A wanderlust journey of self-reflection and 2,000 miles of the road, rounds and memories
BY DICK STEPHENS CG PUBLISHER
The term “bucket list” isn’t one I remember hearing much when I was a boy. But, as I age, I find myself not only hearing about bucket lists, but thinking about them, making them and pining for every opportunity to execute them.
I looked up the origin of the expression and, at least according to Phrases. org, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
“The expression came into wide use following the release of the film ‘Bucket List,’ in December 2007. The first authenticated use of the phrase is found in a UPI Newswire post in June 2006.”
If you stop reading this now, at least you picked up that little nugget, right? As for bucket lists, I have been fortunate enough to make and experience a few. As a young man, I covered, watched and even played soccer in The Netherlands, England, Germany and Austria. Over the course of three separate trips, I breathed in what it was truly like to see packed Dutch First Division, Premier League and Bundesliga stadia and feel the concussion of chants and drums and crowds bang and echo off the walls of my heart. To sing and saunter out of a stadium and into the streets of Munich or Amsterdam with 50,000 people I would never see again was an experience that still stirs me in a sensual way. Shoot, one time, I got so caught up in the moment that I lost my friend Doug Andreassen, wound up in a bar full of Polish soccer fanatics and drank until dawn.
Another bucket list was to watch not one, but four of my favorite rock bands enshrined in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. To see Pearl Jam, Yes, ELO and Journey all enter the Hall on the same night with my younger brother, Spencer, in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — and be packed like sardines with 18,000 other fanatics who, just like we, came from all over the globe for one night of harmony — was poetry, not music.
Traveling to Scotland, the birthplace of golf, with my father, to see and play and feel St. Andrews and Carnoustie was like being teleported back in time. Longtime readers of Cascade Golfer have heard me speak fondly of that trip before. I’ve also had the fortune to travel to Ireland with my business partner, Kirk Tourtillotte, and play Royal County Down, The K Club, The European, Ardglass and others. Finally seeing how green and lush Ireland was for a hundred miles in every direction was divine.
By now, perhaps, you are saying,”Shut up, already! You’ve had more than your share, dude.” And, indeed, I have. I am beyond blessed. Sports and culinary lifestyle projects have presented many an avenue and I have walked miles and miles down these paths. And, during these treks, I have taken the road less traveled whenever it appears. When I am hanging over the edge is when I am most happy. I am more Jack Kerouac and Rick Steves than a paint-by-numbers kind of guy.
“My 2,000-mile wanderlust trip was more than a getaway: it was a life-saver.”
Wanderlust is one of my favorite words. So, when COVID-19 hit, my life as I knew it crashed into a W million pieces. One by one, the tsunami swallowed pro sports, golf, restaurants, event venues, crowds and life, capsizing my little boat. For a span of time, I, too, felt like I was underwater, just like millions of other Americans, wondering if I would break the surface and be able to breathe real air again. Sound dramatic? It was for me. I was unsure, like I am still today, when and where life as I loved it was it going to return.
My little boat washed ashore, though, and it’s slowly drying out. Some of my mates paddled to safety, some made it back to the mainland, some are still recovering and some are still waiting for their next ship to come in. Me? I have my family, my friends and some lifelines, like golf and Cascade Golfer, to help me through this. Like the Gloria Gaynor classic my mom pounded into me as a child of the ‘70s, “I Will Survive.”
After weeks of quarantine, masks, Zoom meetings, home schooling, wearing sweats and slippers and seeing wet spring days stretch into what was a really lovely summer of sun, I had to do something. I was going stir-crazy. My family saw it, too. I needed an elixir to take the edge off. I needed a COVID-proof bucket list that wasn’t dependent on an airplane. I needed the wind in my hair and a ribbon of highway to drive. I wanted to feel alive, to hear and see the ocean, mountains, new places and new faces, and wake up each day with more miles behind me. Miles, though, that take me to something meaningful and sustaining.
I will never be a historical figure — and I don’t wish to be. But, perhaps what I set out to do may be unique enough to stake my claim to a new adventure. It’s not a moon landing. But, it kept me afloat and it helped me to dry out. This is a story about escape, and discovery, and finding places where I could just BE.
“In that single moment, with that single thought, my next great bucket list was born.”
Originally, my plan was simple — one long, hot day of July golf at Chambers Bay, where the sun doesn’t set until 9:50 p.m. I slept on it, and when I woke the next morning, I thought, What if I kept on driving and went a little further? I poured a coffee, pulled my 1997 Rand McNally Road Atlas off my shelf, sat in my robe on the back deck and skimmed all the way down the coast to Bandon Dunes, mentally adding up the 378 miles between University Place and Bandon.
Hmmmmm, I thought. All links courses. What are the other links courses I know of on the West Coast? Pebble Beach, for sure, which I’d never played. Were there others?
In that single moment, with that single thought, my next great bucket list was born.
