Pebble Beach's Links at Spanish Bay offers golfers a long, leisurely day at the beach
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Links course snobs, apparently protective of the status bestowed on their home courses or some prize few they've played, are quick to point out just how few true links layouts exist in the world.
It's as if laying out a solid track right alongside the coast with sparse few homes or other rude incursions isn't necessarily worthy of the categorization of "a true links course."
If The Links at Spanish Bay is left off of some uber-purist's list of the world's links courses, their list means nothing. The course is more or less smack dab on the beach, sand dunes are a factor on most holes and the wind (even on calm days) is ever present.
The course positively reeks (in only the best of ways) of the ocean. If that's not enough, you're encouraged to hit low run-up shots and putt from off the green. The name of the course says it all: It's a links course and you're playing along beautiful Spanish Bay.
Part of the proud Pebble Beach Resorts portfolio, Spanish Bay is replete with a lodge, spa, fitness room, fancy restaurants and all the other trappings of an ultra-upscale golf resort. Yet the course itself seems to play little brother to the more famous Spyglass Hill and the flagship Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Spanish Bay doesn't (and will never) host big TV tournaments (too many environmentally sensitive areas -- not enough room to tromp around). It probably doesn't provide a suitably stringent test for the world's top pros. And it doesn't have a practice range, probably the most consistent complaint heard around the golf shop.
While we're being picky, let's quickly mention the cluster of dwellings around the beginning of the back nine. We got so spoiled by the lack of buildings on the rest of the course that the few we did see looked as strange as UFOs, though better from an architectural standpoint.
Pace of play can also be problematic. Though locals say early-morning rounds breeze through in four hours or less, as the day wears on, the pace drops steadily. There are obvious reasons for this.
Spanish Bay is popular with the corporate crowd set, which isn't always committed to a swiftly played round. And then there's the view. Can you blame them? Say you've been jammed up in Kansas City, sweating out a big project, just waiting to get out of the stifling summer heat and breathe in the salt air along Spanish Bay. Perhaps you've even brought a camera -- you might just want to take your time.
Spanish Bay costs about half of what it costs to play Pebble and for that, guests should and do expect perfection. They pretty much get it. The course conditions are nothing short of superb: fast, true, severely undulating greens, perfect fairways, yardage markers galore, and so forth. The service is excellent -- attentive, but not constantly present.
And there's another subtle benefit to a round at Spanish Bay. It won't freak you out. First-tee jitters are a given anywhere, but at Spanish Bay, at least you won't be stabbing your first tee into the ground while a gaggle of charter bus riders is jabbering in the background before moaning when the shot doesn't exactly go as visualized.
It's not as low-key as your well-worn muni on the south side of town, but as upscale courses go, Spanish Bay is laid back, easing you into your round. Also, weather and course conditions permitting, you may drive your cart to your ball, rather than park on the path and haul half of your clubs with you for that second (or third, fourth or fifth) shot.
The first hole is sweet. A reachable par 5 with a prevailing wind that could wreak havoc on a nervous slice. Go for it in two if your buddies are offering fairway mulligans. Otherwise, play it safe and take par for a nice start.
No. 2 is a little too narrow and a little too cute. Hit big if you want, but unless you plan on driving the green (about 300 yards) you'll have to hit a second shot anyway.
And so it goes: standouts on the front nine include no. 5, a lengthy par 4 with three greedy bunkers guarding the middle of the fairway; No. 7, another longish par 4 that calls for a straight drive and a long second shot over a hazard; and No. 8, a short par 3 that forces you to carry a marsh teeming with avian wildlife.
The back nine (by the way, this is out-and-back Scottish routing -- no phoning in your bratwurst orders at the turn) starts out a bit testy. A double dogleg par 5 with some annoying fairway bunkers apparently imbedded with titanium magnets will test your resolve.
Then a par 4 with shades of Pinehurst No. 2. Don't leave your second shot on the front of the green unless you want to play that same club again.
No. 13, a very short par 3, is a welcome opportunity to tee one up with a wedge - just don't dare miss it right. Then it's back to the beach - and not a moment too soon.
No. 15 is a not-so-long par 4 that forces you to carry your first and second shots, then 16 is a long, Redan-style par 3. Best not to slice here, as the offshore breezes will carry your ball swiftly toward Salinas.
Another double forced carry on 17 before a grand par 5 finishing hole that's best not attempted in two shots unless your name is Ernie, Tiger or Phil.
The Links at Spanish Bay: The verdict
It seems silly to suggest that a course charging $230-plus per round is a good deal, but consider this. It's in immaculate condition, costs about half the price of Pebble Beach and is even more closely linked with the ocean.
For golfers who don't get to spend a lot of time around the coast, it's probably a must-play. The course is challenging, but not a backbreaker and there are enough tee boxes to modify how tough you want the course to be.
The holes themselves sort of blend together, but the overall experience is very distinctive. If you want to experience a Pebble Beach resort course as the highlight of a budget-minded trip to the area, Links At Spanish Bay is the right call for a leisurely day of golf on the beach.
August 15, 2005