Northern California coastal golf: Drama and salt spray

By Ted Johnson, Contributor

When you think of golf along coastlines, such exotic venues as Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Old Head and Ballybunion in Ireland and the Ailsa Course at Scotland's Turnberry Resort come to mind. Yet California has them beat in one key element -- proximity.

Black Horse golf course in Seaside - hole 7
Black Horse's seventh hole is a 395-yard par 4 with great views of the bay.
Black Horse golf course in Seaside - hole 7The New Links at Bodega Harbour - hole 9Pebble Beach Golf Links - hole 8Lincoln Park Golf Course - hole 5
If you go

Many of these northern California golf courses, all of them visually stunning and memorable experiences, sit atop bluffs. Even the holes nearest the water at the aptly named Pacific Dunes course in Bandon, Ore., stand imperiously above the waves. The same can be said for picturesque Torrey Pines near San Diego.

In contrast, there are days at Pebble Beach where you can find yourself putting on the seventh green -- that famous par 3 on the rocks -- while a salty mist gently descends, courtesy of the waves crashing on the rocks.

During the winter time, distant storms in the Pacific can propel series of waves that overwhelm the seawall along Pebble Beach's 18th fairway, resulting in the links equivalent of getting a cold shower while hitting a shot.

With that perspective, here is a rundown on northern California's top coastal golf opportunities.

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Location: Del Monte Forest.
Visuals: Unparalleled.
Golf: From holes 4 through 10, no course offers such dramatic beauty and challenging golf. Years ago Jack Nicklaus called the approach shot to Pebble Beach Golf Links' eighth green the greatest second shot in golf. It still is. And Nos. 9 and 10 may be even harder. After that the famous 17th and 18th become nearly anticlimactic.
Proximity: It's possible to get drenched by large waves.

Spyglass Hill Golf Course

Location: Del Monte Forest.
Visuals: Awesome on holes 1 through 4, and then the course turns inland.
Golf: It's been said by so many it's almost a cliche: "I liked it better than Pebble." Designer Robert Trent Jones, Sr. said Spyglass Hill Golf Course's par-4 fourth hole is his favorite; this from a man who redesigned Oakland Hills and Augusta National.
Proximity: The views from the second green and the third tee show the Monterey coastline in its glory. Look south over Monterey Peninsula Country Club and glimpse parts of the Cypress Point Club, but it's hard to hear the waves.

The Links at Spanish Bay

Location: Del Monte Forest.
Visuals: The Links at Spanish Bay's first green and second tee overlook the nearby beach, and then the course heads inland through dunes, and you get more views on holes 7 and 8. The best comes on No. 14, a par 5 that descends toward the beach. You finish among the dunes and natural grasses, the air redolent of salt and sea.
Golf: Designer Robert Trent Jones, Jr. loves links golf, and he gets it right. A great links resort course -- not too penal, unique and beautiful.
Proximity: Holes 14, 15 and 16 are separated by a trail and natural grasses from the beach, but no salt spray.

Pacific Grove Golf Course

Location: Located just outside the gates of the Del Monte Forest in Pacific Grove west of Monterey.
Visuals: Views of the coastline and even the Santa Cruz headlands can be seen on the par-5 14th.
Golf: Some call Pacific Grove Golf Course the poor man's Pebble Beach, and with rates less than $40 it's hard to find such value anywhere. The short front nine plays through the trees, but the back nine opens up on the dunes and plays like southwest Scotland.
Proximity: Views only but worth it.

Black Horse at Bayonet/Black Horse Golf Course

Location: Seaside, about 10 miles north of Monterey.
Visuals: A redesign by Gene Bates cleared out hundreds of trees to open views of Monterey Bay. Black Horse's tougher sister course, Bayonet, cant say the same.
Golf: If not so close to Pebble Beach, this might be considered to be one of the country's top 10 golf destinations. Bayonet is worthy of a PGA Tour event; Black Horse is friendlier and prettier.
Proximity: Views through the trees.

Half Moon Bay Resort

Location: Just south of the small beach town of Half Moon Bay, about 20 miles west of the San Francisco Airport. This resort next to The Ritz-Carlton Hotel has two distinct courses, the Old and the Ocean.
Visuals: Few places in the world offer such a dramatic hole as the 18th on Half Moon Bay's Old Course -- a par 4 that hugs the bluffs, waves crashing below, its green tucked near the backside of the beautiful hotel. Better yet, the tee at the Ocean Course's 16th offer an astonishing panorama of the headlands north, with the stately Ritz resting like a luxurious outpost overlooking the water.
Golf: The first 16 holes of the Old Course play very much like a classic country club before the dramatic setting at Nos. 17 and 18. Half Moon Bay's Ocean Course, which opened 10 years ago, might be designer Arthur Hills' best work: a true links course on the bluffs that gives you Scotland without the long flight.
Proximity: A miss-step on the right side at No. 18 on the Old Course or to the left of the Ocean course's par-3 17th will send you tumbling to the beach below.

The New Links at Bodega Harbour

Location: On the bluffs overlooking Bodega, about 60 miles north of San Francisco.
Visuals: At least 14 holes offer wide views of Bodega Bay.
Golf: The New Links at Bodega Harbour is Robert Trent Jones, Jr.'s attempt to make a links-style course atop hills, and it can be rather quirky, especially the par-5 fifth. The last three holes rest on flat land near the marsh and are the best.
Proximity: Two miles.

Lincoln Park Golf Course

Location: San Francisco.
Visuals: A 5,100-yard, par 68, up-and-down golf course, Lincoln Park offers little hint to what comes at the amazing par-3 17th, where your their eyes are drawn magnetically to the golden orange edifice that connects San Francisco to Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golf: Tight with elevation changes, the lesser of the city's two public courses is a unique challenge and at times is in poor condition.
Proximity: Bluff overlooking Pacific while looking east at the Golden Gate.

Ted JohnsonTed Johnson, Contributor

Ted Johnson has been writing about golf for more than 25 years. Having traveled the world with his clubs, he counts himself lucky to have played Cypress Point, but Turnberry’s Ailsa, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia and Ireland’s Royal County Down tend to rotate as favorites. And then there was the trip to Vietnam, where he found himself in Vung Tao and his luggage in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why to this day he carries a toothbrush in his golf bag.

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