I took up golf again when I moved to Pebble Beach.
When I say this, people usually assume I was inspired by the sight of Pebble Beach Golf Links or Cypress Point Club. I had indeed caught glimpses of those courses on my initial walks around Del Monte Forest. While I was impressed, I was not inspired to dig out my old clubs.
Instead, the moment came on a sunny afternoon in 2015, when I was pushing my son in a stroller near Asilomar State Beach. As we approached Point Pinos, the southern entrance to Monterey Bay, I saw a fairway tumbling through large sand dunes. This, I would later learn, was the 12th hole at Pacific Grove Golf Links.
I need to play there, I thought.
A $50-a-round municipal course five miles from Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove has two nines of vastly different character. The front moves out and back through a narrow inland paddock bordered by trees and houses. The back occupies a tract of exposed linksland next to the ocean.
The front nine opened in 1932 and was built by Chandler Egan. Golf nerds remember Egan primarily for his sterling amateur career and his role in the 1929 renovation of Pebble Beach. The back nine, added in 1960, was the work of Jack Neville, one of the designers behind the original 1919 layout of Pebble Beach.
Praise for the “Neville nine” at Pacific Grove usually focuses on aesthetics: the ocean views, the authentic dunes, the watchful presence of the 163-year-old Point Pinos Lighthouse.
No doubt the setting is remarkable. Land of this quality and delicacy is rarely devoted to a golf course, much less to a muni. Yet the true merit of the oceanside holes at Pacific Grove lies not in their beauty but in the subtleties of Neville’s design.
Routing as Trail Building
“If you were going to walk the property, that’s the way you’d walk it.”
-Tom Doak on the routing of Cypress Point (from The Yolk with Doak: Episode 8)
In the original design of Pebble Beach Golf Links, Neville’s great contribution was the routing, a figure eight that starts inland, veers seaward, runs along the cliffs for a while, curves inland, loops around, and concludes by returning to the ocean. This routing has the structure of a symphony, building to climaxes both in the middle (holes 7-10) and at the end (holes 17-18).
If there were no golf course above Stillwater Cove and you wanted to explore the property, you might follow a trail very much like this figure eight.
Neville brings the same skill to bear on the back-nine routing at Pacific Grove. He begins with an unassuming par 3 next to the Point Pinos Lighthouse. Midway through the walk to the 10th green comes the big reveal: a view of the dunescape below and the ocean on the horizon.
The 11th hole descends to a green benched into a ridge of dunes. You cross this ridge to reach the 12th tee, where you find a stunning par 5 that runs alongside Ocean View Boulevard. Holes 13 through 15 zigzag back inland, playing up, down, and around hills of sand. The best landforms get special attention: the 11th green, 12th tee, 13th green, 14th tee, and 15th green all touch the tallest family of dunes.
From the 15th green, you climb to a tee perched next to the lighthouse. The 16th hole hurtles down toward another stretch of coastline that, until this point in the round, you have not been able to see. The par-3 17th plays alongside the ocean, across Crespi Pond, before the 18th takes you back up to the clubhouse.
In this routing, Neville, your trail guide, reveals the property to you one section at a time. First he shows you the lighthouse, then the sand dunes, then the cliffs. He lets you explore the dunes for a while before delivering you back to the lighthouse and giving you the final surprise of another visit to the coast.
If you were going to walk the property, that’s the way you’d walk it.
“There is something so undeniably pleasant about a natural hazard that it seems out of the question to duplicate it artificially…. Man cannot do in a few days what nature took years to accomplish.”
Pacific Grove is one of the few American seaside courses to be built on genuine linksland. But the back nine resonates not because sand dunes are part of the scenery but because they function as natural, strategic hazards. Particularly on holes 12 through 15, Neville’s design continually tempts you to position your ball near the dunes in order to gain an advantage.
HOLE 12 - Par 5 - 513 Yards
Off the tee, this par 5 offers plenty of fairway to the left. From that position, however, the second shot calls for a stout carry over a massive dune 80 yards short of the green. If you fall short, you could be faced with a blind approach or a search for a lost ball.
An aggressive drive over the small dune at the corner of the dogleg is risky: the prevailing wind tends to push any drive with left-to-right spin drastically to the right, into the sand and scrub. When executed well, though, this play sets up either an opportunity to reach in two or a simple iron to the basin short of the green.
HOLE 13 - Par 4 - 316 Yards
My favorite hole at Pacific Grove, this short par-4 presents a number of options from its elevated tee. Each alternative comes with its own set of risks and rewards:
Punch a long iron to the middle of the fairway just shy of the sand dune on the left. This is a low-risk play, but your view on the approach will be obscured by a grassy mound short and left of the green.
Hit a shot of no more than 240 yards to the middle-right section of the fairway. As long as you avoid the out-of-bounds sandy waste both long and to the right, you will have a straight-on look at the pin.
Launch driver straight over the dune guarding the inside corner of the dogleg. As long as you make the carry of about 215 yards, this option takes many of the hazards out of play. Because of the greenside mound, however, your approach is likely to be blind.
Pull one into the neighboring 14th fairway, leaving yourself an uncomplicated downhill pitch but likely irritating the group teeing off above you.
HOLE 14 - Par 4 - 356 Yards
Want to see the 14th green on your second shot? Then your drive has to flirt with the row of dunes on the right. Two factors make this play especially difficult: the left-to-right wind, which tends to toss poor strikes into oblivion, and the fact that the desirable landing area is hidden from the tee.
A bail-out to the left, as long as it stays short of the waste area 270 yards out, is as comfortable and safe as the subsequent blind approach would be disorienting and treacherous.
HOLE 15 - Par 4 - 397 Yards
The most difficult hole on the back nine, the uphill 15th asks a now-familiar—but no less engaging—question: do you hedge toward the visible part of the fairway on the left and deal with a long second shot, or do you send your ball into the unseen terrain near the dunes on the right and potentially either take a penalty or have a short iron in?
It Could Be Even Better
Like many older municipal courses, Pacific Grove has made concessions to growing neighborhoods, shrinking budgets, and lowest-common-denominator tastes. These compromises are obvious on the front nine, where safety trees restrict the freedom of play, and where the addition of a new clubhouse forced the rerouting of a few holes and led to a series of amateurish design changes.
The back nine has some issues, too. The 10th and the 18th are bland holes, straight out of what Geoff Shackelford calls the “freeway school” of golf architecture. And while the 17th coasts by on the strength of its seaside location, it is a strategic empty set.
More seriously, perhaps because of attempts to simplify maintenance, almost all of the greens at Pacific Grove are circular and devoid of bold contouring. The two exceptions on the back nine are the well-shaped 13th and the recently expanded 16th. Otherwise, the greens add little to the interest of the holes.
I doubt Pacific Grove will ever invest in significant renovations. For one thing, the tee sheets are already packed year-round. For another, many see the course’s round, simple greens and the front nine’s tree-lined fairways as “old school.” This is a misconception, of course, but a tenacious one.
In its current incarnation, Pacific Grove Golf Links still embodies much of the best in American municipal golf. The back nine is well designed, yes—but more important is that the course is welcoming, casual, and woven organically into the surrounding community. If Pebble Beach and Cypress Point are the courses you dream about playing, Pacific Grove is the place that invites you to come, have fun and perhaps, as I did, rediscover your love of the game.