bonkFebruary 10, 2009

A Star Under Any Circumstance

If not for its more celebrated neighbors, Spyglass Hill would be a destination all its own

Spyglass Hill's only mistake has been its location down the street from Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.

Spyglass Hill's only mistake has been its location down the street from Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.

PEBBLE BEACH - When Robert Trent Jones Sr. was overseeing the construction of his new golf course design called Spyglass Hill, there were a number of trees that were cut down to be burned on the left side of the 13th hole. Jones' son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., said his dad used piles of old tires to get the fire hot, but that one morning, an unwanted fire broke out.

The son remembers the elder Jones breathing a huge sigh of relief when that fire wasn't able to spread.

"He said 'What if I had been known as the man who burned down the Del Monte Forest?'" Jones quoted his father.

Instead of a classic mistake, a classic course was made. It's Spyglass Hill, part of it hanging on the jagged edge of the Pacific, all seagulls and surf, and part of it meandering through the tranquility of the Del Monte Forest that Jones so kindly avoided using as kindling.

As part of the three-course rotation for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am beginning in 1968, Spyglass has often been obscured by more-well known Pebble Beach Golf Links, rich in U.S. Open history and famous for its wondrous, ocean-hugging 18th hole.

But that's not to say Spyglass doesn't have its own rooting section.

"I love it," Phil Mickelson said. "The changes of mood, the small greens, the scenery. That's why I love it."

And because his 62 shares the course record with Luke Donald?

"Oh, and that, too," Mickelson said.

Jones shrugged off the 62s and said the scores offered no negative reflection of the course.

"I personally didn't get upset. My father might have," he said.

Spyglass may seem like a candidate for an inferiority complex, if only when compared to neighboring Cypress Point and Pebble Beach, but that's not the case at all. Its reputation is secure, and there are those who feel it's more difficult than and equally as intriguing as its posh Monterey Peninsula associates. When Donn Achen drove up from San Diego to play the courses in 1985, he and his friends had one more day to play one of the layouts a second time.

"We chose Spy," said Achen, who is now the first assistant pro at Spyglass.

It's easy to see how that could happen. Inspired by "Treasure Island," the novel by Monterey resident Robert Louis Stevenson, Spyglass Hill was built by Jones in 1966 for $487,000, a modest sum in almost any era and certainly a bargain for a world-class track. Samuel F.B. Morse, a distant cousin of telegraph inventor Samuel Morse, founded the Pebble Beach Company and owned the land on which Jones designed Spyglass.

According to Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Morse told his father to do what he wanted with the land.

"To a golf architect, this is like God saying 'Go paint the Sistine Chapel.'"

What the elder Jones came up with was an intriguing concept, drawing elements from two of the most classic golf courses in the U.S. -- Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey and Augusta National Golf Club. The first five holes at Spyglass were inspired by Pine Valley's contoured greens; the next 13 holes channeled the tree-lined and sometimes sloping fairways of Augusta National.

"He didn't copy them, he just took the spirit of them," Jones said of his father's design. "He was exceptionally proud of it."

Jones said the original course did not include any drainage in order to satisfy the restrictions of the construction budget. By his son's recollection, the elder Jones wasn't concerned.

"He said 'Bobby, we are going to build one of the greatest golf courses in the world. They will spend millions to put in drainage."

He was right and they did.

The view from the first tee offers only a hint of what lies beyond. Clumps of moss hang from weather-beaten trees on your left and the fairway dips dramatically and then makes a sharp dogleg left toward the sound of the pounding surf. It is as visually disarming as it is exhilarating.

On Tuesday, David Duval knocked in a couple of putts on the practice green and then headed toward the tee, anxious to get started. Duval has had his disagreements with Spyglass in the past, but all was forgiven this time.

"What's not to like?" he said.

Whether it is wind blowing in from the ocean, the sand dunes that are home to the ice plants with an appetite for golf balls, chasms that must be cleared, narrow greens that must be found or lung-taxing changes in elevation that must be navigated, Spyglass stands up as a righteous test of golf.

"It's already stood the test of time," Jones said. "It's not trying to punish players, like Pete Dye is sometimes and it's not too technical, like Jack Nicklaus is sometimes. It only yields to great professionals and great players."

There is no real estate component at Spyglass, only 6,953 yards of golf. The snug practice green could probably fit in your backyard, and the cozy pro shop is unpretentious. It's all by design, something that Jones will never forget, just as he remembers his father sleeping on his apartment couch back when the son was a law student at Stanford and Spyglass was first coming to life. Jones worked with his dad serving his apprenticeship, and went on to design a sister course to his father's Spyglass when he laid out Poppy Hills, also part of the rotation in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

It is a powerful group, small but bold, with not more than a few miles separating each of its parts. Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass, maybe even Poppy Hills should be included. And in fact, Jones thinks Poppy deserves to be featured more prominently in the conversation. ("The son of Rin Tin Tin can run, too," he said).

Mickelson said the closing holes at Pebble Beach along the ocean probably give it an edge over Spyglass and Donald agreed. But when considered together, it is a collective golf package that may be unsurpassed.

"It's like being in the Vatican of golf," Jones said. "There are many, many great artists and even greater artwork there."

It is impossible to underestimate the power of Pebble Beach, but if you close your eyes and feel the ocean breeze slap you in the face at the 165-yard, downhill par-three third hole at Spyglass, it's easy to see why it's a star under any circumstance.