Celebrating the U.S. golf courses built in the 1800s

Playing Del Monte at Pebble Beach Resorts on its 125th birthday reminded us that historical, classical golf is the best golf.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The Del Monte Golf Course rarely gets the appreciation it deserves.

It's the fourth fiddle, stuck behind the star-studded trio of courses owned by Pebble Beach Resorts: Spyglass Hill, the Links at Spanish Bay and, of course, Pebble Beach Golf Links.

For one day, though, it was the center of attention at the resort. Del Monte celebrated its 125th birthday May 1 in style. Employees ate cake, while golfers like me who teed it up Sunday were treated to a historical scorecard and a commemorative ball marker. Del Monte, which opened nine holes in 1897, is touted as the oldest course in continuous operation west of the Mississippi.

Not many things make it 125 years in America. Not people. Not buildings or businesses and certainly not golf courses. According to our GolfPass database, only 264 courses still open in America were built prior to 1900. Only 104 of them are open to the public. That's a small brotherhood of historic playgrounds.

Isn't it time we celebrated them for essentially bringing the game to our shores and serving as the breeding grounds for generations of golfers? They are the forefathers of American golf (if you will allow me the liberty of a bad pun).

To me, old-school golf is the best golf. It's no-frills. I could do without railroad ties, wildly shaped greens and forced carries. Just give me golf in its purest, natural form. It's how the game was meant to be played.

Celebrating America's classics

Most of America's publicly accessible courses built pre-1900 are somewhat short, scruffy and generally ignored outside of the locals who play them. There are exceptions like Del Monte.

The nine-hole Highland Links (1892) on Cape Cod is widely considered the only true links course on the East Coast and one of only a handful in America. The Presidio Golf Club (1895), the Old Course at Omni Bedford Springs (1895), the Club at Lac La Belle (1896), the Ocean Course at The Breakers Palm Beach (1897), the Atlantic City Country Club (1897), Pinehurst No. 1 (1898) and the Omni Grove Park Inn (1899) have all been carefully restored or altered over the years to continue to deliver high-caliber golf experiences. I've played all of them except Lac LaBelle and would gladly recommend any of them. Bedford Springs, designed by Donald Ross and restored by Ron Forse, might be the most compelling and best reflect the period architecture, complete with chocolate drop mounds and a volcano hole.

The true museums of golf, however, are the elite private clubs of this era. In fact, one of the most famous will be in the limelight next month. The Country Club at Brookline (1882; golf course built in 1895) will host the 2022 U.S. Open. All of these courses are meticulously cared for thanks to big budgets and a timeless dedication to maintain their place in the history of the game. Maidstone (1891), Shinnecock Hills (1891), Myopia Hunt Club (1894), Newport Country Club (1894), Chicago Golf Club (1895), Los Angeles Country Club (1897) and Garden City Golf Club (1899) are other noteworthy flag bearers.

If only the public courses had such deep-pocketed benefactors and supporters as these private clubs. Unfortunately, not all of them survive. In just the last few years, West Virginia's Oakhurst Links (1884), California's Mare Island (1892) and Illinois' Arsenal Island (1897) have succumbed to market forces. Maybe, had they made it to the pandemic golf boom, they'd still be alive today.

The Del Monte experience

The more I play Del Monte, the more I appreciate its charms. The tiny, lightning-fast greens. The subtle doglegs. The trees in the middle of the fairway on two holes. The challenging uphill holes to start the round. The 293-yard 10th where everybody thinks they can drive the green, or at worst, make birdie. One spectacular view from the 11th tee with the Monterey Bay shimmering in the distance.

Johnny Miller has called the 6,356-yard layout "sneaky tough". My score from Sunday's round wholeheartedly agrees. The par 3s are brutal: the shortest being 166 yards into the wind and the longest stretching to a beefy 215 yards (which I doubled). Practice your punch-out game because it's inevitable that you'll have to attempt an escape over, under or through the trees.

Like most classic courses, Del Monte has been hemmed in by the modern world. Planes fly overhead and traffic from nearby roads and the famed Pacific Coast Highway can be heard at times. Some nice homes line its fairways with a few backyards a little too close for comfort. A golf ball from my foursome ended up in one of them. The final tee shot is a white-knuckler considering how tightly the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa hugs the entire left side of the fairway.

But despite the intrusions, Del Monte remains a fabulous walk ... just like it has for the past 125 years.

What's your favorite course that's an old-school classic? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Celebrating the U.S. golf courses built in the 1800s