En route to U.S. Open, I found great golf at both ends of the price spectrum

June 13, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO  — Less than 24 hours after soaking in a glorious, sunny afternoon at luxurious Pebble Beach, I teed it up at the other end of golf’s deliciously diverse spectrum.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first golfer to play Pebble Beach one day and the Casserly Par-3 in Watsonville the next. And believe it or not, I could make a pretty good case why golf needs more courses like Casserly and fewer like Pebble Beach.

That said, Pebble Beach remains the greatest golfing experience in the world, in my humbly incomplete opinion. There are only a few courses where you remember every shot from the first (or only) time you play it. Pebble Beach. Augusta National. The Old Course in St. Andrews. Ballybunion.

Purists like to rate golf courses based on absolutes like shot values, relation to par and other inside-golf things. I’ve read those who say Pebble has 10 great holes and eight mediocre ones, and that it’s grossly overrated. I wish one of those critics could have been out on the peninsula with my group Sunday afternoon, basking in the early-evening golden light with postcard views in every direction, hearing the crashing of the waves, the squawk of the gulls and smelling the scent of the sea. Race the sun to the finish, like we did (although it was a very slowwww race), and try to play the 18th hole in the dark when you could no longer see the ball at your feet, and tell me Pebble Beach is overrated.

It isn’t. It’s an experience you can’t put a price on. You would pay just to walk this hallowed green and savor the dramatic meeting between land and sea. It’s special.

The next morning, en route to the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, I stopped off in America’s Garlic Capital, Gilroy, and played Gilroy Golf Course, a well-kept and sporty nine-hole municipal course right off the Hecker Pass Highway. The course has two sets of tees — so you can play the whites around the “front” nine and the blacks around the “back.”

The course has 10 greens, so it offers even more variety than the typical nine-holer with two sets of tees. On the front nine, I played the right fairway on the seventh hole, a 432-yard sharply uphill par 5 that isn’t as easily reachable as you might think. It’s followed by a stunning par 3, a 260-yarder from an elevated tee down to a bunkered green near the main road.

On the second nine, the seventh fairway goes left and becomes a modest 354-yard par 4 that plays to a different green. It’s followed by a 338-yard par 4 to the same green as the stunning par 3 hole. Both feed to the final hole, a 170-yard par 3 by the clubhouse.

Par is 35 for each nine, it’s around 3,000 yards, it’s a fun track and features small, well-kept greens. It’s hard to lose a ball, and it’s hard to play slowly. Find your ball and keep moving — it’s easy. With a small crowd there on a Monday morning, I breezed around nine in less than 90 minutes despite arriving without a tee time. I just walked on and headed to the first tee, straight past a well-attended junior group lesson on the practice green, which was good to see.

Then, attempting to take the coastal route north to Olympic, I crossed a small mountain range, where a boarded-up Mt. Madonna resort marked the high ground and looked as if it had probably been a hot spot in its day. Down in the valley on the other side, I suddenly spotted a golf course sign. Well, I figured, I should pull in for a look.

The parking lot was empty. So was the first tee. What choice did I have but to play?

The Casserly Par-3 was better than a pleasant surprise. You never know what you’re getting when you step onto an unknown par-3 track — it may be dirt and weeds and a poor excuse for a cow pasture. I was thrown at first by a cage around the first tee, and a mat to hit off the first tee, but those were minor points. Without the cage, the tiny golf shop would be in the kill zone for your average shankopotamus. And a par-3 course is the place where youngsters and beginners and your average shankopotamusses — shankopotami? — should be playing.

I paid a $9 fee, grabbed a scorecard and got routing directions for the course from the friendly guy behind the counter. (I still hit to the wrong green once.) I was off the first tee at 11:30.

I had the course to myself, although another walker, a guy pulling a cart, showed up as I was headed to the second tee. The counter guy challenged me to beat the course record of 22, which turned out to be safe.

Anyway, the course was a lovely piece of wide open land, slightly rolling terrain atop a small hillside. The entire place was so tightly mown it looked like all fairway. The greens were small but smooth and had some pace. The conditions were better than at a lot of private clubs I’ve played. The greens were terrific for a $9 fee.

Casserly looks like nothing special, but it embodies why the game works. You can hit it anywhere, find it and have a chance to get it on the green, and then try again. I walked briskly around the course and was done inside of 45 minutes, one of the most pleasant rounds of golf I’ve enjoyed this year, although not quite on the scale of Pebble Beach the day before.

The sixth hole was where I misfired. It’s the longest hole on the scorecard at 176 yards, and I assumed my target was the green perched up on the ridge straight ahead. I hooked a 5-iron into the breeze short and left of the green and then, as I walked off the tee, I noticed another green to the left, also perched on a ridge and looking down at a pond below. (The only drawback at Casserly, by the way, would be hitting off a mat on every tee instead of the beautiful turf.) I pulled out the card and deduced that the one on the left was the real sixth green. The one I’d hit at was the fourth, which I’d already played. I went back and hit again, missed the green to the right and made bogey.

The seventh would be Casserly’s signature hole. It’s 112 yards, down a ravine and back up to the green. A spreading 60-foot pine tree, sprouting from partway down the slope, blocks the approach to the green. From the tee, in fact, I couldn’t see the pin behind the pine. Very cool. I flipped a sand wedge shot over the tree and it looked pretty good. The ball mark was a foot right of the cup, and my ball spun back eight feet. I missed the birdie try. It was a memorable hole.

The ninth is another 112-yarder, cut into a side slope below the “clubhouse.” This green is pretty narrow, but that’s OK because you can hit the bank left of the green and it kicks your ball onto the green, as mine did. Yeah, I planned it that way, that’s right.

No course record — seven pars, two bogeys. But it was the best $9 I’ve spent on golf in a long time. At Pebble, that amount might get you a nice ball marker.

And I played in 45 minutes. Beat that. Golf needs more Casserlys. To quote a former California governor, “I’ll be back.” At least, I hope so.