100 Year Of Pebble Beach Golf Links

In 2019, one of the best golf courses in the USA celebrated its first century. Now, on the eve of its sixth hosting of the US Open, Tony Dear looks back on how it all began for Golf World Top 100. 

As with so much in golf’s great history, it all began with a speculative Scotsman.

To fully appreciate the story of Pebble Beach Golf Links, its birth, what it became and its place in today’s  today, we must to go back to the Golden State of the 1870s. There, on America’s west coast, the aforementioned Scotsman – one David Jacks – began speculating on property on California’s Monterey Peninsula. At that time, California had been a part of the US for 30 years or so, and the entrepreneurial spirit on which much of the country’s wealth was founded was very much alive here.

Significant numbers had left Monterey in 1849 – three years after the US Navy’s Commodore John Sloat claimed the territory from Mexico at the Battle of Monterey – when gold was discovered in a creek 200 miles north. Jacks, one of the few to remain on the peninsula, amassed a fortune selling land to a prominent quartet of gentlemen who owned the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad’s holding company – Pacific Improvement Company [PI] – purchased thousands of acres from Jacks shortly after routing its tracks through Monterey harbour.

A happy ending: the sun sets over Pebble Beach and its closing hole.

A happy ending: the sun sets over Pebble Beach and its closing hole.

Of the four, Charles Crocker was most alert to the potential of the newly-acquired land. He imagined a luxury hotel surrounded by 7,000 resort acres and, in 1880, his vision became reality when he opened the magnificent Hotel Del Monte a mile east of the harbour. To attract San Francisco’s affluent class, the hotel offered billiards, bowling, polo, and horse riding. A lavish bathhouse was built on the nearby Del Monte Beach, and a putting green prepared on the hotel grounds in 1893, two years before the formation of the United States Golf Association on the opposite side of the country.

Golf had reached the west coast in the early 1890s and was slowly gaining popularity. Courses had opened in San Francisco, Oakland, Tacoma and Burlingame, while the Los Angeles Golf Club [forerunner of the Los Angeles Country Club] was building its first nine holes on 16 acres north of downtown. Hotel Del Monte quickly realised that its putting green wouldn’t be enough, so it leased more land from David Jacks and had Englishman Charlie Maud, a keen golfer who had emigrated to southern California, lay out nine holes. The course measured 2,219 yards and opened on the May 1, 1897. Six years later, it grew to 18 and 4,934 yards. Officials instigated a competition that would soon become the California State Amateur.

The success of the Del Monte golf course and its annual tournament earned the resort a fine reputation which The Pacific Improvement Company put to good use when, in 1909, it built an impressive log lodge on the southern shore of the peninsula and announced a new real estate development, to be called Pebble Beach. The nearby village of Carmel was looking to make the most of its fortuitous location and, having observed Del Monte’s success, contacted Pacific Improvement manager A.D. Shepard regarding a new course on the south shore. Carmel Development Company convinced Shepard there would be sufficient demand and plans were made for a club with 25 members each paying $25 a year.

Memberships sold quickly and construction of the first course at Pebble Beach began, with nine oil/sand greens laid out between the lodge and the current location of the 4th green. Before the course could open, however, 10 of the 25 members pulled out, indicating that two courses on the peninsula was perhaps one too many. Without the necessary funding and demand, Shepard decided selling residential oceanfront lots was the way to go. The dream of golf at Pebble Beach was dead, for now.

Samuel Finley Brown Morse – the proper developer who found the tract of land upon which Pebble Beach is built.

Samuel Finley Brown Morse – the proper developer who found the tract of land upon which Pebble Beach is built.

1919: THE ARRIVAL OF SAMUEL FINLEY BROWN MORSE

Following his graduation from Yale University, and having fallen gravely ill through a cruel winter of 1907, Samuel Morse abandoned his native northeast in favour of warmer, sunnier climes out west.

A distant cousin of the inventor of the Morse Code, Samuel wound up working for Pacific Improvement, helping it liquidate its holdings which had lost their original sparkle and which the owners now regarded as a liability.