I kept skimming the map, looking at literally every square inch all the way down the coast, clear to San Diego. Surely, there had to be plenty of authentic coastal links courses that I had never even heard of. George Peper’s book, True Links, is THE bible on real links courses in the world. I checked it first, then hit up Wikipedia to see what newer courses may have been left out. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that the coastal links pipeline dries out in Pebble Beach. Despite more than 400 miles of coastline between Pebble and Mexico, there wasn’t a single authentic American links course south of those hallowed fairways.
It’s probably worth taking a second to define an authentic links course. According to golf purists, a links course is one built on sand, that “links” a large body of water to the land, and maintains the land’s natural qualities. I was surprised to see that, according to Peper and Wikipedia, legendary tracks like Torrey Pines, Poppy Hills and Monarch Beach weren’t on the list, while others I’d never heard of — like The Sea Ranch Golf Links — were.
I can do this, I thought. I’m gonna play ‘em all.
I took out a pen and wrote the names of each the true links courses right on my map — Chambers Bay, Gearhart Golf Links, the five courses at Bandon Dunes (Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails, Old Macdonald and the new Sheep Ranch), The Sea Ranch Golf Links, Half Moon Bay Ocean Course, Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, and the rarest of them all, Cypress Point.
To my knowledge, no one has played all these in one fell swoop, the way I intended to.
My next great bucket list was on.
Chambers Bay • University Place, Wash. • LEG 1 • MILE 0
I know of no other publication in the world that has covered Chambers Bay more than Cascade Golfer. Chambers Bay, for me, is what a favorite rock face is to a climber. It’s familiar, challenging to master, and has hundreds of different little humps and outcroppings that make each round unique, no matter how many times you play it.
Chambers is near and dear to my heart. I was a member of the first public foursome to ever play the course. I’ve watched a friend spread his dad’s ashes there. I’ve stood on the 15th tee box with Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and learned how and why he did what he did to the hole, and why the Lone Fir is so important. I covered the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. We’ve kicked off our Cascade Golfer Cup at Chambers nearly every year for the last decade. I have two eagles on the 557-yard eighth hole – and also two snowmen on the same hole.
I love playing it so much because it feels like an accomplishment just to physically walk it. And, without a doubt, the closing stretch of four holes are one of greatest closing stretches in the sport.
Now, it holds a special place for a new reason. It will be forever etched in my mind as the place where, on a 90-degree Friday, my son and I teed off at 4:30 p.m. and watched the greatest twilight of sun, sea, dusk and sunset I will ever know or feel, as I launched myself on an adventure I will never forget. My son carried my bag on what might be one of the hardest loops for a caddie on the planet. He did it with grace and pride, and he even dropped a birdie putt on the par-5 first.
I took what, for me, were the most important photos and memories of the game I’ve ever had — my son carrying my bag with his whole life in front of him, Puget Sound backdropping his ever-growing frame as the sun set behind us. My dad taught me how to play and embrace the game of golf, and I hope that this day was just as memorable for my son as it was for me. The fact that he tacked the scorecard on his wall alongside other things that are important to him, made me feel about 10 feet tall.
If you asked 50 freak golfers to name the true links courses on the West Coast, maybe 10 would be able to name Gearhart. If you asked the same 50 to name the oldest course west of the Mississippi? Good luck getting even one to come up with the correct answer.
The fact is that golfers have been playing on the dunes of this hidden jewel since 1892 – 128 years. Dude!? The place is living history. With a design that Robert Livingstone, H. Chandler Egan and Bill Robinson all lay claim to, this course has iterations of golf that define the sport. Egan is the godfather of golf architecture in the Northwest, having penciled beauties all over Oregon, like Waverley and Eastmoreland, plus many courses in Spokane. Egan also played a huge part with Alistair Mackenzie in early redesigns of Pebble Beach. All this just underscores this jewel of a track.
Besides the history, Gearhart has some super-cool funkiness woven into it. For starters, it’s built on sand, with the Pacific Ocean right across the street, and elk, deer and incredible coastal waterfowl everywhere you look.
Second, it’s the childhood home of America’s father of modern cuisine, James Beard. He spent his summers in Clatsop County and his love of fish, game meats, native greens and wild berries started right there. I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life immersed in the culture and wake of this man as a producer of the James Beard Taste America dinners and cocktail parties all throughout the west. Seeing the prairies and piers that gave Mr. Beard inspirations for the life he launched really connected a few dots.
Finally, the McMenamin’s Grand Hotel sits right above the clubhouse like a cherry atop a sundae. The themed bedrooms, Sand Trap Pub and oncourse, walk-in Sand Bar make this a real destination. Their decks, patios and fire pits all touch the course, and the roller-coaster putting course makes it a place that is all golf, all fun, all the time. It’s history meets beach life, and it’s cozy and affordable. “... the course, and the rollercoaster putting course makes it a place that is all golf, all fun, all the time. It’s history meets beach life, and it’s cozy and affordable.”
My favorite holes were the par-4 14th, with the craziest and coolest blind shot to an elevated green, and the par-5 18th, which is everything you want a home hole to be — three shots to the green, followed by infinite shots by the fire pits at the Pot Bunker Bar just a few steps away.
