Spanish Bay

Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. with Tom Watson and Sandy Tatum. 1987.

There are people who say they are disappointed by Spanish Bay. I do not doubt them. But the average quality of golf course those people are playing is at an echelon far beyond my understanding.

Spanish Bay is not an all-world golf course. It’s a bit of an oddball in several ways. There aren’t really any individual holes I would identify as uniquely great. The course—despite its name and setting in the dunes—doesn’t seem like it was ever much of a links and certainly plays nothing like one since the resort went away from the original fescue. And though the fairways are typically plenty generous the environmentally sensitive areas that line many holes make the course absolutely brutal in a high wind—shots that should be findable and playable from the dunes instead must be abandoned, which is one of the most frustrating situations in golf.

Yet for all that, the course is a charmer. Most of the holes are good and the course is a wonderful walk. And, yes, you’re walking in the dunes right by the ocean. The benefits of a sea breeze cannot be understated.

The view behind the green on #1 sets the tone for a special walk at Spanish Bay.

The course’s two best holes may be par 5s that play out to the ocean and one of them comes at the first. From a tee set just in front of the restaurant you play to a wide fairway framed by three bunkers. A strong drive can bring the green into reach but it is set to the right with a low area of dunes and grass guarding it and with the green set just in front of the beach the wind tends to be into you here.

The second then turns back and plays away from the coast. The first of many holes that require a layup off the tee, the tee shot here must be fit between dunes and a bunker that cuts in on the right. Depending on the wind and your bravery, you can choose how much risk to take on, but even if you lay back to the widest part of the fairway, a short iron or wedge second shot awaits to a green beautifully set in the dunes.

#2 plays back into the dunes.

The third is the first of the course’s few awkward holes. It is just 340 yards on the card and, though it plays back toward the ocean and thus will often be into the wind, the drive is awkwardly short. The fairway sits on a diagonal from the tee with four pot bunkers set in front of it. But even if you aim over the furthest left of these the carry from the back tee is only 175 to the fairway and, more problematic, it’s is only about 225 through the fairway on that line. In the right wind conditions, the hole may even be reachable, but the line is completely blind over dunes—and there’s no way to know from the tee if the group in front has cleared the green.

The direct line to #3 green from the tee would be at the very left edge of this picture (Credit: Pebble Beach Resorts)

As it is, the third is an awkward forced layup hole, or one where big hitters try to go for it blindly and—more often than not according to the looper in our group—never see their ball again. It feels like there was a decent opportunity for a short par 4 here, though I can see why the designers may not have wanted to start with a par 5, a drive and pitch par 4, and then a reachable par 4. There’s also a public parking lot just over the low dune ridge to the right of the third green that could be in danger if people were trying to rip long drives toward the green rather than approaching with short irons. But this is the hole I would change, if I could.

The rest of the front nine is solid if generally unremarkable. The holes have the affect of a links—at the fifth there’s a cluster of centerline bunkers and at the sixth the fairway is surrounded by small pot bunkers—but it doesn’t come off. The course is too soft to feel like a links, so pot bunkers lose their gathering effect and simply become small bunkers. Meanwhile the wetlands that border the seventh, and which you play over on the eighth, feel very American indeed. Still, the ocean is in view, and the breeze is constant, and the design of the holes keeps your attention.

At the 10th, the course moves into the forest. Unlike at Spyglass, here the forest holes are a brief interlude, and actually come at a perfect point in the round. After nine holes in the dunes by the ocean, the back nine starts with three quieter holes in the forest, which reset you and make the finishing stretch all the more exhilarating.

That said, I found the 10th awkward. The tee shot is again one that needs to move left-to-right to stay in the fairway and there’s an odd strip of rough running through the fairway as well. Then the corridor for the second shot narrows considerably. The landing area for second shots is again awkward, with three bunkers dividing a wide fairway, but making both sections (especially the left) quite narrow. It feels like the kind of hole you could figure out the right way to play after a handful of times around, but few golfers will be playing this course that many times in their life.

For this second shot to #12 you don’t want to have missed the fairway (Credit: Pebble Beach Resorts)

The 12th may be the most difficult hole on the course, but it is at least quite clear in the challenge it presents. At 430 yards you must find the fairway here because the green is elevated on the fair side of a ravine with a very deep bunker also guarding the front right.

