Golf Digest Archive
Age vs. Beauty
St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, the best in the game. Which is better? Find out in this head-to-head battle
Was it cosmic coincidence or tacit orchestration? What does it matter? We should simply rejoice that over the next two months, the two greatest public golf courses in the universe are the hosts of the two greatest golf championships. In the middle of June, it's the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Pacific coastline of California. Six weeks later, it's the British Open at the Old Course of St. Andrews, Scotland, up against the North Sea. It's a double triumph for everyone who plays the game as a passionate recreation. We start a new century comforted by the fact that the two courses deemed the best tests for the game's greatest players are also open to lesser golfers like us.
OK, so neither course is truly accessible these days. Pebble requires a reservation a year in advance and a small bank loan for the green fee. The Old Course rations out tee times via a lottery, and its green fee is rapidly approaching three figures, sterling. But both are achievable dreams, rare Open venues from which ordinary people can actually take divots.
What's fascinating is that these two layouts have so much in common. Both are products of Mother Nature, with bits of assistance from designers better known for their playing skills than their artistic ones. Both are old-school out-and-back routings with the 12th tee box farthest from the 18th green. Both are constantly exposed to sea breezes that can become ocean gales at the drop of a flagstick. And both have figured prominently in the career of the greatest golfer of all time. Jack Nicklaus collected two majors at Pebble: the 1961 U.S. Amateur and the 1972 U.S. Open. He also won two majors at St. Andrews: the British Opens in 1970 and 1978.
Both courses have vocal critics. Many scoff at St. Andrews' fishhook design, with every hole parallel to another, with three-quarters of its trouble on the right and the rest dead ahead, hidden from view. Still, the architecture of the Old Course has been studied for generations. It's a textbook in alternative routes, with every hole offering at least two avenues. The safe left-hand route normally leaves an awkward approach, while taking dead aim down each fairway is fraught with peril but abundant in rewards. Its design is so insightful that the Old Course has been the taproot of nearly every course built in the 20th century.
Pebble Beach also has its share of detractors. Many think the course possesses a satanic routing: six great holes, six ordinary ones and six bad ones. Take away the stunning Pacific Ocean setting, some say, and Pebble Beach becomes rubble. Those opinions have less credence this year, given that one par 5 will play as a stern par 4 and a new Nicklaus-designed beachfront par 3 will see its first U.S. Open competition. Pebble Beach now has nine out of 18 holes right on the ocean, and the Pacific Ocean isn't going anywhere except inland, at the rather alarming rate of three inches a year.
In some regards, the courses are polar opposites. Golf has been played on St. Andrews' turf for more than five centuries; Pebble is only 81 years old. The Old Course has more bunkers--112 compared to Pebble's 92--but far fewer greens, just 11 instead of the customary 18, with seven enormous ones doing double duty (only the first, ninth, 17th and 18th holes have their own green). Pebble's 18 greens, by contrast, are uniformly tiny. Pebble is all panorama and Technicolor, and a single round on it leaves an indelible memory. The Old Course is sepia toned, and a round on its pancake terrain is usually one of frustration, beset by quirky bounces and hidden bunkers.
So it raises the question: Which of these two marvelous Open sites is truly golf's supreme public course? We could simply observe each championship this summer, then draw a conclusion. But that would involve some unacceptable variables, such as poor weather, lucky putting and a fluke winner.
We prefer to pit the two courses against one another, an architectural match play. St. Andrews has the honor, for it is customary to recognize age before beauty.
• The first hole at St. Andrews is a 376-yard par 4 with a ridiculously wide fairway, but the approach must carry Swilcan Burn, just six feet wide but edging the front of the green--a testy shot when the wind and flagstick are both up. Pebble's first hole is five yards longer, and hemmed in on both sides by guest quarters. Not many spectators will see opening shots at Pebble. The whole auld grey town of St. Andrews can watch the action on its first tee. St. Andrews therefore goes 1 up.
• Second. A routine par 4 at St. Andrews, no hidden pot bunkers within the fairway, just gorse along the right. The second at Pebble Beach is a weak par 5 that'll be a strong 484-yard par 4 for the Open. Pebble's is better. Match is even.
• Third. Short par 4s at both courses. Halved; match remains even.
• Fourth. At 464 yards, this is the longest par 4 on the outward nine on the Old Course. Pebble's 331-yard fourth has lots of bunkers and a tiny green, but is basically a clambake. The hole goes to the Old Course. St. Andrews, 1 up.
• Fifth. One of just two par 5s at the Old Course (the other is the 14th, which runs parallel in the opposite direction). It's 568 yards, with the game's original Spectacles Bunkers squinting from a hillside 100 yards short of the truly massive green. The fifth at Pebble is just 18 months old, a Jack Nicklaus-designed 188-yard par 3 with a postage-stamp green perched near an ocean cliff. Two completely different holes. But both can be easy birdies or easy bogeys. Halved. St. Andrews remains 1 up.
• Sixth. Blind shots here at both courses. At Pebble, it's an uphill second shot on a 524-yard par 5. At the Old Course, it's a blind tee shot over a ridge of gorse. Neither hole is particularly fearsome for an Open. Halved. St. Andrews still 1 up.
• Seventh. This hole at Pebble Beach is the game's most diabolical short par 3, the longest-playing 106 yards ever encountered. It was here that Tom Kite missed the green, then holed his pitch for a birdie in his final-round march to the 1992 Open title. The seventh at St. Andrews is a 388-yard par 4 curving to the right, the only true dogleg on the course, but rather harmless. Pebble wins. Match is all square.
• Eighth. The second leg of Pebble's beachfront assault, and simply the best par 4 in America. At 418 yards, it's blind and uphill off the tee to a plateau fairway, then over an ocean chasm to a well-bunkered green. The eighth at the Old Course is clever but no match, a 175-yard par 3 (just one of two par 3s on the course), where only the top half of the flag can be seen from the tee. Pebble goes 1 up.
• Ninth. This hole at Pebble gets overshadowed by the eighth, but it's an even more rugged par 4, with 466 yards over heaving cliff-top terrain, the Pacific hard on the right, a series of bunkers hard on the left and a green that lists toward the sea. St. Andrews' ninth is a bewilderingly featureless drive-and-pitch (or putt) par 4. A roller coaster versus a bowling lane. No contest. Pebble, 2 up at the turn.
• 10th. The last of seven consecutive oceanside holes at Pebble, a fine 446-yard par 4 with a fairway that tilts sharply to the right and a small crag fronting the right side of the green. The 379-yard 10th at the Old Course is named for Bobby Jones, who won the 1927 Open at St. Andrews and had far more personality than this bland par 4. Pebble, 3 up.
• 11th. Pebble turns inward and uphill here, a par 4 of 380 yards. It's no match for St. Andrews' classic 11th, the often-imitated 174-yard Eden par 3, demanding a shot between the Hill and Strath bunkers to a green with exaggerated contours. Like Pebble's seventh, this one can be a pitching wedge or a long iron, depending upon the wind. Hole goes to St. Andrews. Pebble, 2 up.
• 12th. This hole at the Old Course is 314 yards, with a fairway that's a minefield of hidden pot bunkers, so even an iron off the tee can find trouble. Pebble's 202-yard 12th is an underrated par 3. Both holes present more than what first meets the eye. Halved. Pebble stays 2 up.