This place alone is a super Seattle or Portland getaway. And, the Oregon towns of Astoria and Seaside, just 10 minutes away, only add to the potential to lose yourself in this golf Nirvana. Gearhart is also the home of the U.S. Hickory Open Championship, where the best wooden-shafted golfers in the world play the best of the best. This I gotta see.
Not today, though. South on Highway 101 is more Valhalla. And, Gearhart turned out to be the perfect bridge from the polished Pacific Northwest to the rugged Pacific Coast.
Bandon Dunes Resort • Bandon, Ore. • LEG 3, 4, 5, 6 AND 7 • MILE 396
Driving, for me, is just as much a part of the journey as the golf. And, cruising down Highway 101 with the top D down on a summer morning is an adrenaline rush like no other. For the past eight years, I’ve had a little ragtop in my garage. Nothing extravagant, but trusty, fast and fun. The joy of hugging the coastline ribbon of road for the rest of the week was as exhilarating for me as the links that lie ahead.
Something magical happens as you begin to drive south from Gearhart. If you have ever driven across the huge bridge spanning from Washington to Oregon at Astoria — which is basically Seaside and Gearhart — you see how high the land rises above the rugged beach below. It’s markedly different than Washington State. Oregon’s coast is like a mini mountain range, with cliffs and gorges and massive rocks jutting out of the ocean like 100 kraken. It’s awe-inspiring and looks and feels like a Bob Ross painting.
Leaving Gearhart, you have a quick decision to make — do you drive on 101 all the way to Bandon, or do you cut across to I-5 to shave 90 minutes off this leg of the trip? Being that I had a tee time at Sheep Ranch in just under six hours, and knowing that I had a lot of U.S. 101 left in front of me, I elected to take I-5 for some of the day’s trek.
This was my fourth time at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and none of the experiences have been the same. I’d previously played all the other tracks there, but hadn’t yet played Sheep Ranch. We featured the course, which opened earlier this year, this summer, with a cover story written by friend and colleague Tony Dear. Tony killed it, and outlined the place really well. Rather than rehash or undermine his fine work, I’ll just share my own unique perspective.
First off, finally getting to go through the previously locked gate into Sheep Ranch was a thrill. For many years, you had to know someone or get invited to go beyond the gate to the ranch. There was a lot of folklore and mystical aura swirling about the place for years. On my last two trips to Bandon, you could see the Sheep Ranch layout up north from Old Macdonald and from some places on Pacific Dunes. It was Bandon owner and visionary Mike Keiser’s little slice of heaven, or perhaps his own private aviary or clambake party spot. The time spanning the soft opening and actual opening seemed to take forever – but it was sooooooo worth it.
It was an honor for me to even play it in the same year of it’s official opening. Driving all day to get there, knowing I had the last tee time of the day, I listened to podcasts about the place as the wind blew through my hair. I knew it was going to be heaven on Earth.
“You can practically see the curve of the Earth. I knew I’d find the ball on the other side, but as for what else I’d find, I could only imagine.”
From the resort’s central lodge hub, it’s a good 15-minute drive to Sheep Ranch. You can’t walk to it. One of the reasons why? There is NO ocean links course I know of or have played that has so many holes that touch or are a stone’s throw to the cliffs or beach. Sheep Ranch has 12 holes that touch water! Most links have one, or a small handful of holes, that are touching the actual coast. Keiser has that much land he owns and had the vision and guts to bring this to life. In this case, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw managed to compose a masterpiece that keeps the ocean in play nearly all the way around.
No disrespect to Bandon Trails, Bandon Preserve, Ozarks National or Cabot Cliffs (look out Nova Scotia, when the pandemic lifts, I’m heading your way) — Sheep Ranch is the duo’s magnum opus. Both men have said the same. If I hit balls all day, stretched and ate a protein lunch, or ran to the first tee and hit my first shot without a practice swing, it wouldn’t mean a bit of difference once I saw what was in front of me on hole No. 1. I played as a single and went off at 4:40 p.m., knowing the dusk and weather changes rolling in were going to be epic. When I looked down the fairway of the 549-yard par-5, I could only wonder what would happen to the ball after I hit it, because this downhill beauty appears to drop off the edge of the earth about 190 yards off the tee. It looks like the band Kansas’ “Point of No Return” LP cover, not a golf course. You can practically see the curve of the Earth. I knew I’d find the ball on the other side, but as for what else I’d find, I could only imagine.
Like all the courses at Bandon, afternoon wind is part of the experience. And, Mother Nature and the gales off the Pacific didn’t disappoint. The first hole is forgiving, and the green is right on the coast, which also plays a role in holes, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Yep, all of ‘em. You won’t even care what you score. The par is 34 on the outward nine, which I think is Coore/Crenshaw’s way of giving you two more chances to break 40. All you do is look, gasp and tighten your hat for two hours. I carded a 40 on the front nine, but it could have been a 36 or 56 and I wouldn’t have cared. It’s the most environmentally wrapped-up round of golf I’ve played in my life.