Morse persuaded Charles Crocker that in order to get a good price for his company’s properties, they would need to be significantly improved. And, unlike Shepard before him, Morse was certain golf would be a good fit on the south shore, believing it would help spread the peninsula’s fame. He could then raise the price of lots on the hill above the coastline.

After quickly buying back lots that had already been purchased, Morse considered his choice for course designer. Rebuffed by the great Charles Macdonald, who by now was settled in New York and working on Shinnecock Hills, Morse opted for two design amateurs who, between them, had laid out precisely zero golf courses.

To be fair, it’s not as if Douglas Grant and Jack Neville were totally ignorant when it came to golf course design. As champion amateurs, they had seen their share of courses, good and bad. Grant was already a decorated amateur golfer when his father sent him to England in 1910 to further his business experience. As well as adding to his contacts list, Grant also played a lot of golf and, in 1911, met his future wife, Elspeth Hall, whom he married in 1915. They returned to California in 1916 and Douglas continued adding California amateur titles to his already impressive record.

Neville had won the first California Amateur Championship in 1912, defended it a year later and was instrumental in bringing the prestigious Western Amateur to California. He also enjoyed playing the Del Monte course so much he got a position with PI selling real estate on the peninsula.

Despite their initial hesitancy at throwing money into something they wished to offload, the heads of Pacific Improvement Company approved the project and construction began in the autumn of 1916. Upon its completion, Neville invited a number of top players to a test event tournament on March 31, 1918, but the reviews weren’t good. Rocks littered the fairways; the turf was terribly inconsistent; the sheep that ‘cut’ the grass left sizeable dents in the greens; and the 18th was considered to be a disappointing anti-climax. Morse shut down the course immediately for further work, and enlisted the help of Francis McComas, an artist whose work hung on the walls of the Hotel Del Monte.

McComas was an able golfer, but the fact remains, the first three individuals to work on the design of Pebble Beach Golf Links were a real estate salesman, a steel salesman and an artist.

McComas made a handful of alterations to the course, most notably at the par 5 14th where he created a tormenting two-tiered green. Seemingly impressed, a syndicate from New York led by G.M. Heckscher came forward with an offer to buy the resort, offering $1.2m – $100,000 less than the asking price. Morse took the offer to Pacific Improvement, doing his job of trying to find his employers a buyer, but secretly hoping they would turn it down. When they did, Morse made his bold play – if PI would give him a year to arrange financing, he would buy it himself at the full asking price.

Morse struggled to raise the money but eventually made a deal with Herbert Fleishhacker, President of Anglo Bank in San Francisco. Refusing Morse a personal loan, he instead lent the money to

a corporation headed by Morse called Del Monte Properties – at which Fleishhacker was the major stockholder. Del Monte Properties reincorporated as Pebble Beach Golf Links Corporation in 1977 and was sold to Twentieth Century Fox in 1979. The current ownership group, of which Arnold Palmer was a part and which also includes Clint Eastwood, took over in 1999.

Re-energised, Morse soon completed construction of the new Lodge and oversaw improvements to the golf course which officially opened on February 22, 1919. This time, the reaction was significantly more positive, though the California Golf Association (CGA) turned down Morse’s request to move that year’s state amateur championship from Del Monte to Pebble Beach Golf Links, saying the new course still had flaws. It was a major blow. 

Morse and Fleishhacker paid PI $1.3m for its holdings, paid off Anglo Bank, and with the remaining money raised from the sale of stock and bonds were able to develop the surrounding real estate. But Morse desperately wanted his new golf course to shine for a national audience. In response, all the rocks were finally removed and the sheep replaced by a larger maintenance crew, which won Pebble Beach Golf Links the 1920 California Amateur. But the CGA still had a problem with the 18th, calling it a “woefully poor finishing hole”.

As if the course hadn’t had enough input from amateur architects already, another stepped forward to suggest what it needed.

Arthur ‘Bunker’ Vincent, an Irish-born judge for the British foreign office was a keen golfer who frequented the course at Del Monte. He proposed covering the rocks behind the 17th green with sufficient soil to create a new tee, adding 35 yards to the hole. Though it acknowledged the improvement to the 18th, the CGA still wasn’t entirely convinced. It would need further work, and Sam Morse had just the man to do it.

