Pacific Grove: Monterey’s marvelous muni

The 13th hole at Pacific Grove Golf Course plays along the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

The 13th hole at Pacific Grove Golf Course plays along the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

On a misty late-May morning on the Monterey Peninsula, Matt Blair eased his Chevy pickup along 17 Mile Drive, past the gilded mansions that flank the pristine fairways of the country’s best-known public course.

The corporate tents were up, and so was the rough on Pebble Beach Golf Links, in preparation for the U.S. Open. But the tee boxes were packed with amateur enthusiasts who’d plunked down a car payment for the right to play.

“Looks like fun,” said Blair, a small-business owner from nearby Carmel Valley who grew up playing Pebble Beach for $25.

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Point Pinos Lighthouse stands watch over Pacific Grove's back nine.

“But I don’t know . . . ” he added, his voice trailing off.

The contemporary price tag of $495 was too much for his bottom line.

Blair kept driving, 10 minutes up the coast, to his final destination, another seaside layout with sweeping ocean vistas and well-groomed greens. Unlike Pebble, its parking lot was filled with banged-up cars, not Beemers. And the prim attire of the U.S. Open venue had given way to baggy shorts and rumpled jeans.

“Now,” Blair said, “this is more my speed.”

With its bygone-era rates ($42 weekdays, $48 weekends and a rock-bottom $23 for local card-holders), Pacific Grove Golf Links long has been a mecca for the budget-minded, a bargain in a region where most green fees are chump change only if you’re Charles Schwab.

Its casual aesthetics and populist prices have inspired a pat comparison: the Poor Man’s Pebble, people often call it – an imperfect analogy, but one you understand, given that Pacific Grove’s back nine was designed by Jack Neville, one of the architects who crafted Pebble Beach.

“We realize that people mean it as a compliment, but it’s actually a comparison we’re trying to get away from,” says Joe Riekena, Pacific Grove’s head pro. “Is this a great course? Absolutely. Are we Pebble Beach? Absolutely not.”

What the beloved muni more closely resembles is a low-key Scottish links, the kind of place you stumble on in your travels, thinking nothing of it, until it reveals its subtleties and charms. It opens quirkily with consecutive par 3s – one short, one stout – then ambles through a front nine framed by cypress trees, with periodic peeks of Monterey Bay.

Opened in 1932, the outward nine was built by two-time U.S. Amateur champion H. Chandler Egan, who defended the layout with a series of tight doglegs. It’s a front side to be picked apart, not overpowered.

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Pacific Grove's back nine hugs the ocean.

For nearly 30 years, Pacific Grove remained a nine-hole course, until 1960, when Neville fleshed it out into a full 18. The result is a pleasure ground for purists that, as much as any layout on the peninsula, transports golfers across the pond.

Neville’s homage to the Old World begins on the 10th tee, a 104-yard par 3 made testy by the ocean breezes. From there the layout turns along the coast, meandering through a scruffy dunescape, under the blinking gaze of Point Pinos Lighthouse, the longest continuously operating beacon in California. Crosswinds play a nearly constant role, especially on the par-5 12th, a narrow dogleg with sandy hillocks on its right and a rocky shoreline to its left.

Standing on the tee box on this postcard hole, Blair assessed the options. A big bomber could take the testosterone route, over the fairway bunkers on the right. But that brought sand dunes into the picture. Blair settled on the shotmaker’s alternative, a butter fade starting up the left.

“That’s another reason I like this place,” said Blair, who’s 60. “It’s kind to an old man like me.”

In true links fashion, Pacific Grove plays firm and fast, with no forced carries other than water on the par-3 17th. But not everything about the course is old school. The pro shop and clubhouse are newly renovated, and conditions are held to today’s standards. On most days, Pacific Grove’s Poa greens run smoother than Pebble’s.

Throughout 2010, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Neville nine, Pacific Grove has been offering a series of special packages and events. No festivities are planned for U.S. Open week. But Riekena expects his tee sheet to be crowded, as the pros take over Pebble and play spills over, as it typically does, to a venue with great golf at an affordable price.



Monterey: Drive for dollars

The Peter Hay Course: ($18, 800-654-9300, pebblebeach.com) With its tiny greens and artful bunkering, this nine-hole par-3 course, just across the street from Pebble’s pro shop, offers you a small taste of the real thing. Currently closed to accommodate corporate tents at this year’s U.S. Open, the Peter Hay will reopen in September exactly as it was – ideal for kids, casual golfers and serious players looking to work on their wedges.

Bayonet and Blackhorse Golf Courses: ($75-$115, 831-899-7271, bayonetblackhorse.com) A $13 million renovation of these two former military courses has earned nothing but raves. It’s no shock that Bayonet will host the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School this November. But it is surprising that most times you can play either course for less than $100.

Pacific Grove Golf Links: ($42-$48, 831-648-5775, pggolflinks.com)

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Cheap eats

The Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop: (831-624-8878) This casual breakfast and lunch spot serves hearty American fare in a Western-themed dining room adorned with cowboy hats, lassoes and wagon wheels.

Monterey Fish House: (831-373-4647) An old-fashioned seafood house, serving everything from robust chowders and cioppino to sole and salmon caught that day.

The Golden Tee: (831-373-1232) This surf-and-turf restaurant, on the second floor of the Monterey airport, delivers specials such as a steak-and-champagne dinner for $19.95.

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