The 10th tee offers your first non-ocean look at the land, with an elevated, undulating green that marks a clear transition between the Hemingway Old Man and the Sea part of the round, and the John Krakauer Into Thin Air part. It’s exhilarating to see how quickly the course turns on you. The back nine has some of Pacific Dunes’ characteristics, but with its own unique twists. My best attempt at words won’t do it justice. With the wind and clouds moving in, the temperature dropped 25 degrees on me between the time I started and the time I reached the 17th tee box. Shirtsleeves and sunscreen were replaced by three layers of clothes and wind so strong that it blew my bag over and tore my hat right off my head. I wore it backwards the rest of the round, just to be more aerodynamic.
At 326 yards from the back tee, 17 comes north up the coast and looks short, but plays longer because of the wind. I crushed a driver and a hybrid and was 15 yards short of the green. I muscled out a par and thought I had invented fire. The home hole is another course masterpiece. Coore and Crenshaw know that half of the players that play Sheep Ranch each day will have the wind at their back; if that’s you, then let that driver rip and benefit from the 50 extra yards of run you’ll receive if you can clear the dogleg and hit the fairway. I hit an 8-iron approach and putted for eagle. This hole gives all players a “fish tale” to end your round, brushes you off, shakes your hand and says to come back again soon.
Driving back to the central lodge, I had to buy a memoir and wear it as a badge of honor. McKee’s Pub is full of the best hot-air stories ever told, and a shot of Irish whiskey and a pint of Guinness salve all wounds.
Bandon is sheer magic, and where I want my ashes spread. For a golfer, it’s Disneyworld, Disneyland, Epcot Center and the pyramids all wrapped in one. Now, with Sheep Ranch, it’s officially in first place among the world’s golf resorts. By the time I pulled the car out of Bandon’s parking lot, I had knocked off another five of the West Coast’s true links courses, having previously played Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails, Old Macdonald and also the 13-hole Bandon Preserve.
It was time to bid Oregon goodbye and head to California to finish off this marathon run.
The Sea Ranch Golf Links • Sea Ranch, Calif. • LEG 8 • MILE 788
When doing my cup-of-coffee research for this trip, I was shocked to discover that there was a West Coast links course I had never heard of. No, more than shocked — I was disappointed. I’ve done golf business in California for 20 years. How could I be so ignorant?
I started to feel better, though, after discovering that my friends and fellow golfers were all scratching their head on this one, too. I finally connected with the course to hear more about the place and
I learned why Peper had put it on his list. Now, it was on mine.
In a time when golf was still flying on the backs of Jack, Arnie, Trevino and a young upstart Tom Watson, Sea Ranch Golf Links was crafted in pieces, and came to be like an expensive piece of jewelry that was bought on layaway and not to be fully sparkling until it was the right place and time.
It’s designed by one of my favorite modern-day golf course visionaries, Robert Muir Graves. This guy is a rock star to me, and was to golf in the west what Donald Ross was to golf in the east. Graves has such a cool list of public and private courses to his credit: Overlake Country Club, Avalon, Furry Creek, Widgi Creek, Port Ludlow, Canterwood, Saticoy, Illahe Hills and countless more in California, Washington and Oregon. Sea Ranch Golf Links opened in 1974 with its first nine holes and quickly made lots of “what’s hot” lists. In 1995, this gem of the seaside links was finally completed at 6,649 yards and a par of 72. The course’s blend of links land, rough Scottish features and heathland acreage made it special — the only course between the Oregon border and the Bay Area. It was to become a must-play and must-stop spot.
From Bandon Dunes, the directions were simple — turn south on 101, merge on to CA-1, drive 392 miles and take a right into the parking lot. That meant the next day was all about the drive. OMG! This was a drive I wish I could have shot in 70 mm IMAX. It’s breathtaking, and felt more like flying or hang-gliding than driving. The water was with me the whole time, and the drive through Redwoods National Forest during the pandemic meant that I might have seen five cars the entire day. It was just me, myself and I. And, I loved every minute of it.
There’s no cell phone reception in there. It’s trees that scrape the sky and a silence and stillness that is like a mossy, clean stagnation. It’s inspiring. The trunks of the redwoods in the center of the park were wider than the full length of my car. I imagined what George Lucas thought when he decided to make this the setting for Endor, and gave birth to a new world run not by park rangers, but Ewoks.
The dimness and stillness makes 1 p.m. in the redwoods feel like 6 p.m. in the rest of the world. I never wanted to leave. But, Sea Ranch harkened.
I had been pre-warned by the course that I would playing in less-than-ideal conditions. A water reclamation issue affecting the course and surrounding community meant that fairways were a bit baked and dried out. The greens were outstanding, but the tee boxes and rest of the layout looked like the end of the fortnight at Wimbledon. I also sensed that the pandemic was not as fruitful to this amazing layout, which relies on more than just local traffic to survive. I know, though, that it would be a perfect place for a fall round of golf, with cooler temps and more rainfall.