After leaving the US for England shortly after co-designing Pebble Beach Golf Links, Douglas Grant lived with his wife near the Herbert Fowler-designed Walton Heath. Grant arranged for Fowler to visit Del Monte where the Englishman not only updated the original Del Monte course, but also visited Pebble Beach Golf Links, making several suggestions as to how it might be improved.

In A History of Golf in California, J.I.B. Jones noted that the Englishman made a number of revisions to the course in the summer of 1921 and returned later that year to get to grips with the much-maligned 18th. Most notably, Fowler culverted the creek that crossed the fairway, and moved the green 170 yards further along the coast, creating a 535-yard par 5 that finished just below the new lodge. It was a magnificent hole… and the CGA was finally satisfied.

The Englishman returned to Pebble Beach Golf Links before the 1923 season to make several more changes, building or rebuilding eight greens, adding bunkers at the 1st and 17th, and moving the tees on at least a dozen holes. Whatever else he did at Pebble Beach Golf Links though, Herbert Fowler will always be remembered there for turning the humdrum 18th into one of the finest finishing holes in the world.

An early draft of the original routing of Pebble Beach from 1916.

An early draft of the original routing of Pebble Beach from 1916.

1926: THE AMATEUR AMBITIONS

In 1922, reigning US Women’s Amateur Champion Marion Hollins visited Del Monte. A native of New York’s Long Island, Hollins had headed west primarily for her health, but she was also intrigued to see some of the California golf courses she’d heard so much about. She fell for Pebble Beach Golf Links immediately, just as everyone on the peninsula fell for her.

Hollins had a drive and vigor that made friends quickly. Morse was excited by her potential and soon added her to the payroll. In short order, Hollins initiated the Pebble Beach Golf Links Golf Championship for Women; established a Manhattan sales office with Morse’s help; and set the wheels in motion for the creation of a private club on the peninsula: Cypress Point Club.

With real estate sales improving and the peninsula becoming an established golf destination, Morse believed the time was right to begin lobbying the United States Golf Association (USGA) for a national championship. Twenty-five years after forming in New York, the USGA had established its credibility and Morse was eager to prove to the governing body that championship-worthy golf existed west of Chicago.

To raise awareness, He hosted a professional tournament with a $5,000 purse and in which many of the country’s top players competed. Harry Cooper won the event, and was among a large group of players that commented very favourably on the course. The national press took notice, as did the USGA, and in 1929 Pebble Beach Golf Links was awarded the US Amateur Championship.

Besides Del Monte’s growing reputation, the fact Alister Mackenzie was working on the peninsula probably helped sway the USGA. The Scot had been retained by Hollins in February 1926 after Cypress Point’s original designer, Seth Raynor, had contracted pneumonia and died, aged 51. It’s not known precisely how much of Raynor’s plan for Cypress Point Mackenzie used, if any, but the course has always been attributed to him. Hollins, though, deserves much of the credit for the magnificent par-3 16th which she thought worked better than the short par 4 Mackenzie had envisioned.

But it wasn’t just Cypress Point that benefitted from Mackenzie’s magic. His US partners Chandler Egan and Robert Hunter completed Raynor’s plans for the Monterey Peninsula CC, and Mackenzie himself made recommendations at Pebble Beach Golf Links, significantly altering the 8th and 13th greens.

To prepare Pebble Beach Golf Links for the 1929 US Amateur, the USGA organised a three-man committee tasked with modernising the course. The organisation’s Vice-President Roger Lapham chose Hunter and Egan as architectural advisors, and the work was carried out by Joe Mayo, Head Superintendent at Pebble Beach Golf Links from 1922 to 1933. “We were desirous of making a minimum of radical changes,” Egan wrote. “Our main conclusions were two – the front nine needed stiffening, and 16 of the greens needed returfing, reshaping, and retrapping.”

Some alteration or other was made at every hole, stretching the course to 6,662 yards. Egan and Mayo created huge bunkers and exposed sandy areas that appeared entirely natural, crafting a look that is many people’s favourite version of Pebble Beach Golf Links. [Sadly, the practicalities of course maintenance saw Egan’s bunkers shrink back over the subsequent decades to more conventional dimensions.]

