Monterey golf for the masses: Sure Pebble Beach is awesome, but plenty of other options await

By Andrew Resnik, Contributor

MONTEREY, Calif. -- There are basically two types of golfers -- those who've golfed on the Monterey Peninsula, and those who hope to some day. The menu is irresistible: Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill, Poppy Hills and the Links at Spanish Bay, just to name a few.

Pacific Grove Golf Links - 13th
The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links offers a spectacular cluster of holes right up against the ocean.
Pacific Grove Golf Links - 13thPacific Grove Golf Links - 15thLaguna Seca Golf Ranch - 18thBayonet golf course - 9th
If you go

There are some two dozen courses scattered about in a section of California where land is so off-the-charts valuable that 800-square-foot shacks sell for close to $1 million.

But while golf caters largely to an affluent crowd, there are millions of players who either can't afford to play the Peninsula's name courses, or just think that no round of golf should cost north of $400 (Pebble's current going rate). So the dream of actually playing out here lingers on life support. Most will never see it fulfilled.

What many of those golfers who've put their Monterey fantasies aside don't realize is that there is an absurd amount of quality, affordable golf to be played out here. Not so-so munis that just happen to reside two hours south of San Francisco, but excellent courses that have long been popular with the locals and will forever be overshadowed by Pebble Beach's utter dominance (in addition to the flagship course, the resort runs four other topnotch tracks with a Tom Fazio design in the planning stages).

Let's put this a little more clearly. Everyone knows the Monterey Peninsula is a nirvana for rich golfers who insist on the best. But few know how much variety there really is here, both in terms of cost and course style.

Off the course, attractions are endless. There's the fantastic central California weather, particularly nice in the summer when relief from the heat elsewhere in the United States is at a premium. You will almost certainly need a sweater or wind breaker in the mornings and evenings. Off the course, you can ramble through Monterey and Pacific Grove, two towns positively obsessed with the coast and all things nautical.

There's 17-Mile Drive, one of the rare tourist attractions that lives up to (or exceeds) its well-oiled engine of hype. Shoppers will delight in the galleries and boutiques of Carmel-By-The-Sea on the southern terminus of the coastal ramble. Wine lovers can sample local product grown and produced just a few miles inland. Spas are more common than Starbucks locations.

The atmosphere around Monterey is so distinctive, so beachy in a rough and tumble way, it takes but just a few minutes to settle into that vacation groove. The funny thing about a golf trip here is that if you play every day you're on the Peninsula, you've probably deprived yourself of the chance to see and do a lot of other terrific things. But, then again, you will have played a lot of great golf. We should always be faced with decisions this excruciating.

Another little-known secret. It doesn't take very long to get anywhere. Downtown Monterey to Carmel-By-The-Sea is less than 15 minutes -- the scenic route along 17-Mile Drive is about a half hour. The drive to the golf courses is seldom more than 20 minutes, no matter where you're staying or playing. And while the coastline is notorious for its fog and cloud cover, sunshine is abundant a few miles inland.

Other than the private courses -- gems like Cypress Point that are famous, but inaccessible to most of us -- the only ones that have really marketed themselves are the beauties in the Pebble Beach portfolio. The others are unknown to all but locals and visitors who like to stray off the well-trodden paths. And let's be up front about it -- Pebble will always be the magnet that brings people here (tour buses stop outside the Lodge so visitors can have their whiff).

One would hardly think of the Monterey Peninsula as a golf destination for the masses that don't carry Platinum cards. But there's a buffet of tasty courses out here waiting -- and plenty of them less than $100. While you're here, you might even splurge a little on a round at Spanish Bay or Quail Lodge, still way lower than the fees at the flagship course. A golf trip to Pebble country can cost just about what you want it to cost.

Truly affordable golf courses on the Monterey Peninsula

Pacific Grove Golf Links is really a warm-up for the back nine, a spectacular cluster of holes right up against the Pacific Ocean. Wide fairways, sand dunes, excellent greens, jaw-dropping views. And the fees can't be beat. It costs $38 to play Pacific Grove on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday ($32 Monday-Thursday) -- renting a set of Callaways at the course will cost more than that.

Laguna Seca Golf Club sits just a few miles inland. It's a very hilly, shortish Robert Trent Jones course with a traditional parkland design. The front nine is pretty wide open with parallel fairways. The back nine calls for shots of much greater precision. Laguna Seca is a locals' favorite, with about 70 percent of the rounds played by Monterey County and Bay Area folks. Visitors who stray beyond the ocean courses will be rewarded with a fun round at a good price. Green fees vary depending on time of day, but max out at $60.

Bayonet is for those with a good game and a good attitude. A macho course, home to Q-school rounds and U.S. Open qualifying play, Bayonet is a beast and a beauty all at the same time. Sitting on Fort Ord, a former military base, the course (along with sister course Blackhorse) are now public, but not too many out-of-towners make their way over. Concierges have learned to take caution in referring people to Bayonet, as they may become discouraged with the sheer difficulty of the course. If you're looking for a tough test in a beautiful setting with immaculate conditions, Bayonet is the steal of the week. Fees vary, with deep discounts for twilight play, but weekend morning rounds cost $75, weekday mornings go for $58.

Del Monte Golf Course is a step back in time. The oldest course west of the Mississippi River, it is a traditional course in a parkland setting. It's fairly short but deceptively difficult, demanding you keep driver in your bag on a number of the twisty par 4s. The last few holes open up for some heavy hitting. By far the most overlooked course of the Pebble Beach portfolio, Del Monte is perfectly maintained and offers excellent service. Fees are $100, but discounts are available to those who purchase the Duke's Card.

Slightly more expensive, but still within reach

The Links At Spanish Bay is your best bet if you can't decide between playing golf and sitting on the beach. Several holes play near or alongside the ocean, and ocean views are available from about 80 percent of the holes. As its name suggests, it's a links layout, with plenty of sand dunes and few trees until the course winds inland a bit. This is big time Pebble Beach-style golf in an upscale setting with attentive service, at a price well below the flagship course. If you're looking to splurge for a day and want a leisurely afternoon on the rugged coast, this is a good bet. Fees are $230 plus cart for non-resort guests. Those staying at the resort get the cart for free.

Quail Lodge offers a different type of golfing experience. Just a few miles inland, it's not a seaside experience, but what you don't get in ocean views you get back in abundant sunshine. The course went private a few months ago and has a distinctly country club feel, but golfers who stay at Quail Lodge can play the course. A traditional course laid out in the 1960s, Quail Lodge is pastoral and beautiful and always in immaculate condition. The setting is California countryside, with a wine country feel. While not as dramatic as Pebble, the ambiance is outstanding. Since the course is generally not crowded, pace of play is excellent. Fees are $160 for those staying at the Lodge.

Andrew Resnik, Contributor

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