Pebble Beach Embraces Fun, At Last
With the opening of The Hay, a whimsical new Par-3, a proud resort begins to get with the times
In 1999, a glittering group of partners bought the Pebble Beach Co. for $820 million, ending a decade of the famous resort being owned by two separate Japanese groups which viewed it merely as an investment and not a public trust. Led by Arnold Palmer and Peter Ueberroth, Pebble’s new stewards said all the right things about polishing the crown jewel of American golf. But what these golf traditionalists didn’t foresee was how much the world around them would change.
Pacific Dunes debuted in 2001, beginning Bandon’s inexorable rise into a destination of unparalleled scale and quality, all of it imbued by a sense of fun and camaraderie. This touched off an arms race as established resorts spent heavily to keep pace. Stately Pinehurst underwent a thorough reimagining, including—gasp!—rock music on its par-3 course and a rowdy sports bar overlooking the redone No. 2. From Cabot to Sand Valley to Streamsong, other exciting new destinations emerged and all of them followed the Bandon model, which is built on the hang: fire pits, charming putting courses and imaginative short courses that encourage pomp-free good times. Meanwhile, Pebble Beach stubbornly stood pat. The resort poured a lot of money into refurbishing and expanding the Lodge but no investment was made in new golf experiences beyond a much-needed upgraded driving range. Is Pebble classy? Sure. A nice spot to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary? Definitely. Are there now a bunch of livelier (and much more affordable) spots you’d rather go on a buddies trip? Without a doubt. As so many golf destinations reinvented themselves, Pebble’s vibe began to feel increasingly uptight and dated. Arnie added some (ill-advised) bunkers and a few of the Beach’s greens were rebuilt but this only heightened the feeling that Pebble was like an aging actress caking on makeup in a desperate attempt to disguise her fading beauty.
With all of this as a backdrop, Thursday’s grand opening of The Hay was that much more momentous. Pebble’s new par-3 course is, in a word, fun. The old Peter Hay course was a boring collection of holes that played about the same length and featured round, personality-free greens. Now, there are touches of whimsy, such as the thumb-print in the 9th green that beckons aces. Many of the sloping putting surfaces feature backstops that can be used to feed the ball toward the hole. Number 5 is only 48 yards but it plays as a mini-dogleg with a lovely oak tree halfway between the tee and green. The second hole is an exact replica of Pebble Beach’s famed 7th hole. Across the course, instead of traditional tee blocks, there are expansive ribbons that give players plenty of latitude on where to plant a peg. “We wanted it to be a like a game of H-O-R-S-E, where the player who wins the previous hole gets to pick where you tee off,” says Bryon Bell, the president of TGR Design, Tiger Woods’s course architecture firm. In one corner of the property—adjacent to what will be a new bar and grill with lots of outdoor seating—there is a topsy-turvy 18,000 square foot practice green with an 18-hole putting course, though players are free to make up their own challenges. Use of the practice green is gratis and open to all. (The Hay greens fee is $65 but kids 12 and under play for free.) “That was a big deal to Tiger,” Bell says of carving out space for the putting course in a tight, 8 acre site. In prepared remarks as part of the grand opening festivities, Bell noted that Woods grew up on a par-3 course (Heartwell, in Long Beach, Cal.). “He knows the importance of a welcoming environment for players new to the game,” Bell said. Even the logo induces smiles: a seal holding a flagstick, inspired by a 1938 photo shoot at Pebble Beach’s sister course, Del Monte.
But The Hay is not all fun and games. Its greens challenge better players with devilish false fronts and four of the holes are between 47 and 61 yards, offering the chance to work on those awkward in-between yardages. There are also subtle history lessons baked into the design, with brass plaques on each tee box educating players of Pebble Beach’s place in history. Some of the hole yardages go so far as to evoke days of yore around Pebble: the 6th hole is 77 yards, a nod to Lanny Wadkins’s victory at the 1977 PGA Championship, while number 7 is 61 yards, a tip of the cap to Jack Nicklaus’s U.S. Amateur victory in 1961.
That publicity stunt that begat the seal logo was the brainchild of Peter Hay, a 6’5”, 300 lb. mountain of a man who spent a half-century as a head pro at Pebble and Del Monte. Hay created his namesake short course in 1957 as a haven for beginners and juniors, putting him decades ahead of his time. Now the new Hay is helping Pebble Beach play catch up. In June, P.B. Co. will get its first new CEO in 22 years, Dave Stivers. It’s time for more big thinking. Spanish Bay is an incredible piece of ground but a golf course no one loves; a redo there would give the resort a third must-play to go along with Spyglass Hill. Most ambitious of all would be a Pinehurstian restoration of Pebble Beach itself, taking it back to its wild and woolly 1920’s glory. These projects have long been debated in local golf circles but resort leadership displayed little appetite for change. Now there is room for a glimmer of optimism. After all, The Hay is vivid proof that even Pebble Beach can evolve.