Many golf dreams begin and end with Pebble Beach. I remember as a kid in snowbound Minnesota watching Bing Crosby and his pals on TV frolicking in the seaside sunshine playing golf with the pros at his annual “clambake”; I remember watching a U.S. Open or two and other PGA events, and I know that that’s where my California dream started. I had to play Pebble Beach.
A few years ago I got my chance, and on one glorious weekend I played Pebble, Spyglass, and the Links at Spanish Bay. All three courses are managed by the Pebble Beach Company, but at the time I’d forgotten about the fourth course in the fold, Del Monte Golf Course, the granddaddy of them all just a few miles inland.
It turns out that Del Monte is the oldest continuously operating golf course west of the Mississippi River. San Francisco’s Presidio Golf Course is older, by a little more than a year, but it was closed during the Spanish-American War of 1898 to serve as a drill field. Del Monte was built as an attraction for the Hotel Del Monte, which later joined the navy (literally) and is now the headquarters of the Naval Postgraduate School. Now the golf course is connected to the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa.
When I say connected, I mean that just about literally. The 17th green is so close to the lobby windows I was hesitant to stand by them when looking around the place on arrival. Just about every golfer who’s swung a club can overshoot a green by ten yards, and that’s about all it would take to plunk one off the plate glass windows.
But that’s part of the appeal, of course. The hotel nestles up to 17 and a portion of the 18th fairway, so you know you’re staying on the golf course, and because it’s a hotel “& Spa” there’s enough there to interest non-golfers.
The course is stately and beautiful, as you’d expect from a course with its pedigree. Towering Monterey pines and broad oaks line the fairways, often poking into fairways and challenging you to clear them to cut distance on doglegs. Many of the holes seem easy, but few of them are.
The greens are small, there’s plenty of sand protecting greens and in fairway bunkers, and for me, reaching the green was never a guarantee of par. They’re hard to read with lots of slope, and fast enough to bedevil the occasional golfer like me.
And I like this about Del Monte: it’s a favorite course for locals. If you come without your golf buddies you can join up with locals who’ll share their course knowledge, tell you how best to make your way around. That only goes so far, naturally; you’ve still got to hit the ball and put it in the hole. But the camaraderie is always welcome. And by Monterey standards, the place is affordable. Greens fees are about one-fifth the cost of a round at Pebble.
So nobody dreams about playing Del Monte, they dream of Pebble. But now I do. Locals say the course is subtle, and it takes time and repeated play to understand its character. I know I only got a whiff of those subtleties, and the course got the best of me. But I’ve been thinking about the shots I didn’t make, and I want another chance. I’ll be back. It’s the perfect weekend away.