Spyglass Hill

Spyglass Hill GC, Pebble Beach. Robert Trent Jones, 1966.

It is hard to talk about Spyglass Hill without addressing the remarkable divide between the first five holes out in the dunes and the rest of the course that plays through the trees. I have thoughts on that for sure, and will get to them, but I have to say first that by any measure this is a wonderful golf course—better than any course I’ve played in my home state of Arizona and absolutely worth the effort and expense to play.

But we compare ourselves to that which surrounds us. We envy our next door neighbor’s yard moreso than that of a palatial estate two towns over. The country club that shares a fence with your run-down muni might not be on any Top 250 lists but it becomes like Valhalla, even though a Top 25 club in the world is a few miles down the road. This is how life works. Spyglass, like all the other courses on the Monterey Peninsula that aren’t Cypress Point, suffers by comparison with its neighbors.

A pretty nice view from the tee on #3

The routing is strange, starting with the dramatic holes in the dunes with sea views, but then never getting out there again, unlike Pebble Beach, which gets you back to the ocean at the finish. There are no truly seaside holes, like you get at … well, basically every other course on the peninsula. You’re not likely to lose a ball in the ocean at Spanish Bay or Pacific Grove but you might feel the spray from a big wave rolling in—at Spyglass you’ll see the ocean, but definitely not feel it, and only for the first five holes at that. It also for years had a certain kind of cache as one of the harder courses on the PGA Tour, but that’s mostly gone—in many years, Pebble Beach plays just as hard in the AT&T as Spyglass does now for the pros.

For all that, most rankings still put Spyglass solidly second among public offerings on the peninsula. But even those who rank it highly must contend with the comparison that’s most difficult for Spyglass—the contrast with itself.

It is hard to deny that Spyglass feels like five great holes and 13 … others. As I say, it’s not that the holes in the trees are bad—I like 10, 11, 16, and 17 all quite a bit—but after the first five holes you play here there’s really nothing you could build in the forest that would measure up. It’s a routing problem without a better solution, so far as I can see—ending in the dunes might have provided more drama, but I’m not sure where you’d put the clubhouse and still be able to find good holes. (And rumors that they may switch the nines sounds like an even worse idea.)

What really strikes me as odd about the divide between the first five holes here and the rest is that part of what makes those holes in the dunes so good is that they are not RTJ “monsters.” Perhaps more to the point, they are not typical RTJ holes at all.

#1 tumbles down the hill toward the ocean

The first looks like a monster on the card at almost 600 yards, but it is downhill almost the entire way and as a par 5 with two good shots you’re likely to have some kind of short iron approach. There are no fairway bunkers and though the green is guarded by sand it’s far from the typical RTJ bunker scheme. The green is one of the biggest on the course, said to have contours that mimic the waves in the ocean beyond.

The second is a clever natural hole, where you drive from a tee back in the trees to a narrowing fairway in the dunes. The second shot is against with a short iron or wedge, uphill to a shallow green with a bunker in front and dune behind.

#2 plays from the trees back up into the dune

The third is again a short iron for most, a relatively short par 3, playing downhill (though it can play longer if the wind gets up in your face), with a small green running diagonally away from you.

Number four is one of the great holes Trent Jones ever built. The tee shot is slightly downhill, again to a narrowing fairway. The further you hit the tee ball, the better your angle to the very narrow green set between two dunes. But even if you lay well back to the fattest part of the fairway, you will again have a short iron approach.

Finally, at the fifth, you’ll be asked to hit a mid-iron to a green slightly above you and protected by a series of bunkers in front with a dune behind. But though this is a longer shot, it too looks nothing like a typical RTJ hole.

The green at #5 is set into a dune

They are not easy holes by any stretch, particularly when the wind is blowing, but unless you badly misplay a shot you’re likely to have four short iron or wedge approaches to utterly unique green sites.

Then you walk to the sixth tee and from that point on every hole looks like exactly what you think of when you think of Trent Jones—pinching fairway bunkers, pinching front greenside bunkers, long par 4s that play longer because of their uphill approach shots, and back-to-front sloping greens.

I get why the limited acreage and the nature of the dunes themselves forced RTJ to build some of the interesting holes he did, particularly the two short par 4s.

Maybe there was no getting over the geography, but it’s downright bizarre to me that Trent Jones built those quirky holes in the dunes, but then kept right along building his typical “tough but fair” style for the rest of the course.

There are some flat out clunkers among the holes back in the trees. 18 is one of the least interesting finishing holes on a great course I’ve ever played. 9 just feels like a hole to get you back to the clubhouse and 13 just feels like a hole to get you to the tee at 14. Speaking of 14, it’s a decent par 5—I like the way it’s a slight double dogleg—but it feels too much like a mirror image of the much less interesting seventh hole. Similarly, the par 3s on the back mirror each other—I prefer 15 as a short hole testing your accuracy late in the round, but both it and 12 feel like old ideas as downhill par 3s with ponds protecting the greens.

At the par 5 #11 you can lay up to the low area or challenge the bunkers by going for the green in two

None of these are bad holes per se; there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just uninspiring, giving the high level of company they keep. And there are good holes back in the trees. 17 is one of the only short holes you play in the forest, but you must pick your target wisely on the drive because the fairway and green are both well-protected by bunkers. The 11th has been much improved by subtracting a pond in favor of bunkers, but their overly manicured shapes do nothing for me aesthetically. And I like 10, a downhill par 4 that moves left around two trees and has a green that actually runs away from the player slightly. But any of those holes could as easily be in Colorado or Michigan for all of the visual connection they have to the first five.

#17 in the forest looks like a different course than #3

A quarter mile away Poppy Hills has adopted a visual character that’s almost reminiscent of the sand hills of North Carolina. Given that Spyglass actually has several holes that go out into the dunes, I think adopting a similar visual character would make the course feel dunes-y throughout—even though it’s covered with trees, the hill Spyglass sits on actually is a big sand dune, after all. Exposed sand even back by the green on 14 would be a connection to the ocean holes you’d played hours ago, both mentally and physically.

Moreover, how great would Spyglass be if more of the holes in the forest were as quirky and wild as the holes out by the ocean? Sure, there would still be a divide between them, but it wouldn’t be as notable. And then Spyglass would really have some kind of cohesive character.

California 1st Quintile [2012]