PEBBLE BEACH—Golf's best are at Pebble Beach. One of its best deals is down the road.
Pebble Beach Golf Links, hosting this week's U.S. Open, is said to be the finest convergence of land and sea known to man, a proclamation that brings little argument. Pebble Beach is also a public track, and on that front, let the debate rage. Unlike Cypress Point or Augusta National, the venerable Monterey course is technically open to everyone, but so are commercial space flights and courtside seats. If you want to play, your bank account better rival the GDP of Switzerland: at $550 (plus $95 caddie fee, plus tip) it is one of the most expensive greens fees in the world. Pebble is public in name only, like an "amicable divorce."
For those seeking the spirit of a public course, that can be found at Pacific Grove Golf Links.
Residing five miles north of Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove—known as the "Poor man's Pebble"—boasts a daily greens fee of $51, with juniors allowed on for $20. The club considers itself a community service rather than revenue generator, an ethos stemming from its ownership by the city. (Samuel Finley Brown Morse, who developed Pebble Beach, sold the land to the township for $10 under the premise it be run as a golf course.) Its clientele are not the wealthy that frequent its famous neighboring courses, but regular folks.
"The diversity of the player that checks in is amazing," said Matt Pennington, general manager of Pacific Grove. "Local players, tourists, students, traveling groups, players of all skill levels."
But there are thousands of courses around the country that fit this description. You don't earn such a reputable nickname lightly, and it's a not one made in jest.
As one discovers, it's a handle Pacific Grove more than merits.
"This place is a bit of heaven on earth," says Mark Palmer of Alameda, Cali. "Whenever I'm remotely in the area, I make sure to visit and pay my respects."
Pacific Grove was opened in 1932, designed by Jack Neville (who created Pebble Beach in 1919) and Chandler Egan (a two-time U.S. Amateur champ that later renovated Pebble). The course originally opened as nine holes, designed by Egan. It's a fine routing, a course you would not tire of. Similarly, not a course that warrants a spot on your bucket list. What gives Pacific Grove its juice is Neville's creation on the back.
Brought in 30 years after Egan, Neville proposed a seaside nine to complement Egan's existing course. Neville promised to build his nine in the same fashion as historic links in Scotland and Ireland. And like those international courses, there would be minimal construction, letting the natural terrain of the coast's windswept dunes direct the layout.
A promise that Neville brought to beautiful fruition.
Pacific Grove's back nine is a glorious paradox, both playable and demanding. Compared to the tight confines seen at Pebble this week, it feels like you can land a 747 on Pacific Grove's fairways. The greens are mostly flat, and you can roll your ball up with relative ease. The par 35 is just 2,800 yards, and a handful of holes, with the right conditions, are drivable.
Conversely, it's clear that the holes are strategically designed around the dunes, creating natural hazards. They allow for aggressiveness but punish anything less than good. The fairways are rolling; rarely does a player receive a perfectly-flat lie. Though there's not much surrounding the greens, the putting surfaces are the size of a car hood. There are a number of blind shots, and the coastal winds could be your friend and foe on the same hole.
"It looks easy, and then you find out it's not," says Allen Simon, a truck driver originally from Wisconsin. (For those seeking a more architecturally-tuned deep dive, this primer by the Fried Egg will satisfy those demands.)
But while Neville's side a strategic marvel, it is beloved because of its aesthetics and landscape.
Eight of the nine holes feature ocean views, and a number of them edge so close to the coastline than you can feel the mist from crashing waves. The dunes—provided you're not in them—are a captivating frame. Rock islands spring from the ocean like oil pumps in the Great Plains. The meeting of green and blue and white and granite would make Jackson Pollock proud.
If that wasn't enough, the back nine is guarded by the Point Pinos Lighthouse, a tower built in 1855 that is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast. You're forgiven for thinking what lies before you was built on a Hollywood sound stage.
"For a fraction of the Pebble cost," Pennington says.
However, while the course serves as its foundation, what makes Pacific Grove's character so rich is its contrast to Pebble.
"We have our own thing here, and that's the way we like it," says Stephen Scott of Pacific Grove.
Pebble's trophy case features replica trophies of the famous tournaments held on its grounds; Pacific Grove has a local newspaper clipping about its junior program. Pebble's clubhouse walls are adorned with art of its famous panoramas; Pacific Grove has photos from the 2018 holiday party and women's league. Some of the most expensive houses in the world line Pebble's fairways; a foul ball on a number of Pacific Grove holes will end up in a cemetery.
A stay at Pebble's Lodge is $1,000 a night; there are no overnight accommodations at Pacific Grove, but a few regulars have been known to quietly fade into the pleather couches by the snack bar following a few adult sodas.
"We strive to have our own identity," Pennington says. "And we are one of the best municipalities from service, conditions and engagement in the community."
No, Pacific Grove isn't perfect. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles that other courses in the area have. Some of the cart paths need repair. It appears a number of range balls are as old as the lighthouse. A chain-linked fence guarding the 18th green looks like it's from Cold War.
In short, it's a public course. A true, glorious public course.
"Let the pros have Pebble," says Simon. "This is perfect for the rest of us."
(Special thanks to Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg for photos.)