Make note that, while a true links course, Sea Ranch Links does not actually run along the beach — rather, it straddles the links land, the 101 and the rolling mountain foothills. Graves had to channel a little Lewis and Clark to blaze this trail. It shows what an architect can do when his mind is set on a masterpiece. I’d recommend a cart, but walking is not impossible. The par-5 13th and par-5 14th — yes, back-to-back par-5s — are a cool piece of this puzzle.
This course is worth the trip, and the staff and locals that frequent this place are not patrons but sustaining members of a society of golfers. The rolling terrain, deer, coastal trees, ponds — it looks and reads like a Steinbeck novel. I loved it. It’s humble pie to play and take part in, like being dipped in magic waters. Add this to your list and feel what hard work it truly is to keep a place like this alive.
Half Moon Bay Ocean Course • Half Moon Bay, Calif. • LEG 9 • MILE 931
The Sea Ranch Golf Links is on the Sonoma County coast, slightly north of Santa Rosa and the pin-drop wine town of Healdsburg. On a map, it’s less than 60 miles to Healdsburg and over 100 world-famous wineries, like La Crema and Arista. It looks like no biggie to traverse the 60 miles back along CA-1 through the Russian River Valley to get back to the 101. But, let me tell ya, it’s the longest, most rigorous, winding stretch of road I’ve ever driven.
If I had to guess, I made no fewer than 100 hairpin turns on this drive. I literally wore out the strut bushings on my little car on this leg of the trip, chalking them up to war wounds. CA-1 at times has no shoulder, and if I went over the guardrail, I’d crash into the Pacific. But, it’s a drive on which you will pull off at every vista to take pics. The Russian River Valley is like no spot in Oregon or Washington, melding the coast, farms, mountains and land that time forgot into a unique and unforgettable puzzle.
Once you make it back to 101, it’s a lovely, hilly drive into Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s kinda cool to me that the San Francisco Bay Area has one of the true links courses and Los Angeles doesn’t. No disrespect to my friends in Hollywood and O.C., but it’s a cool fact. As you head down the peninsula and make it to San Mateo, you will cut across CA92 and wind your way down to Half Moon Bay.
Of all the places I stopped and stayed, Half Moon Bay is the most romantic. The Ocean Course and its partner, the Old Course, sit adjacent to the gorgeous Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay Resort. There are a few similarities between them, as Arthur Hills was a part of both designs, but the Ocean Course is the only one that makes this prestigious list of links courses. Not to impugn the Old Course, but its layout and style — other than a jaw-dropping final two holes along the cliffs — is parkland in scope.
The land that Hills shaped into the Ocean Course had to pass the test of a picky Silicon Valley golfing crowd and an international audience that stays and plays at Ritz properties around the globe. He gently flowed in a tight, true Scottish layout where you can see the Pacific on every single hole — which is not easy to do. This course is a photographer’s dreamscape. I played it on a day where a marine layer of fog and sea smoke made it feel very much as if I was playing in the County of Fife in Scotland. What a layout!
“I loved that the wind whooshed for me that day, so that I could blister a 25-degree hybrid high and let the wind knock the ball down, like a field goal net behind the uprights.”
The par 4s are tight and a bit unforgiving, while the prevailing winds that wash over the peninsula take away even a big bomber’s crack at reaching most par-5 greens in two. I’m going on out on a limb to say, though, that holes 17 and 18 are as linksy and cool and rugged and tough and coastal and windy and amazing as any on this trip. They are stunners. The par-3 17th is daunting, like a longer version of Pebble’s famous No. 7. The hotel sits high above the 18th green and, from this distance, looks like a medieval fortress. As you stare down the difficulty of keeping your 180-yard shot at 17 from flopping into the drink, you are already thinking about how tricky that tee shot on 18 looks from here. I loved that the wind whooshed for me that day, so that I could blister a 25-degree hybrid high and let the wind knock the ball down, like a field goal net behind the uprights. The uphill, slight dogleg, par-5 18th is a masterpiece in every sense. Birdie is super. Par is better than good. And, with any number of Ritz guests watching the players finish the final hole from their patios or sipping a drink, you will have a mini gallery cheering you on.
The Ocean Course is a beautiful day on a links park and THE perfect tune-up for the three courses ahead of me at Pebble Beach. It’s pretty cool to pull into Carmel-By-the-Sea and tell the locals, “Yeah, I played Half Moon Bay on the way down.” Even cooler when you add that you’ve also played Sea Ranch Golf Links, Bandon Dunes, Gearhart and Chambers Bay. And, that you still have three more courses to go.
Pebble Beach Golf Links • Pebble Beach, Calif. • LEG 10, 11, 12 • 1,027 MILES
Pebble Beach is a golf course. Pebble Beach is a collection of five courses. Pebble Beach is decadence. Pebble Beach is a major. Pebble Beach is a city. Pebble Beach is a national treasure. Pebble Beach, for me, is everything I’ve ever wanted from a 40-year walk with this sport. Now, I don’t have to ever say again, “Nope, I haven’t played that one.”
