Surfers have their North Shore of Oahu. Mountain climbers have their Everest. And golfers have their Monterey Peninsula.
Before you start firing off angry letters touting your own golfing meccas, let me stop you. There is no contest. Hawaii has its lava-lined fairways, Palm Springs is desert golf at its finest and Scotland is the hallowed birthplace of the game.
But it is here, where the lush coastal region meets the Pacific in a rugged, breathtaking union, where I and countless others like me would gladly spend the rest of our natural lives. Specifically, we want to be on a golf course in this magical area.
There is a problem, though, and most of you who have played the courses here might guess what it is: money.
Such is the case at Pebble Beach Golf Links, perhaps the most famous of all golf courses and home of the AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament, which pairs the pros with amateur players--mainly corporate executives, actors and musicians. Formerly known as "The Crosby," it will forever be associated with Der Bingle himself, strolling up the magnificent, Pacific-hugging 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, puffing on his pipe and waving to the unwashed masses. Since Bing Crosby's death, the tournament and the course have further cemented their ties with the rich and famous.
Oh, you and I could play Pebble Beach--for a mere $295 per round. For a bit less, we could play one of its sister courses along the Monterey Peninsula's scenic 17-Mile Drive, Spyglass Hill, also used in the Pebble Beach tournament. Another, newer pearl, Spanish Bay, is in the $210 range, including cart.
So where does all this leave the rest of us who can't afford to trade the Mercedes at its first oil change?
Few people realize that the Monterey Peninsula, and its neighboring environs, both north and south along the Pacific Coast, is home to dozens of lesser known--and lesser priced--public golf courses. A number of these diamonds in the rough rival their more glamorous counterparts for the challenge and the views they offer.
On a couple of recent trips north, I sampled several courses for a fraction of the cost of Pebble and Spyglass. Combined with relatively cheap lodging, one can carve out a reasonable, yet breathtaking, golfing sojourn to Central California.
My base of operation was the Village Inn, a modest but charming motel at the top of Carmel Village, a six-hour drive from Los Angeles. The rooms are clean and comfortable, everything in Carmel is within easy walking distance and the rates are reasonable. After checking in, I proceeded to Bruno's market across the street for French bread, some brie and a quart of orange juice. (Football analyst John Madden apparently has the same routine; he was ahead of me in the checkout line on a recent visit.) Then I get into the mood by flipping on the golf channel.
The next morning, fueled by the inn's complimentary danish, coffee and juice, I got ready for a few wonderful days of golf.
Here are some of the courses I played:
* Half Moon Bay Golf Links. A bit of a drive north from Carmel--90 minutes or so--but well worth the greens fee of $95 to $135 (including cart). For years a well-kept secret to many golfers, Half Moon Bay has become more popular with the recent opening of its second course: a Scottish-style links layout that dares you to overcome the howling ocean winds and keep the ball near the fairways and greens. On my latest trip, I hooked up with a golfing buddy who had just moved from Washington, D.C., to the San Francisco Bay area. We met at the clubhouse, which sits hard by the Pacific surf.
It was a spectacular spring day--crisp, clear and windy. Standing on the first tee with the wind at your back, one gets a preview of many of the next 17 holes: flat, sprawling fairways, bordered by deceivingly dense rough, clinging to the contours of the coastline. Perched on a rugged chunk of beachfront, this course does not pretend to be Pebble Beach; what it lacks in Pebble's grace it tries to make up for in sheer muscle.
The results are mixed. The front nine is a fair, somewhat tepid, test of golf.
The back nine is Golfzilla. Most of the holes are close enough to the Pacific that the wind is either in your face or blowing diagonally across the fairway. Often, you must force yourself to aim at the ocean itself in order to have the wind blow the ball back to the fairway. If you aimed directly at the hole, the ball could be blown out of bounds.
On the par-three, 165-yard 17th hole, for example, I started the ball over the ocean, 25 yards to the left of the small green. Nevertheless, the wind blew my four-iron shot back to the right, across the green, skittering into the dense vegetation atop a small hill. I was lucky to chip within six feet and sink the putt for a par.
By the end of the round on this "Hills course," you feel like a rocket nosecone that has just been tested in a NASA wind tunnel. You are less interested in your score than in whether you still have hair after weathering the elements on the 6,600-yard, par-72 layout. It's the first time I've ever felt happy shooting a 99 (nine strokes higher than my handicap).
The old Half Moon Bay course is a different story. This challenging, 7,131-yard layout--designed with the help of Arnold Palmer--is a bit saner, with many holes sheltered by trees from the ocean winds. It is, however, Pebblesque in its own right. The 18th hole is close to a mirror image of Pebble's revered closing hole down the coast. Half Moon Bay's 428-yard layout follows the contours of the cliffs above the beach as it banks right toward a green perched menacingly beyond a ravine. I struck a good drive on No. 18, that is, kept the ball out of the Pacific, on my way to a "safe" bogey.