Besides a new 5th hole designed by Jack Nicklaus and completed in 1999, very little has changed since those 1929 revisions. Curiously though, Morse made very little of Egan and Hunter’s work, insisting the course was still very much a Grant/Neville design. Clearly, he had gone out on a limb hiring the original designers, and he wanted the world to know what an inspired decision it had been.

Having won four of the previous five US Amateur Championships as well as two US Opens, the favourite for the title was Bobby Jones who sailed through strokeplay qualifying, tying for medallist honours on 145.

A large crowd turned out to see his first-round match against Nebraskan caddie Johnny Goodman and was stunned when the outsider went three up after three. Jones fought back but Goodman held on to win 1-up. The interloper lost in the next round to Lawson Little, however, and the Havemeyer Trophy was eventually won by Minnesota’s Harrison Johnston.


1946: BING’S BIG CHEQUE

Entertainer and devoted golfer Bing Crosby hosted a tournament in San Diego prior to WWII. And when, in 1946, it was suggested he resurrect the event at Pebble Beach Golf Links where he had recently bought a homesite, he not only enthusiastically agreed, he also put up the $5,000 purse and covered every expense. And when the PGA Tour stated that, as of 1947, all tournaments needed to have a minimum purse of $10,000, Crosby paid up again.

He insisted his event would be a little different though. It would be held on three courses – Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula CC, and Pebble Beach Golf Links, and be a pro-am with the amateurs/celebrities playing all three days. Though officially named the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, everyone called it either ‘The Crosby’ or ‘The Clambake’. [The tournament’s venues, format, and name have changed several times over the years with the Crosby name being dropped in 1985. AT&T became the title sponsor in 1986. Its most recent title is the ‘AT&T Pebble Beach Golf Links Pro-Am’, first used in 2016.]

Evolving an icon: an early version of Pebble’s legendary 7th hole.

Evolving an icon: an early version of Pebble’s legendary 7th hole.

Given the popularity of Crosby’s event, and the fact it had hosted three successful US Amateur Championships and a couple of US Women’s Amateurs, it seems odd the USGA didn’t bring its showpiece US Open to Pebble Beach Golf Links until 1972. But the organisation, with its heavy east/northeast/Chicago bias, had long been wary of the course’s location, plus it preferred working with private clubs and memberships. A west coast public course was therefore something of an unpredictable anomaly.

Samuel Morse suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1969, passing away at the age of 83. His death further hampered negotiations, but his interim successor, Tim Michaud, guaranteed the USGA $250,000 regardless of gate receipts – an offer the USGA couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t refuse.

The event was a huge success. Jack Nicklaus, the best player in the world, won his 13th major after hitting one of the greatest shots ever played at the tail end of a major championship [see right]. Arnold Palmer, playing in Sunday’s third to last group, got to within one of the lead and eventually finished third, while Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, and Tom Weiskopf also finished in the top 10. ABC covered it all, beaming images of the magnificent course and pulsating action into homes around America and, if it hadn’t already, Pebble Beach Golf Links earned its spot among the country’s greatest courses.

Four US Opens later, Pebble Beach Golf Links’s reputation and status in the game is stronger than ever, and its sixth staging of America’s national championship promises to be another great spectacle, especially with Tiger Woods winning majors again. The USGA will grow the rough, cut narrow fairways, and dehydrate the greens as it always does, making Pebble Beach Golf Links a hostile, gruelling test. It will be beautiful but with a lot of beast and, as ever, competitors will need an extensive range of shots and skills, considerable courage and, above all, patience. They’ll need to play it safe most of the time, earning their pars, and guarding against the big numbers that will stain the impulsive golfer’s scorecard. But as ever, they must also be able to recognise that odd occasion when they can throw caution to the wind and fire directly at a flag. Like Nicklaus said, Pebble Beach Golf Links is a thinking-man’s course, and nowhere does he need to think harder than at the US Open. 

Of course Pebble Beach Golf Links has changed down the years – what living thing goes through 100 years without changing its appearance somehow? But Samuel Morse would still feel right at home at the course he conceived. And he could feel justly proud of the impact it has had on golf in America and beyond.

Nick Wright