America's greatest public-access golf course is less than a three-hour drive from one of its best munis, the newly refurbished Harding Park in San Francisco, the site of this month's WGC-American Express Championship. These beacons of public golf are connected by the legendary Pacific Coast Highway, and there are a handful of other fine courses worth a stop along the way. Can you say road trip?
Harding Park Golf Course
6,845 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $78-$90;
For many years Harding Park was the Marilyn Monroe of golf courses--a beautiful creation left to slowly crumble before our eyes. Former UGSA president Sandy Tatum eventually stepped in, spearheading a $16 million renovation that resurrected the tree-lined, 1925 design by William Watson that overlooks Lake Merced. Harding Park finally gets its props this month by hosting the WGC-American Express Championship. The 440-yard 18th shows how far this once-bedragged muni has come. The new tee stands on what was a parking lot and the green occupies the site of the old practice green. The result tests even the hardiest golfers.
Half Moon Bay Golf Links
7,090 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $155-$170
6,172 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $155-$170
Located less than an hour south of Harding Park and close to the quaint town of Half Moon Bay, the two tracks at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay are an ideal way station on the road to the Monterey Peninsula. The Old Course was designed by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane in 1973 and redesigned by Arthur Hills in 1999. Truthfully, this 7,090-yard track is a one-hole golf course, though that one hole -- the 418-yard clifftop closer -- is among the finest in California.
Hills sought a Scottish feel in designing the Ocean Course in 1997, and while the effect doesn't quite rise to that level, he did a better job than you'd expect. The water views are .constant here, but you'll wait until the 16th hole before the Pacific comes into play.
Pasatiempo Golf Club
6,439 yards, par 70;
Greens fee: $140-$160;
Dr. Alister MacKenzie undoubtedly is best remembered as the architect of two of the world's finest courses: Augusta National and Cypress Point. Not far north of Cypress in Santa Cruz is Pasatiempo, which he designed in 1929 and where he lived alongside the sixth fairway until his death in 1934.
Pasatiempo (the name is Spanish for "passing of time") is a masterpiece of strategic bunkering, and that's where you're most likely to come undone. MacKenzie said that the 395-yard 16th hole was the best two-shotter he ever designed. Architect Tom Doak is now restoring the course to its former glory. You'll so enjoy the challenges at Pasatiempo that you won't even notice that it ends on a par 3.
Pebble Beach Golf Links
6,828 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $425;
To step onto the first tee at Pebble Beach is to risk an anticlimax. Like Augusta National, golfers know the course so intimately from television that it can seem less dramatic in person. After all, as an annual stop on the PGA Tour, this isn't a course that only steps into the major spotlight every decade or so. Telecasts often lavish attention on Pebble's closing holes, but the real magic is to be found on the front nine. The most spectacular series of holes you'll find anywhere are Nos. 5 through 8, which are on the promontory between Stillwater Cove and the Pacific Ocean.
The truth is that Pebble Beach is bland off the tee--this is entirely a second shot golf course. You can survive misses with your driver, but misfiring on your approach shots will make it a very long day. (It will be a long day regardless--a round will take upwards of five hours.) You won't be writing about the opening few holes in your postcards home, but beware the deep cross bunker in the fairway on the second. Caddies call it the Yao Ming bunker after the 7-foot-6 Rockets center entered it last year and disappeared from view.
For most golfers, Pebble is all about the final two holes. Who doesn't want to try recreating Tom Watson's chip-in from the 1982 U.S. Open or Jack Nicklaus' 1-iron that clattered against the flagstick a decade earlier? That's the charm of Pebble: a mixture of familiarity, history and superb golf. Is it worth the new greens fee of $425? Sure. At least once.