My golfing partners at the old course were Chris and Carl, two roofing contractors from Chicago whose flight home was canceled by weather. They did not seem unhappy. The two were from the Dick Butkus school of golf--hit it, grunt and charge after it. Having taken up golf just a year before, they had no interest in the sport's whispered etiquette. After my uncharacteristically straight five iron landed five feet from the cup on the par-three 13th hole, Chris and Carl jumped in my path and would not let me set foot on the green until they handed me $6 I had won with that tee shot, apparently a Chicago custom. (I missed the putt.)
* Ft. Ord golf courses. That's right. The Marines had their own golf course--two actually--until the base was shut down. Now, the folks who run the courses, called Black Horse and Bayonet, are looking for more than a few good ball strikers. They are looking for as many as they can get; this is a profit-making operation now. To that end, the golfer is treated like a full-fledged colonel. From the moment you pull into the parking lot, you are strafed with courtesy and bombarded with kindness. Although the employees are not Marines, they could pass for them, what with all the "sirs" sprinkled among the uncommon courtesy.
I mention this because my friend Jim and I sought refuge at Ft. Ord after a discomforting experience at Poppy Hills Golf Course, one of the prestigious courses played as part of the AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Poppy Hills, in the Del Monte Forest, has a reputation as an intriguing test of golf. But I wouldn't know.
In my past attempts to play the course, it has usually been taken by players in a local tournament. But this time there was no excuse: Clerks in the course's pro shop simply told us that our names were not on the list, even though Jim had made the reservation by phone 10 days earlier. And there was a tournament going on, so they couldn't get us on the course anyway (which generally costs $115 to $130).
Mistakes are part of life, and I suppose Jim could have made one, but the Poppy people refused to acknowledge even the possibility that they might have been the ones who screwed up. They spent a good amount of time trying to convince us that we'd called the wrong course to begin with.
All ended well, however, because they handed us a phone list of local courses that included Ft. Ord. And what a pleasant surprise it was. A short drive north to Seaside, the two courses, which have hosted PGA qualifying tournaments, are oases amid the eerie, deserted fort.
We chose to play the 6,400-yard, par-72 Black Horse, supposedly the less challenging of the courses. But with numerous trees lining its hilly fairways, this course presents more than enough for mid- to high-handicappers to handle. It is an aesthetically adventurous course. We started out in brilliant sunshine, ran into a rolling fog during the middle of the round, and then finished in sunshine again.
Though Black Horse and Bayonet are not oceanfront courses, both offer views of the Pacific on selected holes. And for $50 to $60 a round, including cart, you could play about six rounds here before spending what you would for one round at legendary Pebble Beach.
* Del Monte Course. This hidden treasure, tucked just east of California Highway 1 in Monterey, is the oldest (1897) public course west of the Mississippi. Del Monte, which plays host to the California State Amateur tour, is tough and fair, with sharp doglegs, lots of hills and trees.
Despite the hills, it's a good walking course, and I did just that, rather than ride in a cart. The cost is about $90, which is why I was surprised to find out who joined me on the second hole. It took me a few holes to recognize my fellow walker, who was dressed in bluejeans and a nondescript cap and golf shirt, as the terrific character actor Dean Stockwell. I wondered why someone whose means are, well, considerably greater than mine, would gravitate to a blue-collar golf course.
I soon discovered the answer. First, this is a wonderful golf course, off the beaten path of the 17-Mile Drive, where other actor-types are more likely to be found. And it was obvious that Stockwell appreciated Del Monte for that very attribute. Low-key yet affable, he seemed more than happy to tour the course with me in obscurity.
Besides, he beat my 94 by at least eight shots. Although a short course (6,300 yards), Del Monte can punish a modest hitter like me in other ways. For example, one would not expect a 385-yard, par four to be the hardest hole on the course. But that's exactly what the seventh hole is--a narrow, uphill affair culminating in an elevated green tucked devilishly between two traps. On this day, my five wood stepped out of character and delivered my second shot straight as an arrow, directly over the pin, assuring my birdie.
The next morning, still munching on my final free danish, I bid adieu to the Village Inn and my magical few days of golf-on-the-cheap in this mecca.
Greenberg is science / medicine editor at The Times.
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Touring the Links
Getting there: It's a six-hour drive from Los Angeles to Carmel. Take Interstate 5 north; California 46 west to Paso Robles; U.S. 101 north to Salinas; California 68 west to Monterey; and California Highway 1 south to Carmel.
Getting around: Highway 1 north from Carmel leads to all three golf complexes. Del Monte Course is in Monterey; telephone (408) 373-2700. Greens fees: $80. Ft. Ord courses are farther north on Highway 1, off Ft. Ord exit; tel. (408) 899-2351. Black Horse's greens fees: $35-$60; Bayonet's: $45-$75. Half Moon Bay Golf Links are 90 minutes north on Highway 1; tel. (650) 726-4438. Greens fees for Links course, $95-$115; Ocean course, $115-$135.
Where to stay: Village Inn, Ocean Ave. at Juniper St., Carmel, CA 93921; tel. (408) 624-3864, (800) 346-3864. Room rates: $118-$300.
For more information: California Division of Tourism, 801 K St., Suite 1600, Sacramento, CA 95814; tel. (800) 862-2543 or (916) 322-2881.