The Links at Spanish Bay: Protected dunes, authentic Scottish golf, weather
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Standing on the Spanish Bay Beach, one can almost envision what it was like for Juan Portola in 1769, when he led a land expedition from Baja California to Monterey Peninsula.
Portola left, disappointed, thinking his mission had failed. Perhaps some golfers leave this area of wind-swept sand dunes, one as tall as 24 feet, a little disappointed, too.
You won't be disappointed in The Links at Spanish Bay, an award-winning links golf course, but because the weather can mimic Scotland -- damp, cool, windy and gloomy -- your score might just soar if you are a fair-weather golfer.
"Golfers tend to say this layout is too tough," said Rich Cosand, PGA Professional. "Why? Because it challenges you? I think it is one of the hardest courses in the Monterey area from the back tees (6,821 yards), but that's why we have three closer tees. Actually, the gold tees, at 6,422 sea-level yards plays more like 6,800."
The Links at Spanish Bay, ranked No. 43 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play List, is a stern test especially when the breeze off the Pacific Ocean is bending the flags in half. It's a par 72, but breaks down into 35-37. One six handicap said he shot an 85 from the tips and was thrilled.
It's probably the most authentic replication of pure Scottish links golf you can find in the U.S. Sure you can play a 'prairie-links course" in Colorado, but you can't smell and feel the bite of central California's brisk Pacific gale. You can play a links course on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean in Myrtle Beach, but 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity don't come close to the real climate in Scotland.
"This Spanish Bay golf experience is so different from parkland golf courses," Cosand said. "The fairway is laid out in front of you, but at times the fairway stops, and there's a target to hit or a forced carry over the dunes. It's a big challenge for a 20-handicapper. This golf course teaches you that you have to manage each shot and make decisions constantly."
And the Pacific Ocean views, with the rugged coastline, are always there to make your mind wander.
Back in the depression years of the 1930s, the Spanish Bay area was a sand-mining business for the Del Monte holdings, the forerunner of today's Pebble Beach Company. And at that time it was the only profitable operation the corporation had. After the 1982 U.S. Open, the company's leadership started to focus on this area, which was basically a massive hole in the ground.
Plans had been envisioned in the 1970s for the Inn and Links at Spanish Bay. Jack Neville, who designed Pebble Beach, and Roger Larson had already mapped out the course. But those plans were set aside and Pete Dye was prematurely hired in 1980 to design Spanish Bay. CEO Marvin Davis, however, wanted Jack Nicklaus, but when the Golden Bear forwarded his proposal with a "not negotiable" clause, the company said no.
At the same time Robert Trent Jones II was designing nearby Poppy Hills, the golf course owned by the Northern California Golf Association. Jones was selected along with Tom Watson and former USGA president and local resident Sandy Tatum -- both advocates of Scottish links golf.
By 1985 the design was complete and construction started. In the plans and approvals from the local government, it was agreed that construction would include protection of the native sand dunes and plants and the recreation of other dune habitats. Thus was born one of the first Environmentally Sensitive Area's for golf courses, something we see on a daily basis for new golf course construction today.
That's probably the main reason The Links at Spanish Bay is not included on the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am rotation, which is played on Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hillss. There's no way you could allow spectators roaming through the protected dunes areas.
"We have more than 20 fenced off dunes areas with native plants," Cosand said. 'When these plants are stepped on, they die. So we continually monitor this and protect the areas. We are stewards of this environment."
So when The Links at Spanish Bay was opened in 1987 it included the rehabilitated dunes environment, lupine, sage and thistle. And most likely you will have to dodge a deer at least one time in your round.
No. 4, Shepherd's Haven, is a 190-yard par 3 that is surrounded by dunes. It has a demanding multi-tiered green. Don't be long or you will face a downhill shot from the sandy amphi-theater of the dunes.
Left Begone is the name of no. 7, a 418-yarder, which takes you right into the ocean breeze. This fairway funnels to a narrow landing area and you might have to lay-up with 180 yards remaining to a kidney-shaped green.
The 15th, Missing Link, begins a homeward bound trek that requires lots of target golf. The island landing area demands the tee shot be placed just left of the bunkers. The next stroke must clear a patch of gorse and dunes to a severely undulating green with marsh and reeds to the right. If you hit too much club off the tee you will find trouble.
Whale Watch, no. 17, brings you right to the ocean's edge. It's a 417-yard, par 4, that requires another accurate tee shot to be followed by the second over a dunescape to a narrow landing area.