When you are cruising along the 101 and San Jose and the Silicon Valley are fading in the rearview mirror, it’s super-cool to see a highway sign that says, “PEBBLE BEACH NEXT EXIT.” Turning down the famed 17 Mile Drive, meanwhile, is like making it to the Wailing Wall or Vatican City. There are three roads that are THE only real stretches of asphalt with any historical significance in golf. Old Station Road, from which St. Andrews’ famed “Road Hole” takes its name. Magnolia Lane, leading to to the front door of the Augusta National clubhouse. And, finally, Pebble Beach’s 17 Mile Drive, which weaves together Poppy Hills, The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill, the new Short Course (formerly the Peter Hay Golf Course) designed by Tiger Woods, and, of course, Pebble Beach Golf Links.
It took me two trips to cross this one off the bucket list and fully place all my pins on the rocky links shoreline of Pebble Beach. Last year, I flew down the coast to play Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill with my good friend and golfing buddy, Jon Thunselle. He’s one of the coolest cats I know: in the dictionary, the word “chill” has a photo of a penguin and Jon next to it. He and I watched our sons and daughters grow up together, so we have a deep root that’s anchored in our hometown of Snohomish. I’ve played golf with Jon back home and in Las Vegas, so we know each other’s games and there’s not ONE ounce of competitiveness between he and I. There’s no one I’d rather pair up with to play challenging courses for the first time.
We couldn’t play Pebble on my first trip, because they were hosting the 100th U.S. Open just six days later. We walked it instead, slowing down to replay, recount and even recreate certain shots, like two teens on a driveway basketball court. We stood where Watson stood when he chipped in on 17, and walked every inch of the 18th hole — with the grandstands up, rough in its full form and everything.
“We knew that we stood on holy land, and what lay ahead of us was perfection. To walk in the footsteps of giants that had played there since 1919 was more than either of us could grapple with in the moments before we teed off.”
For this trip, my very good college friend, Kappa Sigma brother and former college tennis teammate (my Baker University tennis career lasted exactly a year) Rick Walsh bravely and safely did a turnand-burn flight into Northern California to join me from Kansas City. This time, I would not leave Pebble Beach without playing it. Rick had never been to Pebble Beach, and his enthusiasm and way with words had me smiling and cracking up the whole time — taking the edge off of the nervousness.
When we arrived at the course, our hearts were pounding out of our chests. We knew that we stood on holy land, and what lay ahead of us was perfection. To walk in the footsteps of giants that had played there since 1919 was more than either of us could grapple with in the moments before we teed off.
It was right about then that Rick disappeared. No, seriously. We were just about to head to the tee, and he was gone. This stressed me out — not because I thought he’d bail, but because I didn’t want to miss our call to the tee. I went to my bag and pulled out a hybrid, looking around for Rick. Suddenly, there he was — with a double vodka soda and lime in each hand. I would never slug a drink like that before playing the course of my dreams, but before we teed off, we both saw half the cocktail vanish into our bloodstream. It was like knocking back 10 milligrams of Valium; I needed it, as the six I posted on the par-4 first hole was fair assessment of my nerves at the time. For Rick, the Absolut was absolutely what he needed to chill as he parred the first and carded a freak-show 37 on the outward nine. Frankly, it was magic to see him play like that and it made my day that he rose to the occasion.
In 1928, our Gearhart friend, H. Chandler Egan, updated the course design that was originally penned by Jack Neville and Douglas Grant. Alistair Mackenzie and Robert Hunter (1927) also worked on the course, while Jack Nicklaus put his touch on the short, par-3 fifth hole in 1998.
You can look at Pebble Beach though a few lenses. The pomp and circumstance is there, with the golf history a foot thick at every turn.
The finery is there, since the land you are taking divots out of may very well be the richest soil on Earth. For me, the experience made my two-dimensional image of the course — what I’d memorized through TV, books and magazines since I was a teen — four-dimensional. Why four, and not three? Because it’s not just the physical dimensions of the course that are tangible; you can feel the century of history all around you at every turn.
The course is a PERFECT eclectic artistic assembly of many odd turns, humps and bumps. Most all of the greens are really small; in some cases, postage stamps. Each time I plucked my ball from the hole, I found myself bummed out that I had one fewer hole left to play.
“The course is a PERFECT eclectic artistic assembly of many odd turns, humps and bumps.”
Hole one is cool, but nothing amazing. It’s a stairwell to a deck to overlook the Pacific. No. 2, however, is the welcome-wagon par-5, and tight. There’s this long sand creek barranca that kills your second shot, while huge trees that don’t show up on TV are like arena football goal posts you have to split with your third. It’s awesome — not “rad” awesome — but literal, jaw-dropping awesome.
