First, if I were you, I would go to the Oregon coast instead. But if you have already been to Bandon Dunes, or if you have an “in” at Cypress Point, or if you simply yearn to check Pebble Beach off your bucket list, then come to Monterey. There’s some good golf here.
I live a smooth 7-iron from the 18th tee at Spyglass Hill, and I am an avid golfer, so I have fielded my share of questions from both friends and strangers about which courses to play on the Monterey Peninsula, which to avoid, and what to do when not on the links. I have developed a set of stock answers, and I will share many of them in this post.
But since trip-planning is highly subjective, I figure the best I can do is to describe how I would approach a visit to this area. So before I get into my proposed itinerary, here are some preferences of mine that not everyone might share:
- I would visit for five days (because I dislike both overly short and overly long trips) Monday through Friday (because I dislike outrageously slow golf rounds) in early fall (because I dislike rain but don’t mind cooler temperatures).
- I would make my trip as much about golf as possible, yet I would try to pace myself. I would aim for an average of 27 holes a day.
- I would skimp on non-golf amenities, but I would splurge on truly worthy golf experiences. In other words, no to Carmel wine bars, yes to 18 holes at Pebble Beach.
- I like strategic courses that embody the principles of the so-called “Golden Age” of golf design in America and the British Isles.
- This is more hypothetical: if I did not live in Pebble Beach, I would probably still be able to get a tee time at Monterey Peninsula Country Club (which allows access in a variety of ways) but not at Cypress Point (which, haha, does not).
With that said…
My Ideal Monterey Golf Trip Itinerary
Fly into San Francisco International Airport in the morning. Drive south to the Monterey Peninsula, avoiding the death trap that is State Route 17, no matter what Google Maps tells me. Check into Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. Play an afternoon round at Quail Lodge Golf Club. Go to bed early.
- Quail Lodge is not the cheapest option for accommodations in the area (see hotels in Seaside for that), but it is lovely and laid-back, and offers some decent stay-and-play packages.
- Of the two resort courses in Carmel Valley — the other being Carmel Valley Ranch — Quail Lodge, a charming and walkable track with excellent bunkering, would be my choice. CVR is an intriguing Pete Dye design, but unless you happen to be a mountain goat, you will not be able to get around the course on foot.
By 6:30 AM, arrive at Pacific Grove Golf Links without a tee time. Ask to play the back nine only. Enjoy one of the best dunescapes in American golf, finish by 8:30. Have breakfast at either the Red House or Crema. Show up at Poppy Hills Golf Course in the late morning or early afternoon. After the round, pop over to Michael’s for some Mexicali takeout. Drive to the Pebble Beach Resort and take the Palmero Way entrance. Tell the attendant, “Coastal access.” Eat dinner on the beach at Stillwater Cove.
- Alternate plan: be first out on Poppy Hills in the morning, then go over to Pacific Grove and play all 18, hitting the back nine in the late afternoon or early evening.
- The front nine at Pacific Grove takes a lot of criticism, but 3-7 are strong holes. Admittedly, though, this portion of the course has been severely compromised by safety trees and poorly placed tee boxes.
- At $75 for NCGA members (or $100 for their guests, or $110 for anyone via GolfNow), Poppy Hills is surely one of the best bargains in California golf.
- With holes 4-6 on the cliffs above, the beach at Stillwater Cove offers an alluring preview of Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Pebble Beach Golf Links. Relish the round, make few other plans. In the evening, grab sushi to-go from Crystal Fish. Park near the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center and hike the green trail up into the ridge of dunes between Cypress Point Club and Spyglass Hill Golf Course. See most of the key inland holes at Cypress as well as 2-4 at Spyglass. Eat at Fan Shell Beach, right across 17-Mile Drive from the Alister MacKenzie’s painterly 13th green complex.
- Alternate evening plan: pay the twilight rate at Spyglass Hill and get through at least the first five holes. (After those, the course climbs back into the trees and becomes the type of Trent Jones “test” that you could find at a cheaper rate in Alabama.)
- But how do you get on Pebble Beach without staying at the lodge? Yes, this is tricky. According to local lore, there are various byzantine methods, but I would endorse this gentleman’s straightforward approach:
Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Dunes Course and Shore Course. This is another immersive golf experience, so expect to do little else. Have an early dinner and a cocktail at Roy’s. Take in the views of the Links at Spanish Bay. Just before sunset, stroll toward the beach and see the nightly bagpipe performance.
- The recently renovated courses at Monterey Peninsula Country Club are astonishing — worth every penny of the reportedly steep fee for unaccompanied guests.
Pack bags and drive an hour north. Commune with the ghost of Alister MacKenzie at Pasatiempo Golf Club. If there is time before or after the round, have a smoothie and a healthy meal at Cafe Gratitude in downtown Santa Cruz, then wander the aisles of Bookshop Santa Cruz. Return to SFO for the flight home.
- I was 13 when I first played Pasatiempo, and I had just read MacKenzie’s Spirit of St. Andrews. For the entire round I felt like Neo at the end of The Matrix, seeing through the surface of things to the intricate and beautiful architecture underneath. Now, two decades later, after a restoration by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, the course embodies MacKenzie’s intentions as authentically as possible for a public-access facility in a residential neighborhood. So I would recommend that, before arriving at Pasatiempo, you read some of the architect’s written work. Doing so will make your experience of this classic design all the richer.
- If you keep your schedule flexible, you can usually book a weekday tee time at Pasatiempo through GolfNow for less than $200.
- Santa Cruz is an appealingly eccentric beach town — a good place for an unplanned walk.
Hot Takes on Monterey Golf
As I indicated above, I do not love the inland holes (6-18) at Spyglass Hill. The green concepts are repetitive, and the undergirding design philosophy largely penal. The opening five holes in the dunes, however, are every bit as spectacular as you would expect. Worth $400? Up to you. I would say no, but I have heard some people call Spyglass their favorite course on the peninsula. Shrug emoji.
Spanish Bay is impressive to look at but underwhelming to play. Playing it costs $300. Looking at it: $0.
If you are a golf course architecture aficionado, you may dismiss Poppy Hills Golf Course because it was built by the out-of-fashion Robert Trent Jones, Jr., but that would be a shame. Ever since its renovation in 2014, Poppy has been the most underrated course in the zip code. It plays wide and firm, rewards the ground game, and presents a balanced mixture of penal and strategic holes. The front nine (formerly the back) is masterful.
Although I left it off my itinerary, I would recommend Monterey Pines Golf Course to those in search of a quick, cheap afternoon round. A par-69 track that focuses on serving the local military community, Pines has a solid, varied layout and a friendly vibe.
In discussions of hidden gems on the Monterey Peninsula, Bayonet and Black Horse, a 36-hole “championship” facility, inevitably comes up. I’m not sure why. Although the courses occupy a gorgeous piece of land, they are downright tedious to play. The bulbous fairway and bunker shapes are ungainly, the divot-strewn collection bowls are nearly unavoidable, and the tricked-up greens are strategically incoherent. Take your business elsewhere…
… even to Del Monte Golf Course, but for reasons I have enumerated on Twitter, I would not advise going there, either.
To Be Continued…
This post should be considered an introduction to my Monterey Golf Guide, which I will build up on this site over the coming months. I plan to add in-depth course reviews as well as answer some of the excellent questions posed by my Twitter friends. If you have additional questions or thoughts, or even a simple desire to kick my ass for dissing Spyglass, comment below or engage with me on Twitter @public_golfer.