From the tee of #13 the ocean comes into view again.

The 13th tee is set in the trees but here you turn back toward the ocean. Even though the hole is just 126 yards this means the ocean breezes begin to play havoc again more than they have for the past few holes—and it’s particularly hard to gauge just how the wind hits your ball here as the hole angles oddly and the wind funnels up between a tall stand of trees and condos to the other side. The green here is very narrow and slightly angled so it is a tough target even at a short yardage.

Getting out of the forest encourages the player to swing away on #14, but you must be sure to find the fairway here

The 14th is the second par 5 playing back toward the beach that sticks in the memory. The tee shot is downhill and though the fairway is plenty wide the out of bounds left and marsh to the right can make it feel more narrow, especially with a stiff breeze in your face. At 576 yards and usually into the wind getting home in two is not an option for most so the key on the second shot is placement. There’s a pot bunker that pokes in from the left about 150 yards short of the green and then a long trench bunker that runs down the right third of the fairway from about 90-125 yards out. Depending on your drive, the wind, and your confidence in yourself, you can try to play past this bunker, along it to the left, or short of it (though hopefully past the pot bunker at 150) entirely. The green falls away to trouble on the right but missing left is no picnic, either, as a low area with rough awaits to gather any shots that stray too far to the “safe” side of the green.

The 15th plays into the dunes to an island of fairway that wraps around two bunkers on the right. Ultimately, the play is to lay up left of the bunkers to the corner of the dogleg. Even if you can carry the bunkers (240 yards from the back tee) you still need to lay up because the fairway runs out on that line in another 35 yards. The green is raised slightly and set into a dune and is a difficult target. There’s a swale in the middle of the left of the green pulling shots toward a bunker but the slope of the dune and the rest of the green move in the opposite direction.

The 16th is a par 3 that plays back in the opposite direction with the green set between an oceanside dune on the left and two bunkers guarding the front right. But then the tee shot at the 17th asks for nearly the same shot that you hit at the 15th. The holes play in the same direction along the coast, both holes turn left-to-right, and both fairways run out at nearly the same yardage requiring many players to lay up. Neither tee shot is bad on its own, and both holes sit naturally in the dunes, but the way they come so closely together makes both holes feel more awkward than either would individually.

The second shot into the 17th is longer and more uphill than the second at the 15th, to a skyline green with plenty of room to miss short and a quick drop off into the dunes long.

An evening round at Spanish Bay is one of golf’s pleasures, as this approach to #17 demonstrates.

After those few holes played in the dunes right by the ocean, the 18th—which is a couple hundred yards inland and has a marsh-like hazard as its dominant feature rather than dunes—feels like a bit of a letdown. Its saving grace is that, while a long par 5 on the card, it is often downwind and so can be reachable in two, and thus provides an excellent opportunity for a good score to end the round.

The old real estate adage, “Buy land—they’re not making any more of it,” goes double when that land is on the coastline. I’ve been around golf message boards for years and seen endless variations on the theme of but what would we think of this oceanside course if it wasn’t next to an ocean? The question is frankly silly. The setting matters no matter where you are, but especially with a pursuit like golf that features being outside for 3-5 hours as part of the appeal of the game. The appeal of a walk around Spanish Bay is hard to beat.

#17 green looking back toward the tee and down Asilomar Beach.

I don’t pretend to know how much trouble it was to build the course but from everything I’ve read the answer is … a lot. So, while I think the course has a couple of flaws, I cannot honestly say I think a better course could have been built here, because I know there were massive restrictions in place and almost every quibble I have can probably be explained by those restrictions. The only other one is that the resort switched the grass from fescue so the course plays soft instead of remotely links-y, but frankly even that was probably an impossible ask, given that every course surrounding them is poa.

In the end, the only thing that’s really worth complaining about is the cost. Spanish Bay is a very expensive place to play golf. Fair enough, but that’s Monterey and that’s Pebble Beach. If you want to loop the back nine at Pacific Grove five times rather than play Spanish Bay, I can’t say as I blame you. But I’m glad that they went to the trouble to get it built and I’m glad that, at least once, I went to the trouble and expense to play it.

California 1st Quintile [2019]