Course Rater Confidential: Is Pebble Beach better than Bandon’s Pacific Dunes?

February 7, 2020

GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this GOLF.com series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. The goal is not only to entertain you but also to give you a better understanding of how to understand and appreciate golf course architecture. You can see GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World ranking here, and meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.

In 2017, Pebble Beach Golf Links, host of this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, returned to the top spot on GOLF Magazine’s list of Top 100 Courses You Can Play, supplanting Pacific Dunes, which had held the honor for the previous 12 years. Do you agree with that 1-2 ranking, or do you think it should be flip-flopped? Or maybe there’s another course that deserves to be on top? Explain your reasoning please.

Gary Lisbon (Panelist since 2005; has played 81 of the World Top 100): I still remember many years ago, when I first caught the golf bug. I had dreams of playing the world’s best courses, and over the years, I have been fortunate to experience a number of them. Back in those days, there were three names that had me excited — St. Andrews, Augusta and Pebble Beach. They each held their place in my mind — scenes of historic and timeless championships, where worthy winners were crowned. This is something that Pebble Beach has in spades, yet Pacific Dunes does not. Does that help when deciding which should sit on top? To a degree, but there is so much more to the decision.

Sure, if you want to play at a place that has had the world’s best golfers regularly stride the fairways, creating some of the most memorable championship moments, then it is a no-brainer: Pebble rises to the top. However, if you look at the golf course itself — the feel and flow, the location of green sites, the variety of shot types you can play on all holes — then Pacific Dunes does it for me.

John Cornish (Panelist since 2017; has played all 100 of the World Top 100): I understand why people love Pebble Beach and why it’s held dear in the hearts of golf fans. But sometimes we must acknowledge the young upstart has game. Let’s face it — at Pebble, the setting, along the most gorgeous coastline, is superb. Its oceanside holes are sublime, and from its inland path, the routing’s majestic return to the ocean on 17 gives way to the ultimate crescendo. There is also the history of championships past.

However, focusing solely on these two courses, in my mind, it’s hard to go past Pacific Dunes for the standpoint of pure golf. It meanders over sandy terrain far better than Pebble, and from tee to green, creates variation and demands creativity. The landscape and foliage frame every hole and provides a commanding presence missing at Pebble. Every hole offers variation in how to tactically play from tee to green. Those demands are more compelling at Pacific Dunes than they are at Pebble Beach. Then there are the — larger and rolling, encased by dunes, molded into a perfect rustic panorama. Missing the greens offers a myriad of recovery — the Texas wedge, high flops, low spinners, chip and runs. Pacific is best played with a variety of shots in your armory. For those reasons, my ranking starts with Pacific Dunes. I place Pebble at number two.

The 8th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Evan Schiller

Tyler Rae (Panelist since 2019; has played 96 of the World Top 100): Aside from St. Andrews, the name “Pebble Beach” is most likely the second-most recognizable name in the world of golf. It is synonymous with golf history and has hosted some of the game’s most enduring competitions. Among them are Tiger’s historic win in 2000, Watson’s hole out in 1982 to beat Jack, and Bobby Jones losing in the first round of the 1929 U.S. Amateur, only to spend the remainder of his week at Cypress Point, introducing him to MacKenzie’s dramatic style and leading to the creation of Augusta National.

Aside from competitive golf, it was one of the first great American clifftop, Golden Age links with a dynamic figure-eight routing. Over time, it has aged for the worse with relentless renovations stripping away all and any character found within the putting surfaces. The once rather large and irregular forms have transformed into small oval greens [some of the tiniest on the planet now] and are more bland than ever before in its storied past.

In complete contrast, consider Pacific Dunes, a newer layout, but one that feels timeless and classic as you traverse its clifftop holes. We also find incredibly wild and fun, internal and external green contours with hole locations that dazzle us from day to day. The routing is one of the finest in the realm of golf, with fewer cliffside holes than Pebble but a greater variety of them, with a stronger set of bones within the inland holes as well. Pacific Dunes is a golf course that doesn’t let up from 1 to 18. Even if it can’t compete with the history, rocky setting and iconic stature of Pebble Beach, it gets my nod.

