Spiffy is great, but the golf experience I want is simply ‘Back to the basics’

October 26, 2018
Gearhart golf links oregon golf experiences

Herb Kohler is one of golf’s merry old souls — the Santa Claus belly and white beard, the unhurried manner — and you’ll see his family name on all the nice bathroom fixtures at the American Club (near Whistling Straits) and the Old Course Hotel (hard by the Road Hole), among other la dolce vita golf spots owned by his company. More than anything, you’ll see Herb’s personal stamp: Enjoy! All that spiffy luxury in his golf experiences. Shower pressure that brings to mind Niagara Falls. Pillow cases with four-digit thread counts. Tee times available on courses you know from TV. If you want to bump into Dustin Johnson in a gym or Lexi Thompson on a range, get yourself to a Kohler property, to a 
Discovery property, to a Trump property. With golf’s most inviting season upon us — the crisp fall air, our courses faster in every sense — I’m looking to hit the road. I’ve done the American Club and the Old Course Hotel. They’re spectacular. But I’m over spiffy.

The newest arrival on my stay-and-play wish list is the Gearhart Hotel and the Gearhart Golf Links, in Gearhart, Ore. Yelp reviewers give the hotel 3.5 stars out of 5 and Tom Doak, in one of his books, gave the course a 4 on his 10-point scale some years ago. Good enough for me.

I’ve stayed at The Lodge at Pebble Beach (rooms start at $900) and I’ve played Pebble (green fees are typically $495). I’m happy to share with you the name of my favorite hotel and course in greater Pebble Beach: La Playa, on a residential street in Carmel, and the Pacific Grove Golf Links, a municipal course between a cemetery and the ocean. I like everything about both of them (and am drawn to their off-peak rates), but you may not. The real fun, of course, is to find places you can call your own, and to experience unexpected things that you wouldn’t and couldn’t post on Instagram.

I’m thinking now of a near-dusk winter excursion at Pacific Grove, with a professional golf vagabond named Jeff Julian, who played in three U.S. Opens. His abiding love of golf was supercharged by the course’s ocean holes, and by the disease he had, ALS, that would claim his life not quite 18 months later. We carried our own. Jeff’s wife carried the wine and plastic cups.

The golf world’s five-star hotspots give us a chance to experience the (assume the voice) lifestyles of the rich and famous. But they are not bastions of surprise, and they do have their rules. At the Breakers in Palm Beach, way back when, sport coats for men were required in the lobby in the evening and swimwear was verboten. I saw a funny-guy guest insert a tee into his left and right nostril and say, “What about tusks — are tusks permitted?” I have learned the hard way that if you go for a jog on certain gilded cart paths you will be politely chased off, insurance regulations being what they are, and pointed to the concierge, who has trail maps ready and waiting. And here comes the yellow highlighter!

I’m not dissing. I’ve had excellent and memorable times at many of golf’s glittering temples. I won’t forget beating Sam Snead, then in his 80s, for $100 on Old White at the Greenbrier (he gave me four a side and I played my bottom off). The Leatherstocking course at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y., is a gem, with a picturesque island back tee on 18 surrounded by Otsego Lake. I remember a round there as a singleton, coming down with a bad case of the pull hooks, rinsing my every last ball and hiking in. That was bad. But it’s nice that they let you walk there, at least after 3:00 p.m.

Herb Kohler and his people have made the Old Course Hotel even spiffier in recent years. The hotel has its own “golf concierge” who can tell you all about the Old Course, of course, but also the Jubilee, the Eden, the newish Kingsbarns, an old-timer called Scotscraig, among others. I was on the road to Scotscraig when I saw a sign for a course I had never heard of before, St. Michaels. The course dates back to 1903, it bears the stamp of the first Tom Morris and the green fee when I played there was 10 pounds dropped in the club’s black metal “Honesty Box.” It’s hilly, simple and rough. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but you may not.

I’ve been reading up on the Gearhart course and the hotel on its 18th hole. The course was laid out in 1892, and the turf looks pale and firm. Modern life has inserted itself between the course and the ocean, but that’s okay. The hotel is brown-shingled and beachy, pets are allowed, and the newest guestrooms are actually not air-conditioned. (But fans are available!) The bar is called the Sandtrap. The hotel does not have a concierge, golf or otherwise. Bandon Dunes is due south on the 101, 240 miles away. I’ve been to Bandon and it’s great. What I can’t wait to do is get to Gearhart.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]