HALF MOON BAY – The 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links has been widely trumpeted as the best finishing hole in golf – once described as the perfect intersection of golf and nature – and certainly one of the most visually spectacular on the planet.
Even before the golf course was constructed along the Carmel Bay coastline on the Monterey peninsula, Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson described the area as the “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation.”
In creation? That covers a lot of ground and time. Legend has it that The Very, Very, Very Old Course, on the outskirts of the Garden of Eden, was the most beautiful golf club in the universe until the fateful day that Adam snap-hooked his rock out of bounds into the forbidden fruit trees.
According to humorist Henry Beard, the course had to shut its pearly gates after someone wearing a fig leaf turned in Adam “for accepting advice from a reptile and eating a loose impediment improperly plucked from an immovable obstruction.” Or something like that.
But, hey, what did Robert Louis Stevenson know? He specialized in fiction and wasn’t even a golfer. And at the risk of being branded sacrilegious, I can now testify that I have found a better and more breathtaking finishing hole than No. 18 at Pebble Beach.
Ironically, it is a mere 90 miles up the same rugged California coastline – the 18th hole on The Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links, a championship layout designed by The King himself, Arnold Palmer, that opened to the public in 1973.
Not surprisingly, No. 18 on The Old Course is also a hole that has been photographed by almost everyone who has played it. And like its last-hole counterpart at Pebble, you can hear the waves crashing below and against the cliffs.
With the Pacific Ocean framing the entire western length of the hole, No. 18 at Half Moon Bay is a 405-yard, downhill par-4 featuring a jagged creek traversing the fairway that forces you to decide whether to lay up or try to carry the hazard and go birdie hunting. (The prudent play is to lay up with a hybrid or fairway metal, but I told assistant pro Carson Joens he’d get his name in my article if he drove it over the barranca, which he did.)
The last-hole views are comparable on both courses, but what makes the 18th on the Old Course a better finishing hole than Pebble’s is what awaits you immediately behind the green – the architecture and amenities of The Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, a 261-room AAA Five Diamond Award-winning resort annually since 2003.
The imposing edifice of the resort hotel, sitting atop the cliffs overlooking the ocean, is a scene reminiscent of Turnberry in Scotland and one likely to beckon many avid golfers who see the photo for the first time. (Yes, I was one of those.)
Literally steps from the 18th green, you can continue to soak up the azure-blue views from the Ritz’s Ocean Terrace, where you can enjoy light cuisine and your favorite beverages, as well as wait for sunset while being serenaded by the resort’s well-known bagpiper. There also are nearby fire pits and a hot tub to enhance the experience and/or take the chill off as evening approaches.
It simply doesn’t get any better than this after a round — unless, of course, you finished at mid-day, giving you the opportunity to head to the first tee at the other championship course on property, the equally spectacular Arthur Hills-designed Ocean Course that opened in 1997. (No, you can’t play a second course at Pebble Beach without getting in your car. Again, advantage, Half Moon Bay.)
And then there’s ultimate measuring stick for most golfers: cost.
Greens fees at The Old Course and Ocean Course are $160 Monday through Thursday, $185 Friday through Sunday.
Greens fee at Pebble Beach Golf Links is $500, every day, plus caddie fee, if you’re lucky enough to get the tee time you desire.
How many of you would rather play three times at two ocean-view resort courses for the price of one round at Pebble Beach? Me, too.
You don’t have to be a guest at The Ritz-Carlton to play the courses at Half Moon Bay, but I’d recommend it to all out-of-towners. The Ritz also offers a stay-and-play option called the “Legends Golf Package,” featuring unlimited golf for one or two players at discounted rates for resort guests. And there are significant twilight, replay and 9-hole discounts, unlike that famous $500 course to the south.
The Ritz at HMB is also known for its cuisine, world-class spa and miles of walking trails, in case you need to sell non-golf activities to your spouse or significant other. I particularly enjoyed the oceanfront dining at Navio, the resort’s signature restaurant, and experimental sipping at Eno, the upscale wine-tasting room, where I discovered Big Basin Vineyards’ Mandala Syrah (best this side of Barossa Valley in Australia).
But I went to Half Moon Bay for the golf, and that was the highlight of my weekend visit. I played both courses for the first time on back-to-back, 70-degree autumn days in bright sunshine. No fog, no cloud cover. Honest.
“It’s always like that here in Half Moon Bay,” said a smiling William Troyanoski, the general manager. Kevin Niessner, director of golf, said the same thing when I thanked him for the weather. (There was only one day of fog in June during the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, about a half-hour up the coast, so is it possible that the fog in the San Francisco area is an urban myth? Just kidding.)
Both courses, distinctively different, would have been fun and challenging even if the weather hadn’t been perfect.
The Old Course is a traditional parklands-style course (6,610 yards from the blue tees; 6,323 from the whites) that winds its way through a housing development, with tree-lined fairways and doglegs galore, requiring you to work the ball both ways. On the day I played it, the Stanford men’s golf team also was on the course.
The final five holes on the back nine were my favorites: No. 14 is a 384-yard, par-4 that doglegs sharply to the right with a canopy of trees guarding the corner; No. 15 is a 563-yard, dogleg-left par-5 with water lurking on the left all the way to the green; No. 16 is a tight 410-yard par-4 that requires a second-shot carry over a ravine to a narrow, steeply sloped green; No. 17 is a 157-yard par-3 toward the ocean; and No. 18 is the previously described new best finishing hole in golf.
The Ocean Course is a links-style course (6,470 from the blues; 6,052 from the whites) with views of the ocean on all 18 holes, a rarity in California. It certainly looks and plays as if it has been around a lot longer than 15 years, which is a testament to the designer and the course maintenance staff.
The 2008 LPGA Samsung World Classic (won by Paula Creamer) was played on the Ocean Course, which is also a regular venue for U.S. Open qualifying. PGA Tour pro Arron Oberholser, a San Jose State grad and 2006 winner of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, holds the Ocean Course record: 64.
As with most links courses, the Ocean Course becomes infinitely more challenging when the wind kicks up, as if often does.
A few years ago, a “links enhancement” transition project resulted in the course playing firm and fast, which Troyanoski emphasizes is the goal. Fairways are now being mowed tighter, irrigation was scaled back, and native fescue grasses are taller to achieve the desired look and playing conditions.
Like The Old Course, the Ocean Course builds to a crescendo on the back nine, as you move closer and closer to the cliffs. Panoramic views are spectacular from the elevated teebox on No. 16, a 381-yard par-4 that dictates a second-shot approach over a ravine. You can hear the waves 300 feet below when you get to the par-3 17th, and you finish with an uphill, dogleg-left par-5 that finishes at the base of the Ritz-Carlton, a la The Old Course.
Can’t wait to go back to Half Moon Bay Golf Links, home of the best finishing hole in golf – and 35 more great ones.
– BY RANDY YOUNGMAN