Golf: On the legendary Monterey Peninsula course, recreational players experience the difficulties that have challenged the champions of the game.

LINKS TO GREATNESS

February 09, 1997|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

When I stood on the No. 1 tee of the Pebble Beach Golf Links for the first time, my desperately wandering mind somehow brought back memories of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Trevi may be the most famous, or at least the most romanticized, fountain in Western civilization, but it's surrounded by stores, offices and busy, narrow streets. That chaotic setting tends to soften it, rendering fierce Neptune and his tritons less menacing than their 18th-century sculptors intended.

To a recreational golfer, Pebble Beach, on the wind-swept Monterey Peninsula (about 100 miles south of San Francisco), looks impossible, fully as intimidating as its reputation -- the undisputed Holy Grail of American courses.

Golfing gods have walked the fairways almost from the moment the layout was finished in the early '20s. It was built at the behest of Samuel F. B. Morse (the telegraph inventor's grandnephew) soon after he acquired the Pebble Beach Lodge, Hotel Del Monte and 7,000 acres of Del Monte Forest from Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1947, crooner Bing Crosby initiated his invitational tournament at Pebble, pairing pros and amateurs for his annual "Clambake." Now under the auspices of AT&T, the contest remains a fixture on the winter tour.

More significantly, Pebble Beach has been chosen as the site for three U.S. Opens, starting in 1972 with a victory by Jack Nicklaus. In '82, Tom Watson won it in spectacular fashion. And ** Tom Kite prevailed 10 years later. This most prestigious of all American tournaments will be held there again in 2000, its 100th anniversary.

In the golfing world, Pebble Beach is at least as celebrated as the Trevi Fountain, that old marble water hazard on the Via delle Muratte, and experts deem it one of the few American courses deserving mention in the same breath as Scotland's St. Andrews, the ancient and revered links in the land where golf was born.

Fans of Pine Valley in New Jersey and Augusta National in Georgia -- home of the Masters tournament -- may rightfully claim superiority. But members of those clubs refuse to admit most outsiders, so Pebble Beach wins because of its greatness and its public accessibility.

From the first tee, I looked out upon the bright green fairway, dotted with stroke-gobbling sand traps and intrusive webs of shrubbery and trees. Forbidding territory.

Yet, I could turn in the opposite direction and see a marketplace churning with members of the travel-package set. And only a few yards away, other golfers were mounting their carts or meeting their caddies, sipping coffee from plastic containers and reading the Wall Street Journal as they waited for tee times.

I realized, intellectually, that no one cared whether my first shot dribbled or sliced, but the anxiety would not go away. Perhaps that's the truest mark of a fine and reputable golf course; a big empty field transmogrifies into an unrelenting opponent, one that can laugh and ridicule and remind you that your feeble efforts somehow demean its glorious history.

Pebble Beach tries hard to be a warm and fuzzy place. Its eager employees show as much respect for a full purse as a low handicap.

Department store of golf

It appears that the newest owners of Pebble Beach, a consortium of Japanese investors, haven't overlooked a single commercial possibility. The small and basic pro shop of Clambake days has mushroomed into a department store of golf.

Hundreds of tourists arrive daily by bus to browse through sportswear, lamps, hats, playing cards, towels, ashtrays and leather goods -- all stamped with the Pebble Beach logo.

Those who like to say they have been to a famous spot without actually having been there can snatch up countless items of Pebble Beach memorabilia.

I decided that the only proper way to appreciate Pebble Beach Golf Links was to play it. Silly me.

Before the Pebble Beach starter introduced the other members of my foursome, I had noticed family groups and obvious honeymooners posing for snapshots on the 18th green. The setting of the 18th contributes mightily to the terrorizing perfection of Pebble Beach. Vivid, manicured lawn rolls to the very edge of a rocky embankment that plunges treacherously down to the deep blue of Carmel Bay, a golf-ball graveyard.

"It's the most beautiful meeting of land and sea on the face of this planet," is the way Robert Louis Stevenson described this area, long before the arrival of the fairways, imposing homes, marinas and resorts that crowd this meeting of land and sea now. Still, if Stevenson could see it today, I doubt he'd change his mind.

I had expected an air of exclusivity at one of the two or three best golf courses in the world, but Pebble Beach graciously accepts anyone's money. That sprawling pro shop aside, the fairway begins with the cream-colored buildings of Pebble Beach Lodge, where guests in their complimentary white terry-cloth robes stand on their balconies sipping coffee and watching the parade of golfers, like gregarious neighbors seeing the kids on the block off to school.

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