Open Season

Those who see little distinction between religion and golf might be tempted to daven with their heads pointed northwest, toward Pebble Beach. But the Monterey Peninsula also has plenty of other great golf courses to make you pray for a great short game — and a reservation.

If you’re the kind of person who can network your way into front-row seats at a Knicks-Lakers game, you might want to attempt some string-pulling to play some of Monterey’s great private layouts. Although you’re more likely to garner a spot on the next space shuttle than to land a tee time at Cypress Point, some other local clubs should prove more accessible. At the very least, they’re still worth hearing about.

That’s especially true of the remarkable Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel Valley, where developers appear to have done everything right. The 20,000-acre property, which encompasses some of the most beautiful California landscape imaginable, will mostly be preserved in its natural state, with only 350 home sites of several to 65 acres being offered for sale at prices between $800,000-$4 million. My advice is to practice hard and raise the dollar amount of your next Nassau. The club will admit only 300 members, so you’ll want to act fast.

Those involved in Santa Lucia are quick to point out that the development is not a golf community: the secluded, ultra-private golf course is merely an amenity for homeowners — possibly the first time anyone’s referred to a Tom Fazio signature work in that way.

Originally routed and designed by local course architect Michael Poellet, developers brought Fazio in to create the greens and bunkering and to put his valuable (read: sales tool) name on a spacious, airy layout that meanders across a piece of land the likes of which may never become available in the region again. The golf course encompasses 350 acres — nearly three times the customary area. Holes wind past redwood forests, waterfalls, natural meadows full of wildflowers, and enough other lovely features to write your own Woody Guthrie song about. They blend wonderfully into the landscape and express subtleties rather than heroics — through swishing orientations, narrow fairways, a mere 50 bunkers, and charming if uneventful greens. Although creeks tinkle across the property, little water comes into play. The longest of four sets of tees will stretch to 7,067 eminently walkable yards, and the club will offer caddies to make that walk even more enjoyable.

A much different kind of development from Santa Lucia, Monterey’s new par-71 Pasadera Country Club, represents Jack Nicklaus’s only design on the peninsula. This extremely strong, well-crafted and accessible layout will be home to 395 members but also remain open to the public every Monday — a generosity that’s great for the game of golf. Nicklaus’s love of strategic nuance is evident course-wide in a risk-reward sort of way, but especially in the greens, which feature more tiers than a Julia Roberts movie. Native fescues will provide contrasts between fairways and, well, non-fairways in different seasons. Although the routing (originally plotted by Robert Muir Graves) is a bit quirky — and even includes two fairways that cross — the variety of holes will delight you as they ramble across 6,800 yards of canyons, sandstone formations, native oak groves and chaparral-covered hills. Bring your altimeter, because no fewer than six holes climb big-time — though whether you do so gradually or all at once is part of the strategic challenge. And remember what they say about what goes up.

To move things along, Nicklaus designed the 505-yard par-five first hole with few hazards, but do not fear — plenty more appear later, especially in the form of sculpted bunkers. Slim landing areas add to the drama, particularly at the stupendous 14th hole, 212 yards, all carry, across a huge ravine to a green that hangs atop a precipice. Never known to be short of words, Nicklaus was apparently speechless when he first laid eyes on this part of the property, then finally just muttered, “Wow.” The other par threes are also memorable.

If you prefer well-aged golf layouts to those just out of the package, one of the best sites in America is occupied by the tony old Monterey Peninsula Country Club, tucked between Cypress Point and Spanish Bay. But these days, even the old is new; Rees Jones recently made over Seth Raynor’s 1926 Dunes Course. Regrettably, Raynor died during construction of the Dunes and never really finished designing it. Seventy-five years later, Jones has completed the job in fabulous style, mostly by adding moundings that sharpen course lines and working hard around the greens, which formerly failed to meet USGA specs. Members are calling the new, hidden tee box on the 14th hole “Rees’ Surprise.” Jones shifted the green here and created a new oceanside tee that requires a long carry over crashing surf, sea otters, lost penguins, daring ball hounds, mermaids and who knows what else.

MPCC’s Shore Course, built for $50,000 back in the 1950s, will soon be redone by Arnold Palmer and should join the Dunes as one of the most outstanding view courses anywhere. The club also owns a piece of oceanfront property that would sell for millions but currently serves as a shag-bag range for members and as a salad bar for a herd of very lucky deer.

Speaking of redesigns, 20 minutes north of Monterey, in Salinas, Coral de Tierra Country Club is about to emerge from a facelift by the skilled hand of the ubiquitous Michael Poellet. The original layout, designed by Bob Baldock Jr., dates to 1959, but Poellet’s renovation — particularly his skillful and sublime bunkering — will bring the course into the era of modern architecture. Poellet actually moved or rebuilt every bunker on the course, added a few new ones and built strategy into the sand complexes by creating doorways through which the greens are best approached. He also put in a lot of work around the greens. One of the outstanding new holes at this 6,600-yard track is number 13, a 492-yard downhill par five with a creek sneaking across the fairway at about 230 yards out. The seductive bunkering invites a heroic second shot to the green or intimidates you to lay up short to the left of the sand. Coral is friendly and unpretentious and offers a breezy round in a verdant bowl surrounded by steep, gorgeous hills. Locals posit that this was the location of Steinbeck’s famous “Pastures of Heaven.” Highly amicable and well-loved longtime pro Jerry Greenfield will go to any lengths to ensure his members’ happiness at Coral, even if it means accidentally maneuvering his new electronic caddie into a lake just for their amusement.

