Pebble Beach’s First Ten Years: From Amateur Architects to Crown Jewel

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This week, the LPGA heads to Pebble Beach Golf Links for a historic first time. The famed California coastal layout has notably hosted the US Open six times (including three times since 2000), though the US Women’s Open is currently underway for the first time at America’s #1 public golf course.

It was not always that way, however. In fact, the first ten years of Pebble Beach were key in the development from a far-flung, rough-hewn golf course designed by amateurs, for amateurs, into one of the crown jewels in sports, readily available to host even the steeliest of competitors.

Samuel Morse, who began working with the Pacific Improvement Company in 1915, quickly began to gain more influence within the company. In his eyes, one of the first orders of business was to build a second golf course as a companion to Del Monte, the existing golf course in Monterey, California, which opened in 1897. He found the perfect piece of rugged coastline in the southeast corner of the company’s land holding, with only one lot sold prior to his realization of the site’s potential for golf.

With the land secured, Morse hired two well-known local amateur golfers: Jack Neville and Douglas Grant. Together, they agreed to design the golf course for no fee, while the course was to be built and maintained by men already under employment by the company.

It was all there in plain sight. Very little clearing was necessary. The big thing, naturally, was to get as many holes as possible along the bay. It took a little imagination, but not much. Years before it was built. I could see this place as a golf links. Nature had intended it to be nothing else. All we did was cut away a few trees, install a few sprinklers, and sow a little seed.

Jack Neville, the San Francisco Chronicle

Although the company was targeting an opening date of June 1918 as of late 1917, little funds were allocated towards construction. Construction began slow, but prior to the targeted opening date, the construction team hastily attempted to finish the project in time, ultimately ending up with a haphazard course featuring rocky fairways and little good grass to speak of. This shambolic opening encouraged Samuel Morse to push the official opening back by paying the company’s interests in the area to delay opening to the public. While the deal was being processed, the course opened in July 1918 with a professional event. The feedback by players and spectators was less-than what they had hoped. As a result, Morse quickly closed the course to allow the course to mature. The course would officially open in July 1919.

Morse’s bold call to close the golf course ended up working: he was able to sell all the remaining lots in the area, proving development in the area could be a success (it should be noted that Monterey, California is roughly 120 miles south of San Francisco). The successful launch of Pebble Beach and the surrounding development laid the groundwork for future developments like Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, and Spyglass Hill, all of which he was involved in. However, 1919’s Pebble Beach was not exactly the one we see today, nor was it as noteworthy. AS golf began to shift focus from being a purely northeastern hobby to a national one, there was still work to be done, and it became apparent that work would need to be done to make sure the quality of the course matched the quality of the land it sat on.

Over the next decade, Pebble Beach would evolve at the hands of some of golf’s greatest architects, notably in preparation for the 1929 US Amateur—the USGA’s first event west of the Mississippi River. This event was Pebble Beach’s true “coming out” party, and the birth of the course we know today.

In 1920, just a year after its official opening, Herbert Fowler, a notable British architect travelling around North America and notably California, proposed changes to seven of eighteen teeing grounds. This included adjustments to the finishing hole, converting a rather benign short par 4 into the famed par 5 we know today. Fowler renovated six of eighteen greens, including pushing the 18th back.

Following Fowler’s renovations in 1920, Alister Mackenzie, who was working down the road at Cypress Point Club, came to Pebble Beach alongside Chandler Egan, a well-regarded amateur and architect in his own right, and Robert Hunter, the economics professor-turned-golf-construction-guru. Hunter, whose work transformed Californian golf to create a look not seen in North America, was defined by hazards with a ruggedness that “fit into the ground as if placed there by nature.” Mackenzie, an avid writer, noted in The Spirit of St. Andrews that his renovation of Pebble Beach was only allowed 30 days to rebuild all of the greens. Over that month, Hunter, Egan, and their crew would not only change all 18 greens, but revised the bunkering scheme as well, essentially putting their mark on the golf course. Following their brief, but worthwhile renovation, Pebble Beach hardly resembled the rough-hewn golf course geared towards an offering for homeowners. Now, the golf course had evolved into something more than the sum of its parts: the simple and flat, squarish greens were replaced with more natural flowing forms. The bunkering had changed from flat cigars into faux-dunes and scabby blowouts, more consistent with that of a seaside links.

Interestingly, these hazards were not as simply uncovered like they were up the road at Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point, both of which have the benefit of being a sandy-base, while Pebble Beach is mostly rock and clay. At Pebble Beach, Hunter and Egan had to show their mastery of building hazards that, in his words, had “the appearance of being made with the same carelessness and abandon with which the wind tosses about the sand of dunes.” The work done set the stage for the 1929 US Amateur perfectly: the golf course was complete, and frankly, has not been since. The gem of the west was complete, and it was worth of hosting the Amateur.

Among the competitors at that Amateur was Bobby Jones, who was looking to capture his third US Amateur in a row, and fifth total. As a warmup for the event, Joes played the recently opened Cypress Point with his friend Dr. Alister Mackenzie, who he met at St. Andrews and exchanged correspondence with (including a signed copy of Dr. Mackenzie’s book Golf Architecture). It is worth noting that his pre-US Amateur round at Cypress Point was Jones first round at a golf course designed by Dr. Mackenzie. Also noteworthy, Jones agreed to play in a match to inaugurate Pasatiempo, Mackenzie’s new home course roughly halfway between Monterey and San Francisco.

Going into the tournament, Jones was heavily favoured not only due to his past record in the tournament, but also as the reigning US Open champion, having just won at Winged Foot. Not-so-surprisingly, Jones finished co-medallist with a 36 hole total of 145. However, Jones would lose his first match one down to the then-unheralded Johnny Goodman, one of the few times in Jones prime he would exit in the first round. Unexpectedly, co-designer Chandler Egan, who was 45, reached the semi-finals!

Pebble Beach is more difficult, but Cypress is more fun

Bobby Jones

94 years later, it continues to be one of the most famous golf courses in the world, playing host to the world’s best golfers yet again.

All photos courtesy of the Pebble Beach Company.


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