the 18th (originally a short par 4) into the memorable par 5 that challenges amateurs and pros alike. Jack Nicklaus built the new par-3 fifth hole in 1997 and Arnold Palmer oversaw a few alterations. But the overall routing has been essentially the same for 90 years and has withstood whatever Mother Nature could throw its way.
From the outset, Morse had grand plans for Pebble Beach. It was built at a time when virtually all the big-time tournament golf in the United States was played east of the Mississippi River. The USGA had never held one of its championships west of St. Louis. But Morse knew what he had and knew what he wanted and he convinced the USGA to hold the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, a huge accomplishment. At the time, the Amateur was a significantly bigger deal than the Open. Bringing the Amateur to Pebble Beach meant bringing the immortal Bobby Jones to the West and all the national publications who followed the game’s biggest star.
Neal Hotelling, the longtime historian of Pebble Beach, sees the 1929 Amateur as putting Pebble Beach on the championship map. “That the USGA finally came to California, the publicity around that was huge,” says Hotelling. “The fact that Bobby Jones was playing in California and then lost in California made bigger headlines. Pebble Beach became a household name as a great golf course after the ’29 Amateur.”
Then came Bing Crosby. The man who crooned “Straight Down the Middle” is the man who brought his Bing Crosby National Pro-Am to Pebble Beach in 1947, creating a format of pros playing with amateurs all four days, putting up the $5,000 purse himself and insisting that all ticket sales go to charity, essentially setting the framework for the game’s charitable underpinning.
In 1958, the two primal forces of golf arrived at Pebble Beach to join Crosby and his celebrity friends—Arnold Palmer and television. Palmer was on the launch pad of his meteoric career (he would win his first Masters two months later) and with television honed in on his every move, Pebble Beach provided “The King” and the game with an unrivaled dramatic stage. “Bing got the tournament televised and Arnold Palmer became the most telegenic golfer of all time,” says Hotelling. “It was kismet.”
Palmer never won “The Crosby” or an Open at Pebble, but he did add to its lore. In 1967, he was a stroke out of the lead on Sunday playing the par-5 14th hole when he hit two consecutive 3-wood approach shots that caromed off a tree short and right of the green. Both balls bounced out of bounds. He ended up finishing second. The tree? A storm blew it down that night.
Along came Jack Nicklaus to win the 1961 U.S. Amateur at Pebble and along came Nicklaus again in 1972 to win the first U.S. Open played on the course, a championship that would have longterm implications. It was the first Open played on a public-access golf course, one without a membership base that would usually handle all the volunteer aspects of running a tournament.
It was Morse who had fought hard to bring the Open to Pebble Beach, but he died in 1969 without seeing the USGA fulfill his dream. The organization was leery of bringing the championship to the site. “The USGA felt that it was too far away from any large metropolitan area with San Francisco being two-plus hours away, Los Angeles even farther,” says Hotelling. “Secondly, it was a public golf course. That continued to be a big concern for them. The biggest one was that USGA relied on the members to fill the volunteer positions and Pebble Beach didn’t have any members.”
Aime Michaud, Morse’s successor, got the job done, in part by guaranteeing revenue to the USGA. And Pebble has certainly become a darling of the U.S. Open. After that first Open in 1972, the Open would return again in 1982, 1992 and 2000, setting the precedent for the USGA to take it to another public access course, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in New York, in 2002. When the Open returns in June, for the sixth time, it will put Pebble into a tie with Oakland Hills for third place among U.S. Open venues. Only Baltusrol (with seven Opens) and Oakmont (nine) will have hosted more.
Pebble Beach is really two different courses, one for the AT&T National Pro-Am in February during the rainy season, when the weather can come up fast and mimic Scotland, and one during a U.S. Open in June when it’s been dry and the course gets firm. Phil Mickelson is well acquainted with Pebble’s dual personality, having won his fifth AT&T this past February and playing in every Open there since 1992. Mickelson’s grandfather, Al Santos, was an original caddie at Pebble, and Mickelson made his pro debut there in the ’92 Open.
“In February, you have softer conditions and you know where your ball is going to stop,” said Mickelson after his opening round at the AT&T this year. “In an Open here, the ball is going to bounce. It’s going to bounce on the fairways and the greens. You have to factor that, but you really can’t predict it. The greens are so small that coming out of the rough it’s very difficult to keep your ball on the green or get it close to the hole. It’s two different courses.”
But one incredibly attractive destination, The Lodge at Pebble Beach, has long held its own sensual allure. On the run-up to this year’s Open, the Pebble Beach Co. hasn’t stood still in reimagining its property. The Fairway One complex along the course’s first hole opened in 2017 with 30 guest rooms and two four-bedroom residences, the Eastwood and Palmer cottages. The Visitor Center, opened last November, is a place where anyone can learn about the resort’s history. You don’t have to be a resort guest to visit, but you do have to be a multi-night resort guest to land the most coveted tee times.
David Stivers, president of the Pebble Beach Co., knew he was in an enviable situation when he attended a board meeting 20 years ago, looking across the table at a host of famous faces: Arnold Palmer, the head of Arnie’s Army and one of the most storied golfers of all time. Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry himself. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his associate Dick Ferris. These men had led a group of investors who bought Pebble Beach in 1999.
“They bought it with one of the main goals to preserve this as an iconic treasure for America forever,” says Stivers. The goal was to ensure it never went to another ownership group. “That sentiment,” Stivers adds, “holds true today.”
When it comes to change at Pebble Beach, caution and consideration are the bywords. “When we look at things like rooms renovation or adding a new facility like the visitors center, we are always looking at it through the lens of ‘is this going to make Pebble Beach better? Is it consistent with what Pebble Beach stands for?’ ” says Stivers. “So when you look at things with that lens, it helps you stay grounded doing things for this company and this golf resort.”
Singer/songwriter Darius Rucker, the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish, is a regular in the AT&T Pro-Am. Waiting to hit his shot on the seventh tee this February, the iconic green framed by the ocean, Rucker summed up the Pebble Beach experience. “It’s just a mind-blowing place to play,” says Rucker. “It was so different from what you see on television. I mean it’s beautiful, but when you get out here and see all those famous holes and the ocean, you look around and say my God!”
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.