If you prefer to play your golf among the masses — or at least among those masses who can afford $100-$300 green fees — Monterey offers one of the best collections of high-end public/resort layouts anywhere.

We’ll save Pebble Beach Golf Links and the accompanying inn for some other century, when they actually need more press. But the Pebble Beach Company also owns two other stupendous golf courses and a pair of small lodgings that are to hotel rooms what Pebble is to grass-covered dunes.

For my money, The Links at Spanish Bay ranks right up there with the big PB for pure golfing perfection, though it lacks the powerful historic elements. How can you go wrong when Tom Watson, Sandy Tatum and Robert Trent Jones Jr. team up to insinuate a layout among some of the most beautiful linksland this side of Dornoch, but where the ocean’s still warm enough for surfing? As with the best British coastland courses, Spanish Bay invites you to hit normal shots (in this case “normal” may mean into a 40-knot wind), or keep the ball low and bump and roll it onto the greens. Virtually every hole at Spanish Bay involves a surprising journey, and even the shortest holes require laser accuracy. Such as number two, which may elicit nonchalance because of its mere 307-yard distance, but upon closer look will give you a good, sandy fright. Make sure to pick up a yardage guide before playing Spanish Bay; to have even a chance to score well, you’ll need to know what’s out there. Be forewarned that it includes pot bunkers, hummocks, double dog legs, and at least one green that has so many tiers it resembles Southwestern pueblo architecture.

The Inn at Spanish Bay is as warm and fine as the golf course is brisk and challenging. Rooms provide a cozy respite between ocean dunes and pine forests; all contain fireplaces, and the best view across the windswept landscape. Leave your windows open to hear the plaintive notes of the bagpiper who walks the links at dusk as if mourning every golf ball he ever lost. When the concert commences, head down to Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant, where you might need Cliff’s Notes to get through the extensive Euro-Asian menu.

Just a short dune-buggy ride down the coast, Spyglass Hill Golf Course offers another dandy layout with a more accessible public feel. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1966 and a host course for the AT&T, Spyglass takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” All holes are named for characters in the book. The course features two distinctly different topographies that influence design. The first five holes (and the best five) gambol over dunes, ice plant and nefarious waste areas and call for supreme accuracy or a small shovel. The remaining thirteen holes route beautifully through pine groves and entice with lakes and elevated greens, but they may disappoint some players after their romp in the sand.
Spyglass is rated as one of the toughest golf courses in the world from the back tees (75.9 rating, slope of 148, 6,855 yards), and three holes (6, 8 and 16) rank among the most difficult on the PGA tour. The feloniously fast greens are only part of the challenge. I had such a rough day on the course that they might as well have come out from the pro shop and beat me with a stick.

Since Spyglass doesn’t offer lodging, why not head to Casa Palmero, the spanking-new 24-room inn along the first hole back at Pebble Beach? Designed for high-enders who treasure privacy, intimacy and relaxation (as opposed to those who prefer pressure and mayhem), the secluded Spanish-Mediterranean-style getaway is possibly the best small hotel in the United States. Advertised as being so intimate that most travelers will never know it exists, Casa Palmero puts a premium on unparalleled service. In addition to a spacious, luxurious room with amenities such as a wood-burning fireplace and a Bose wave radio, enjoy the use of the old homestead’s living room, dining room, library, billiard room, and private bar.

Twenty minutes inland from the golf theme park of Pebble Beach, in Carmel, lies four-star, four-diamond Quail Lodge Resort and Golf Club, a homey, understated property with a golf course that would deserve marquee status anywhere else. The resort’s 100 rooms are spread across a parkland setting full of lakes and fountains surrounding a main lodge that houses the excellent Covey Restaurant (during my visit, quail was not on the menu), one of the best among many around Carmel and Monterey.

Quail’s golf course, 6,516 yards designed by Robert Muir Graves, also wends through willows, oaks, lakes, and meadows full of lupine and poppies. The course is charming and challenging in a quiet way and requires precise attention to play it well. Three par threes on the front side will hone your short game while back-to-back par fives on the second nine will help keep your fairway woods warm. Known as a particularly woman-friendly venue, Quail has hosted several championships, including the California Women’s Amateur and the USGA Senior Amateur. While not as grand and daunting as the more famous local links courses, Quail still soars.

So if you happen to miss the cut at the Open this year, you’ll be glad to know that the Monterey area’s other courses offer some top-notch consolation rounds.