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Pebble Beach Returns to the Fold

By John M. Ross,
Pebble Beach Golf Links
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After Tiger Woods' thrashing of Pebble Beach, talk is on of building a "Tiger-proof" course in the area. (Courtesy of Pebble Beach Golf Links)

"The Tiger massacred Pebble Beach so badly," a wag at the club chuckled, "they're now going to build a new course to stop him."Not totally accurate, but a new super layout is in the planning stage for the fabled Monterey Peninsula. It has nothing to do with creating a stiffer challenge for Woods - just the standard American response to the challenge of making big money.

The development does have a patriotic flavor to it - you can almost hear the stirring music of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" in the background - but it could turn into a small war before a spade of dirt is turned over for the course.

The scenario started last year when Arnold Palmer, together with Clint Eastwood and Peter Ueberroth, bought the picturesque layout, along with other undeveloped land in the area, from the Japanese. The price was in the neighborhood of $1 billion, which as the quip goes, is a very nice neighborhood. And the reaction in the golf world was pure joy.

American golfers have been brooding over the loss of this crown jewel since the Japanese picked it up during their madcap buying sprees of a decade or so ago, when they snapped up everything American but the Statue of Liberty. There was widespread disbelief - especially among the Californians - that an American treasure like the Pebble Beach Golf Links could fall to foreign ownership.

The Japanese handed over too much money for it, but they were sure they could recoup that - and millions more - with a grand scheme to turn Pebble into a private club. With enormous initiation fees and dues, of course, a club for international millionaires.

The Monterey governing fathers turned down the Japanese conversion plan again and again, stressing its long-standing rule that Pebble had to remain open to the public. It was a staggering setback, but the worst was coming. Japan's economy suddenly turned sour, and high-stake investors had to run for cover. Pebble was quietly put on the block.

With Palmer, surely the most popular golfer in history, heading up the investment group, it was like a dream come true for those who longed for the return of Pebble to American hands. And that he had a couple of favorite American sons like movie star Clint Eastwood and Ueberroth, the former Baseball Commissioner, among his partners didn't hurt either. Pebble's future seemed secure.

Estimates on the cost of retrieving Pebble run as high as $1 billion and, not unlike the Japanese, Arnie and his associates have plans for making the huge investment pay big dividends. They aim to build a new golf course, a 160-room hotel, and a massive clubhouse on a piece of undeveloped land of the Del Monte Forest bordering Pebble. But there are indications that this might hit a snag.

Some of the natives are fearful that the new development could harm the area's rare vegetation and also jeopardize environmentally sensitive wetlands, and they've organized protests before they have even seen a copy of the plan's details.

The protesters, Palmer's group says, represent only a handful of residents who are opposed to almost anything new that is proposed for the area. The plan already has support of more than 20,000 locals who have signed petitions, according to Palmer, and a group called the Del Monte Forest Homeowners has gone on record to support the plan.

Eastwood, who was the mayor of nearby Carmel for several years and had a good record on the environmental issues that are such a vital concern to the residents, says building the new golf complex actually will save many trees from destruction. The land in question, which would normally be cleared for residential construction, would have more trees preserved for the course.

It is expected the proposal will be placed on the ballot for the fall election.

Palmer, who has built numerous courses around the world with his designer, Ed Seay, will not have his hand in building the new course. Tom Fazio, whose courses dot all the lists of the country's best "modern" courses, has already been selected by Palmer and his mates to do the new layout at Pebble. Fazio's list of credits include gems like Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, World Woods in Brooksville, Fla., the Estancia in Scottsdale, and Forest Creek in Southern Pines.

The new plan does not involve the famed Pebble Beach layout in any way, except to ease some of the heavy traffic on it and the other courses in the area. The Monterey Peninsula is one of the most popular destinations for golf travelers - and one of the most expensive. Greens fees at Pebble run as high as $350.

While Monterey is often listed as having wall-to-wall courses, the facilities still aren't adequate to meet the incredible demand. Everyone wants to play Pebble, of course, but the other well-known tracks also have heavy traffic. These include Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Spy Glass Hill, Poppy Hills, Spanish Bay and Tehama. Of course, this is exactly what Samuel Finley Morse had in mind when he purchased the area some 80 years ago, even though he wasn't a golfer and didn't learn to play until 20 years later. He knew instinctively it wold be the ideal setting for the game.

Morse, a distant relative of the inventor of the telegraph, was constantly planning for the use of the beautiful coastline track for several years, and one of his first thoughts was to sell building lots along the beach. Indeed, he had already sold some when he changed his mind and decided to put the golf course along the shore. And what a break that became for all who have played that taunting test along Carmel Bay, or have simply inhaled its incredible beauty.

Tiger Woods hasn't been affected either way by Pebble Beach in his two most recent visits. In the ATT National Pro-Am - which I still call "The Crosby" - earlier in the year, he came from seven shots behind in the final round to rack up a stunning win. And, of course, in The Open in June, he shattered records in all directions to win the title by 15 shots and leave the rest of the field for dead.

With the opportunity at hand, perhaps Pebble Beach should try to regain its pride by having Tom Fazio make the new course Tiger-proof. But it probably wouldn't be easy.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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