Is Pebble Beach a sacred cow of golf course design?
That's the question fans and thought leaders alike are confronting this week as the U.S. Open is played at one of the world's most iconic golf courses.
Per Geoff Shackelford, who has considerable expertise on architecture - especially in California - in the video above, the answer is no. The Pebble Beach Golf Links of 2019 is an inferior product to that of 1929, when architect H. Chandler Egan redesigned the original, circa-1919 Jack Neville/Douglas Grant course into what it is today.
Well, sort of.
If you've seen the photos, you know that Egan's Pebble Beach had larger greens, less formal rough and sand that looked more like a beach than the formal though tokenly gnarly-edged bunkers the public and pros have been navigating in recent decades.
The juxtaposition of car-hood-sized greens with the majesty of the Pacific Ocean does present some odd scale issues, and there's a reason Egan designed them to meld with the seaside scenery a bit more than they do now.
So what happened?
Golf courses are constantly changing, evolving organisms. Dozens of thousands of feet gently depress the spaces where footsteps congregate - the centers of greens and common walk-off paths. Hundreds of thousands of bunker shots splash sand outside the borders and onto edges of greens, so slopes develop, lips rise and greens shrink. Mowers miss an eighth of an inch per trip here, half an inch per trip there - especially around Egan's interesting, irregular original corners - and greens shrink further.
Popular golfing values changed over time, too. Even a space as singular as Pebble Beach can be thought to have taken on "Augusta Syndrome" over the years, whereby lushness and green-no-matter-when become the ideal pursued by maintenance, because golfers paying a premium (now well over $500) are thought to require it. A steady diet of events like the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur make challenging the elite player a priority, so fairways pinch in.
All these factors conspire, in the minds of Shackelford and others, to rob Pebble Beach of some of its original intent and greatness. The coastal cliffs are unchanged, but the golfscape on top of them has lost a bit of its luster.
Count architect Jay Blasi as one of the golf minds who believes in Pebble's potential.
Blasi came to prominence as the lead architect under Robert Trent Jones II during the construction of 2015 U.S. Open host Chambers Bay. Now operating independently, Blasi called for a reversal of holes 9 through 12, aiming to retire some of the course's weaker holes and have the ocean confront players on both sides. Currently, the Pacific is on the right from hole 4 through 10. This routing change would provide more variety on that score, giving the right-handed slicer a reprieve where today there is none.
Architect Brett Hochstein, who has worked as a shaper with Tom Doak and other big names, has some suggestions of his own, mostly related to updating mowing lines and the general texture of the course.
Jumping in on the Pebble Beach discussion: I started a deep dive blog post awhile back about how the course could get closer to its 1929 Egan self.This is a rendering containing some of those ideas. Totally hypothetical and for fun—I know nothing of their current design situation pic.twitter.com/vm3Kce8pwC— Brett Hochstein (@HochsteinDesign) June 12, 2019
Blasi's and Hochstein's propositions met practically no resistance on Twitter, but one question looms:
Is it worth it?
However many of us would like to see a Pebble Beach renovation or restoration, it is a hard sell to pitch ownership on some sort of months-long course closure. After all, the tee sheet is as booked-solid as it gets in the golf world; why give up that revenue if there is not significant upside on a rounds-per-year basis? Would a plan like this require raising green fees to, say, $650 or $750 to compensate for the cost of the work? Is that warranted?
A throwback restoration of Pebble Beach would be a potentially transformative step in the evolution of golf course architecture throughout America, private and public alike. A return to scruffier aesthetics and more classic values - namely: more ground game, less aerial golf - would reverberate through thousands of courses that vex their core, older, higher-handicap clienteles, making the rank-and-file game more fun. But is it incumbent upon Pebble Beach's overseers to do the game that service? Much as I'd like to shout "Yes!" I'm in no position to do so.
However affirmative an answer we might have to the question, "Could Pebble Beach be better?", the reality is complicated. Kinda like a U.S. Open setup.