Holes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, meanwhile, are it. They are why I came. These are the holes you dream about. I felt the wind and water at Bandon and Chambers, and it’s incredible. But, this is LINKS GOLF. This is the Pacific crashing against the rocks and your hair being blown sideways. You start heading up in elevation. You can see the insane mountain plateau of No. 6 off in the distance, inching closer and closer with every shot. Hit it too far right on any of these holes and you are in the sea. Hit it left and you’re in the fine, white sands. Hit it over the green and you’re dead. These are holes where you just try to advance the ball. Jack’s par-3 fifth — utter masterpiece. The 509-yard, par-5 sixth is sheer bliss. It looks impossible that you can even get your ball up there in three. The gorge that juts into the fairway off the tee and the steepness that follows as you hope to get your second over a blind uphill shot, is YOU trusting YOU — not your caddy, or your stroke-saver book. Standing atop the sixth fairway and looking down at Stillwater Cove on your right and Carmel Bay on your left is the best vista in golf.
What follows? For many, the greatest par-3, or perhaps the greatest hole, in golf. Next to the 18th at St. Andrews, I know of no other link that is more iconic than the 106-yard, par-3 seventh. It’s certainly the most photographed, and the social media posts of this hole are a daily following for fans across the globe. If I could only play one hole again and again, this is it. The wind is real. And, the elevated tee box makes you feel like you can pitch underhanded and hit the middle of the green. Six bunkers guard the dartboard green orbitally. Heck, a sandy par here is almost cooler than birdie — almost. I admittedly put a three on the scorecard, and felt like I hit the California lottery. The rest of the round was gravy.
Holes nine through 16 bring you up into the hills to see some of the most beautiful homes anywhere in the world. The 572-yard 14th is considered one of the toughest par-5s on the PGA TOUR, a three-shotter even for most of them. The greens on each hole have subtleties that even a single-digit handicapper can’t see at first. And, for me, the back nine greens are a lesson in reading truths. My caddie said to focus on the blades of grass closest to the hole — if you can figure out which way they lay, then work your way back to the ball, you can start to consider a real read. Speed and break are in a different realm here. And, considering that this is one of the most heavily trampled collection of putting surfaces in the world, it’s a credit to the artistry of superintendent Chris Dalhamer that they look and play this good.
When you get to 17, I hope the wind is howling. This is the famous hole where Jack’s 1-iron fired the shot heard ‘round the world at the 1972 U.S. Open, and where Watson chipped in from the fringe in 1982. A plaque is firmly planted where his Ram wedge popped the ball up just so. At 177 yards, the wind makes or breaks you here. I lipped a par putt, and all I could think about was old Tom.
The home hole 18th is a poem. It’s the end of a long journey, and playing it gave me a new respect. I’ve always dreamed of cutting the dogleg over Stillwater Cove, and what it would feel like to hit a ball out of the seawall sand trap that runs 153 yards to the green’s edge. But, of all the things about the hole, what truly struck me was the size of the tree right in front of the green. It’s THE real obstacle of the hole. Television and photos don’t do it justice. When I first saw it, I thought, Dude, pare that thing back! It blocks almost 60 percent of the green. But, earning the right to hit a shot OVER the tree and onto the green is poetic justice. Rick was on in three and staring down a 20-foot putt for bird. I hit my tee shot into the cove — sigh. But, I was hitting four over the tree to go up and down for a save. It came down and, just as quickly, bounced straight back up into the air, like it had struck a sprinkler head — in the middle of the green. Patrons on the patio overlooking the green gasped — what the hell happened? My ball had landed straight on top of Rick’s, plugged his, and caromed all the way to the back of the green. He carded a 5 and I carded a 6, but it made the final hole something to talk about.
The Links at Spanish Bay • Pebble Beach, Calif. • LEG 11
The Links at Spanish Bay is the perfect place to saddle up or come down after the round at Pebble Beach. The Lodge at Spanish Bay is all-world in every sense, and when you walk onto the grounds, you know you’re in links heaven and living fine. Although you are still on the resort property, it feels different than the Pebble Beach hub, though it’s not a drop-off by any stretch. The Lodge, shops, cuisine, bar and the famous bagpiper that helps the sun set there each night gives Spanish Bay is own chops.
“Bump and run is the name of the game.”
If you cut the course out of the rock as it sits and placed it on the shore of Lake Michigan or the Gulf of Mexico or the mid-south Atlantic, it would be the coolest course in that state. Before playing it, I read different reviews that varied from “mind-blowing” to “overpriced.” Honestly, both times I’ve played it I was pinching myself. I mean, when you play golf along the ocean and 17 Mile Drive, what’s not to love? I love RTJ Jr. courses — perhaps since he’s been a friend to this magazine over the years — and you can really feel his stylings here. But, you also feel Sandy Tatum’s and Tom Watson’s, too, as the greens at Spanish Bay are nothing like you would see at Pebble. They are big and more resort-like. But, not easy. In fact, I thought they were faster. The three designers have their fingerprints on this place like the three tenors.
It’s 6,800 yards, and the wind makes it play like 7,500. Hole No. 1 is a sweet launch pad, with the links land rolling you all the way down from the lodge to the water. Spanish Bay is rugged and when your ball flies errant, you could be stuck in gorse or thorny beach bushes, or just plain lost in an impossible array of foliage. Where Pebble Beach is about long rough and links, Spanish Bay is about the beach life.
