Pebble Beach - Still 'America's' Golf Course

By: Blaine Newnham

No matter the weather or the winner, the images of Pebble Beach on television over the next few days will be spectacular, even seductive for those who love golf. The fact is they need to be.

Pebble Beach has survived drought, foreign ownership and kikuyu grass to become and remain "America's" golf course, and now it is finding a way to survive a prolonged economic recession.

"The rest of the year looks better than last year," said Paul Spengler, executive vice president of the Pebble Beach Company, the resort's owner. "But you've seen the advertisements and you know we have a lot of rooms available, we have golf available. You can get tee times on our website."

The golf experience is likely to be better than it was with fewer players providing faster rounds and better playing conditions. But even though Pebble has been compelled to advertise a stay-and-play package like everyone else, the rates remain the most expensive anywhere.

"We'd rather have less occupancy and retain our rates," said Spengler. "Rather than chase volume, we want to concentrate on the experience. Once you cut rates you never get them back."

Pebble is Pebble, for many years the only U.S. Open course you could play, generally judged the best public-access course in the country, surely one of the most photographed and treasured venues anywhere. "It's probably my favorite course in the world," said Lee Westwood, the Englishman who is one of the favorites in this week's U.S. Open.

I first played Pebble in the '60s, when the green fees were $10. I remember being outraged when they were doubled to $20 in 1970. Those were the days when it was kept like a muni, but still had those knockout views and the marvelous routing along the Pacific Ocean. Days before the first U.S. Open here in 1972 (won by Jack Nicklaus), with others in 1982 (Tom Watson), 1992 (Tom Kite) and 2000 (Tiger Woods) to follow.

For awhile, after Woods was winning and before the economic bust, you were lucky to get a tee time at Pebble. The course was nearly loved to death. There were stories of six-hour rounds that were all but ground to a halt by corporate hackers who might play a round or two a year.

Rates are still what they were, but there is no longer the requisite that you stay on the property. A green fee at Pebble is $495 for resort guests, and $495 plus cart for those staying at a Motel 6.

The green fees are slightly less at neighboring Spyglass Hill ($350) and Spanish Bay ($260). Staying at the various resort properties might save you a cart fee ($35), but the cheapest room is $595 and suites go for $2,000 a night. The special stay-and-play package is two rounds, one at Pebble and the other at either Spyglass or Spanish Bay, and two nights' accommodations for $1,825.

The course will resume play for the public next Tuesday, the scars of 40,000 folks a day during the Open still apparent. But who will care; scars can be souvenirs.

Obviously, there are certain pressures that come from charging so much for golf. "When the staff comes to work," said Spengler, "they treat a round of golf like it were a Broadway show. They have high expectations and we have to perform and give them the best golf experience they've ever had."

Imagine paying $500 for a round of golf. "They are nervous and excited in the pro shop before the round," continued Spenger. "It is our job to put them at ease."

Spengler said rounds are now in the 4:30 to 4:40 range. A gap of 10 minutes between foursomes is observed. There are four marshals on the course. "We've had to ask a few players to leave," he said, "but more often than not they are delighted to get off the course."

Unlike St. Andrews, where a male player must have a handicap index of 24 or better, there are no athletic - just fiscal - limits on who can play Pebble Beach.

Spengler originally went to work for Marvin Davis, the Denver oilman who owned the course but eventually sold it in 1990 to Japanese tycoon Minoru Isutani, who thought he could turn the course into a private club and sell memberships to folks back home.

Blocked on all fronts, Isutani eventually sold it in 1999 to a U.S. group led by Arnold Palmer, Peter Uebberoth and Dick Ferris. When Isutani took over - paying nearly 10 times what Davis did - the course was in the midst of a seven-year drought.

"It looked like Beirut," said Spengler. Finally granted enough water to allow for a replacement of the fairway grasses, Pebble blossomed for the 2000 Open.

Of the 50,000 rounds a year Pebble had through much of the last decade, 60 percent of the players came from California. The remainder was mostly from the U.S. - New York, Chicago and Texas. Most of the international golfers - about seven percent of the total - were from Canada. Perhaps the Asian interest diminished with the change in ownership.

"We're running the operation lean and mean," said Spengler. "But I don't think anyone notices less of an experience. In fact, we eliminated twilight rounds a few years ago to put less stress on the course and give us more time to do maintenance. The ownership lost money, but understood."

Spengler said the goal for Pebble is to do such a good job on the Open that it returns on a regular basis. "We are a resort that honors the game," he said. "Doing the Open is part of what we do. Everyone wants to come here, and we want to keep it that way."

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for over 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.