The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links lies across Asilomar Boulevard from the clubhouse and the opening and closing holes of the front nine, but with all its differences, it could be a world away. Set on a parcel of linksland surrounding the Point Piños lighthouse, the second half of the course constitutes such a profoundly different style of course architecture that the two nines could be different courses entirely.
The opening hole of the seaward nine is a short par-3 (109 yards from the blues) that tees off a few yards away from the Point Piños lighthouse. Number 10 eases you into the transition between the parkland front nine and the links golf character of the back nine – the row of cypress trees lining the fairway on the right (seaward side) gives the illusion of shelter from the sea breezes that swirl around Point Piños, but a high-lofted approach shot will be subject to the whims of the winds. The deceptively simple-appearing green has some subtle and confounding breaks – you can be proud of your par when you walk away from #10!
From the 11th hole onward the golfer at Pacific Grove will be getting a taste of the pure Scottish game, played on close-cropped turf over rolling linksland – the type of near-waste area between the dunes and the more sheltered inland pastures that is traditionally used for grazing sheep in Scotland. The next six holes – 11 through 16 – feature open, undulating fairways bordered by low dunes and sandy waste areas. These fairways look inviting, but they require proper placement to set up a profitable approach to the green. The wind, as always on ocean-side courses, will be a factor; in true links fashion, most of these holes allow a low, running approach to the green in case the wind is too strong or gusty.
The 11th hole features an inviting tee shot to the wide, open fairway, but accurate iron play is required for a good approach to the oval green, set back into dunes with a deep bunker on the left. A brisk wind will increase the difficulty of this simple-appearing hole – welcome to links golf!
It is a short walk through the dunes from 11 green to the 12th tee, where the view down the opening stretch of this 500-odd yard sharp dogleg-right par-5 is a stunning vista over an undulating fairway to Monterey Bay. Dramatically shaped to follow the contour of the coastline, 12 offers low dunes to the right of the fairway, with out-of-bounds (Sunset Drive) on the left. At about 245 yards to the corner from the white tees, a good position for your tee shot is to the outside of the corner, with anything from a long iron to a 3-wood for your second – cutting the corner is an exercise best left to the highly-skilled player. The fairway turns a bit to the right within chip-shot range of the round green, so a left-favoring second shot will give you the best angle for your 3rd, and unless a rare south wind and two good shots conspire to get you up in two, there will be a third shot to the green.
The 13th hole doubles back on the direction of the 12th, and the view from the elevated tee of this 300+ yard par-4 is inviting. The fairway narrows somewhat at the bend of the slight dogleg left, and if the usual crosswind off the ocean is up, proceed with caution – a hybrid or 3-wood tee shot, leaving a 9-iron or wedge to the green is the order of the day. In calm conditions, and if your driver is behaving, take it deep for a chip to the green, but remain mindful of the sandy waste area to the left between the 12th and 13th fairways.
Seaview, the 14th hole, also plays from an elevated tee, and offers another sweeping view to the north across Monterey Bay. Sandy waste borders the fairway right and left, but it opens up to a generous width in the 220- to 250-yard range (from the whites), narrowing again from there to the green. Caution is called for on your second shot, as it will be somewhat blind, and lateral hazard borders the final approach and much of the green. The green is not tiered, but attention to the two distinct areas defined by the right to left slope is required.
Doubling back to the south once again, the 15th hole offers a view of the famous Point Piños lighthouse and the wide-open fairway of the second longest par-4 on the course. Downhill, but playing slightly into a prevailing crosswind, a well-played tee shot will leave you with a mid-iron second and the choice of an aerial or running approach, depending upon the wind. Mind the low mound guarding the left side of the smallish, round green.
The 16th, or Lighthouse, hole once again maximizes the drama and beauty of the setting, with an opening shot from an elevated tee affording views across Point Piños to the crashing surf a mere 100 yards or so beyond the green. The wide-open-appearing fairway is deceptive, as it narrows and falls away to the left at just the distance where the mid-to-low handicapper will want to place their drive. Out of bounds guards the right side (a wicked slice from the tee box will constitute a donation to the ball collection at the small driving range which lies between 16 and 18 fairways – don’t ask me how I know this…). Skirting the left side of the fairway offers the best angle into the kidney-shaped green. Bunkers pinch the green from the right and left, and given the drop off behind the green, a classic links-golf-style run up is a good bet to get on with a chance at par.
The final two holes return to a more parkland-like look, though 17, the final par 3 on the course, lies right alongside Coast View Drive, a few yards from crashing surf. The straight-forward 138-yard hole features a water carry of 60 yards or so, but the generous apron below the green leaves plenty of bailout room short. A bunker left and a noticeable back-to-front slope to the green are the hole’s best defenses; leave your tee shot below the hole and you will have a good chance at par or better.
Drawing down the curtain on your round at Pacific Grove Golf Links, the 294-yard par-4 18th hole – Last Chance – offers OB right (the driving range again…), a fairway bunker left, and an elevated green with a false front that absolutely must be carried with a nice high approach. A 3-wood from the tee followed by a crisply-struck short iron is a good combination for success at 18. Avoid the bunker right of the green, leave yourself a make-able birdie putt with your second shot, and you may end your round on a high note!
The best of both worlds in Monterey Peninsula golf – Pebble Beach variety at workingman’s rates
With its unique pairing of parkland front nine and links-style back nine, each side consisting of an enjoyable and challenging series of holes, Pacific Grove Golf Links is an affordable taste of Monterey Peninsula-style golf that will tempt you back to Point Piños again and again. A small, but perfectly adequate, driving range back-dropped by the historic Point Piños Lighthouse, and a generous and representative practice putting green allow the golfer to prepare for the round to come. The generally excellent Central California weather means that year-round play is the norm at Pacific Grove; coastal fogs and the odd winter-time rain storm constitute the only serious obstacles to play.
In addition to the excellence of the golf, the links side of the course is a tribute to the high environmental standards which are being applied more and more to golf courses around the country. The Point Piños terrain through which the holes of the back nine wends is a dunes restoration area. Ongoing since 2005, the Biological Habitat and Dunes Restoration Plan at Pacific Grove Golf Links is restoring native plants to the area, eliminating the ubiquitous iceplant, a native of South Africa, which has become so common in California’s coastal areas.
Whether you live in the area and, inexplicably, have never played a round of golf at Pacific Grove Golf Links, or are visiting the Monterey Peninsula, you owe it to yourself to experience its unique combination of tree-lined parkland terrain and seaside links golf.