Inside Pacific Grove Golf Links, the splendid seaside muni five miles north of Pebble Beach
PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — My colleagues and I have been spending U.S. Open week in a charming four-bedroom house in this crunchy coastal town on the northern end of the Monterey Peninsula, about five miles from Pebble Beach. There’s a heated toilet seat in the master bathroom upstairs and a lovable cat who lives in the courtyard out back. The commute from our pad to the media parking lot is extraordinary. Winding our way south down 17 Mile Drive, we pass the Links at Spanish Bay quickly followed by Monterey Peninsula Country Club, where you could easily wile away an afternoon in the grill room debating which of its two courses (Dunes or Shore) is better. Poppy Hills Golf Course, which used to be part of the AT&T rota, is not visible through the Del Monte Forest, but it’s back there somewhere, on the other side of the road just past MPCC. Our 10-minute drive ends on the Spyglass Hill practice range, which this week is covered in rental cars (media parking). Toward the end of the range you can peer out onto the sandy splendor of Spyglass. The mythical design at Cypress Point Club is down there somewhere, too, just a few driver swings down the coast.
There’s another course in this neighborhood that if it were just about anywhere else in the country (outside perhaps the East End of Long Island) would be the best track in town. It’s the muni back up the road near our rental house, Pacific Grove Golf Links. On a spectacular Tuesday evening (we haven’t seen the sun since), two of my housemates, Dylan Dethier and Josh Berhow, popped over to PGGL to sneak in a few holes.
They call it the “Poor Man’s Pebble,” although this week that’s a bit of a misnomer. With the Open in town, the course nearly doubled the out-of-town green fee, from $69 to $120, which hasn’t seemed to hamper business. When I called over to the pro shop Sunday morning, one of the assistant pros, Brandon Hughes, told me the place has been hopping — “we’ve been getting players from absolutely everywhere.” Pac Grove typically does about 250 tee times a day; this week they’ve been averaging about 280. No Tour pros have dropped by — for shame! — but a couple of caddies have, including Rory Sabbatini’s guy, Brandon Antus.
What’s the draw? For starters, the place is utterly charming (Point Pinos lighthouse stands sentinel over the back side and antlered deer roam the dunes); quirky (back-to-back par 3s to open!); and raw (the holes that cut through the sandscape look they’ve been there forever). But it’s the magnificent back nine upon which Pac Grove has built its rep. Those holes were conjured in 1960 by Pebble Beach co-designer Jack Neville; the land may lack the cliffside drama of what Neville had to work with at Pebble but, gosh, it does not lack for much else.
Dylan, Josh and I knew “the back is where’s it at” — as Hughes puts it — when we wandered into the pro shop Tuesday. Given the dwindling light, our mission was to pass go and advance directly to the 10th tee. Thankfully, a young man in the shop saw the want in our eyes and accommodated us. Off we trotted, bags slung over our shoulders, to the tee at the short, flat par-3 10th. The air was cool, still and salty, the sun was casting a lovely glow over the linksland and we almost had the place to ourselves.
The Pac Grove Show starts in earnest on 11, a par 4 that works it way down toward the water. The green, almost drivable, sits in a sandy, scruffy area, like a ball in a catcher’s mitt. Next comes a fun, funky par 5, replete with blind shots and Pacific views. The next four holes present a mishmash of wide, bouncy fairways running through the dunes and subtly sloped greens. “So good,” was a phrase that was uttered more than once. It was like Nairn in NorCal.
The only water hazard on this side — a pond — fronts the green at the par-3 17th, where the tee box sits just off Monterey Bay. We played that hole in near-darkness and the 18th, a narrow par 4 that climbs it way back back toward the clubhouse, in total darkness.
No big deal. By that point, we had seen enough of Pacific Grove, and it was a sight to behold.