The 459-yard, par-4 fifth is one of the hardest on the peninsula. In fact, with the wind in your face, all the par 4s here are very challenging, requiring you to keep your second shot under the wind just to get up and down. Rick and I both treated par like a birdie that day we played it. The wind picks up more as the day draws on — you just have to embrace it and not get pissed. It’s part of links golf. Bump-and-run is the name of the game.
Never in my life have I seen so many deer up close and personal as I did at Spanish Bay. It’s clear they didn’t get the memo about social distancing. In fact, I nearly hit one with my cart, it was so close. It’s like a sanctuary there. Both times I played, I used a golf cart and finished in less than four hours, which is perfect if you want to play 36. And, that’s exactly what we had in mind, with a quick stop to let the valets scrape out the grooves before heading off to Spyglass Hill.
By the way, the staff there is amazing, and remembered my name nearly four hours after we checked in. I was impressed.
Spyglass Hill Golf Club ªPebble Beach, Calif. • LEG 12
“The whole first hour at Spy is breathtaking and links, links, links.”
It’s been my experience since playing “Spy” for the first time last year, and kibitzing with other linksters that have made that loop, that you are magically cooler as a result of it. And, I love being in that kind of company.
Spanish Bay is new by Pebble Beach standards, as it hit the scene in 1987. When you play Spyglass, you are embarking on a historical journey, an amateur jewel and a PGA TOUR favorite. Many people outside of Northern California aren’t aware that the oldest course at Pebble Beach, though, is actually Del Monte Golf Club, named for the Del Monte Forest in which the resort is nestled. Del Monte is a heathland/parkland masterpiece and has been in continual operation since 1897; Del Monte and Gearhart slug it out for which was really the oldest course west of the Mississippi.
It was Del Monte that first brought public golfers to the peninsula, and it was Pebble Beach that sent shockwaves around the globe to make people pay attention. But, it was Spyglass Hill that gave Pebble Beach a 1-2-3 punch for years, long before Spanish Bay hit the scene. Spyglass has been tagged by Sports Illustrated as Pine Valley-by-the-Sea meets Augusta National. Frankly, that’s a great analogy.
Having hosted two U.S. Amateurs, and been a PGA TOUR stalwart as a co-host to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, it’s among the world’s best. At just under 7,000 yards, this par 72 brings you to your knees with a barrage of uphill, 400-yard par 4s that play more like par 5s. For a part of your trip on Spy, it seems like you never stop playing uphill.
Holes seven through 18 are a coastal forest journey like you would find at neighboring Poppy Hills, Bandon Trails or many Robert Trent Jones, Sr., tracks in Alabama. But, there’s a reason Spyglass is in this story, as its true links shine and bristle with the Pacific gales on holes one through six. Frankly, when you’re on the front nine, you can’t fathom that you will play the rest of the day in the forest; when you play the back, it’s hard to believe that you started on the beach.
The whole course is themed after the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island and spent a portion of his life there on the peninsula. The first hole — called, appropriately, Treasure Island — is, for me, the greatest opening hole I’ve ever played. Adjacent to the modest clubhouse, the first tee sits high atop the sweeping, boomerang-shaped, dogleg-left par 5, which is 595 yards long. It bends so swiftly that you can’t even tell from the tee that the green floats on the coast. When you bomb your drive to the corner, and see what lies ahead, you just know that you are in Nirvana. The whole first hour at Spy is breathtaking and links, links, links.
I am gonna go out on a limb here and say that with some moderate wind, Spyglass Hill would be one of the top-three hardest golf courses I have ever played, the other two being Carnoustie and Pacific Dunes. It’s just amazing.
A nice bonus of visiting Spy? Seeing and meeting club professional Jin Park, who grew up in Snohomish and went to Snohomish High. In fact, I see Jin’s father up at Snohomish Valley Golf Center quite often. If you’re planning a buddies trip, corporate retreat or you are a PGA professional looking to take advantage of the Club Pro Program, please contact my good friend Levi Breck, national sales manager for Pebble Beach. He will make all your dreams come true. He can be reached at BreckL@PebbleBeach.com or 831-622-8733. He’s the best in the business.
My 2,000-mile wanderlust trip was more than a getaway: it was a life-saver. I used the time to not just golf, but enjoy valued time with my son, Fletcher, and my friend Rick. I also saw good friends and made new ones along the way. It was reflective and soul-searching. The Bay Area is bliss to me.
I thought a lot about what had happened to America, to our soul and what the pandemic scars felt like and looked like. But, I saw the best in people. I saw that folks cared and wanted to be respectful of distance, yet still make a connection. Sometimes, even when you’re wearing a mask, you can look into someone’s eyes and see joy or sadness or disdain or fear — and they can see it in you, too.
For a little while, I just wanted to be. And, this journey helped heal and fuel a soul that is ready for what’s next.