Venerable Cypress Point Club outshines Pebble Beach and even Augusta National
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Venerable Cypress Point Club rivals Augusta National Golf Club in many people's minds as the best course in the United States, indeed the world.
But in this reporter's opinion, Cypress' sandy, forest-lined hills leading out to the Pacific's edge, the famous par-three 15th and 16th holes, and the precarious 17th -- all set along a Pacific cliff -- make Augusta look dull except in the colorful Masters springtime.
I've played both. Augusta was a thrill, certainly. Putting on those greens was, as every pro will tell you, like putting on your car's hood. I was so intimidated by the stories I'd read about them and the tournaments I'd witnessed where professional golfers three-, four- and occasionally five-putted them, that my first putt of the day went halfway to the hole. My second putt, struck just slightly harder, went off the green and down a hill. As I was chipping back up, I knew the game was afoot, and that Augusta would win.
Aside from the greens, though, Augusta National proved very playable. There's no rough to speak of, so your drives can be wide off their mark without much of a penalty. And if you can manage to play smart golf, and take what the course gives you, you can get around in respectable shape.
But across the country to the west, on 17 Mile Drive inside the gates of Pebble Beach, Cypress Point Club, built in 1928, is a wholly different animal. Dr. Alister MacKenzie, architect of both Augusta National and Cypress Point, was always ebullient in his praise of Cypress.
He wrote: "There is, first, a natural beauty of surrounding found only on British seaside courses, and added to this is the fascination of wending one's way through woods, over immense sand dunes, to typically inland scenes. It is unsurpassed, having awaited for centuries only to have the architect's molding hand to sculpture a course without peer."
Those who have played the nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links will have an idea of what Cypress is like. Only Cypress is better. Plus, hardly anyone is ever out there playing it. It is ultra-private, to be sure, and that accounts for the lack of casual players. And its small membership tends to live in San Francisco (many also members of the Olympic Club), which also accounts for the low number of rounds.
If you are lucky enough to be invited onto the golf course, chances are you'll go out at dawn, with the early morning fog clinging to the coastline. You'll have a caddie and you'll be walking. It's a mystical moment, with few others equal to it in golf. Your goosebumps are not just from the chill in the air. No, you've waited years for this moment, and now it has arrived. You're at Cypress Point--the Sistine Chapel of golf--and you're about to tee off on No. 1.
You step up. No. 1 is a par-4 with a stand of cypress trees on the right of the fairway, directly in line with the hole. Players who carry the trees are in great shape, but missing into the trees is trouble. The farther left you go, the safer the tee shot, but also the longer the second shot.
And this is the nature of the course: Strategic hazards, immense beauty.
MacKenzie wrote of his creation, "Cypress Point has similar strategic problems to St. Andrews and is infinitely more spectacular and beautiful. For years I have been contending that, in our generation, no other golf course could possibly compete with the strategic problems, the thrills, excitement, variety and lasting and increasing interest of the Old Course, but the completion of Cypress Point has made me change my mind."
The front nine plays through sand dunes and forests just inland from the coast. But when you arrive at the tee box of the 13th, your heart flutters anew. The ocean is directly in front of you, the fog has burned completely away by now, deer are grazing in the fairway, and you know from reputation what lies ahead: the most spectacular stretch of golf in the world.
The short par-three 15th is where the beauty begins to become most dramatic. Your tee shot is over an ocean inlet to a putting surface guarded by bunkers. It's short, but the winds can be blowing and the beauty is distracting. It should be a three on your card.
Then, No. 16, called the most famous par-three hole in the world. And if you consider No. 12 at Augusta, the Postage Stamp hole at Royal Troon, No. 7 at Pebble Beach, and others of this ilk, calling this one the most famous is saying a lot. It combines sheer beauty with sheer difficulty.
The tee, set on the edge of a cliff, requires a shot that must traverse a 200-yard wide ocean inlet, the waves washing onto rocks and sand below. Often, there will be wind blowing onshore, and it is not uncommon to see golfers hit the tee shot with a driver.
The most common miss is short, and most often the ball has washed half way to Honolulu when you try to find it. Best to tee up another and think about going left, to where MacKenzie provided bail-out room in the form of a fairway.
A fairway on a par-three? But how many par 3s do you play that are 230 yards long?
MacKenzie's friend and business partner Robert Hunter said of the 16th hole, "It is the most spectacular hole in the world and the most thrilling when played bang over the 200 yards of wild sea and rocky coast."
Cypress Point Club's 17th hole is the third in this holy trinity. The tee box is just behind the 16th green, and also set upon a cliff. Golfers must choose from two distinct routes on this par-four hole: hug the cliffside for a shorter approach or play out to the left for a longer approach. Either route must carry a wide Pacific inlet from the tee box.
Fade hitters will find this hole particularly challenging, as the cliff drops down to the rocks and ocean dramatically. Hookers, too, will find their second shot to be long. The approach shot is no easy money in either scenario as the green is on the far side of another water carry and it is well-guarded by sand bunkers. These challenges notwithstanding, No. 17 is the most spectacular par-four hole in golf.
The only letdown on the course is No. 18, an odd, uphill dogleg-right par-four that, after the grandeur of 15, 16 and 17, seems like nothing more than an excuse to get back to the clubhouse. Golfers have debated the design of this hole for decades, and will for decades to come.
Geoff Shackelford, in his excellent book, "Alister MacKenzie's Cypress Point Club," disagrees with my assessment: "The 18th is often criticized, but MacKenzie's intention was simple," he wrote. "Build a stern closing hole that required two well-struck shots to reach the final green. It was not a hole of subtle or intricate strategic interest like others on the course, just a tough finish to help decide matters."
When finished, don't even think of going into the simple, Spanish-style clubhouse. The pro shop, okay. But you'll be bounced from the clubhouse as quickly as you can say Bill Clinton. (Did I mention they don't like liberals around there?) Stories abound about the membership and its policies. Remember, Cypress Point Club formerly was part of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am rota, until they refused to change their membership policies to become more inclusive of all races. And it is told that JFK was once refused entry to the restaurant.
When all is said and done, though, Cypress Point Club is a golf course like no other, one that combines the best location of any golf course in the world with a strategic design by one of the masters of golf course architecture. By these virtues, it is religious to play for any avid golfer. It is, without argument, the best the world of golf has to offer.
November 19, 2001