Simon Holt (Panelist since 2019; has played all 100 of the World Top 100): Pebble is without doubt a top-five walk in golf, but the open secret is its handful of mediocre holes. Not awful, just way short of the quality holes that conversely are some of the finest in our game. The run from 6-11 is as varied a stretch as you are likely to encounter, with a level of drama to get the coolest of hearts racing. Then as much as we try to remove championship pedigree when evaluating a course, you can’t help but get goosebumps playing 18. One also has distractions: the plaques, the caddies telling cool stories, and playing partners waxing lyrical about famous shots of years gone by. It’s hard to detach from where you are.

If you can remove all that, it’s a fantastic course sited right by the ocean, which incidentally, is another variable that can blind golfers to architectural quality. Fortunately we are comparing two courses by the water, so they cancel each other out in that sense. So then it comes to looking at the standalone holes and sum of the 18, which Pacific Dunes wins hands down for me.

Pac Dunes has a wildness that fools you into thinking this relatively new course has been there for over 100 years. Tom Doak’s lightness of touch means the routing flows seamlessly between the natural landforms he was blessed to work with. This may well have been one of the best sites in the world to build a course like this, but it was far from a free hit. The skill to squeeze out every bit of quality resulted in not one clunker hole in the entire 18. It’s full of originality, and the width both off the tee and around the greens present a myriad of options for both long and short game.  The result is a hugely fun round at Pacific, whereas Pebble can at times be one-dimensional — hit the tiny greens at all cost, or face a very tough chip out of a lush first cut. Give me short grass runoffs with large, undulating greens every day of the week.

Which is the best hole at Pebble? And which is the worst? Why?

Gary Lisbon 

Best hole at Pebble Beach: For sheer drama and the potential for deciding the result of a tournament. I would have to say the 18th. If you are game, you can go for this water-hugging par-5 in two and be rewarded (as many have in the past). But the punishment for imperfect  execution of the tee shot, the second or even the approach can be severe.

Worst hole: I understand that an opening hole should get the field away and start the round gently. Many world-class courses offer a gentle introduction. However, the first at Pebble achieves one thing only — it creates anticipation for what lies ahead, because to be frank, it is very disappointing and you need to hope the best is yet to come (which thankfully it is). Situated the farthest distance from the water, it is short, straight and relatively featureless.

John Cornish

Best hole at Pebble Beach: There are several — 8, 9, 17, 18. The finishing hole is getting my vote now, but that decision might change tomorrow. The 18th has been the scene of so many great moments in golf and will continue to do so. It’s compelling from tee to green. An audacious drive avoiding the tree gives long hitters the option to go for the green, but that first step requires courage. Approaching the green, you have the added pressure of being under the glare of those looking down from the famous Lodge behind the green. On a sunny day, there are few places I’d rather be.

Worst hole: The poor, old first hole is so maligned, and unfortunately, I’m not going to go easy on it. It’s a gentle way to work your way into your round, inoffensive and perfectly adequate as an opening hole, but what follows are such standouts that the opener is simply ordinary by comparison.

Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Getty Images

Tyler Rae

Best hole at Pebble Beach: The most intriguing hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links is a links hole that happens to have all the criteria that comprises lasting and enduring golf: the 17th. It’s a stellar one-shotter with one of the most exacting putting surfaces in the game. The figure-eight-shaped sunken green is bisected with a ridge that nestles cozily in front of the grand backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. The green is surrounded by bunkers of all shapes and sizes, and due to its spectacular setting and where the hole is located during the round, it plays differently each time we encounter it, which offers us a wonderful variety.

Worst hole: The weakest hole, in my opinion, is the 15th. It comes during the round when one would expect to be along the ocean, but it’s near the road with a bit of a disconnected feeling. It’s a simple, straight-away, downhill par-4 with not a lot to recommend it.

Simon Holt

Best hole at Pebble Beach: For me, it’s the eighth. You’re all pumped up having just played six and seven, then you’re hunkered down there, removed from the rest of the course and asked to hit a blind shot to the edge of a cliff. You then have to clip an iron over the cobalt blue inlet, to a green the size of a tablecloth. Even if I take umbrage with the small greens at Pebble, this is one of the coolest shots on the property and is the making of the hole for me. Heroic shots are what keep us coming back.

Worst hole at Pebble Beach: My Aussie boys, John and Gary, have weighed in on the first, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. Tyler has also lowlighted the 15th, and there is not much to disagree with there, either. I’d also say the second continues the dull start to the — not the worst hole (that’s the first, for sure!) but it draws out an uninspiring start that, whisper it, may even extend to hole three. Not the quality you’d expect from such a storied course, and it certainly took me by surprise on my first play.

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