Return to Pebble Beach

By Flanagan, Caitlin | Sunset, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Return to Pebble Beach


Flanagan, Caitlin, Sunset


Essayist Caitlin Flanagan spends a few days among men in the grip of a powerful dream

THE FIRST TIME I SAW the famous greens at Pebble Beach, they were a crispy brown. It was the height of the 1977 California drought, when Senator S.I. Hayakawa had advised his state's residents not to flush a toilet unless absolutely necessary ("If it's yellow, let it mellow," they told us in school. "If it's brown, flush it down"); when kids were inventing modern skateboard culture by taking their boards to the emptied swimming pools of Los Angeles; and when nothing was more politically or environmentally suspect than a healthy lawn. Everyone knew that it took a scandalous 10 gallons of water a minute for the sprinkling required by a patch of suburban grass. In those conditions, the thirsty Poa annua at Pebble Beach - irrigated with drinking water pulled out of the Carmel River - was forced to wither and dry out.

I surveyed the course from the windows of my parents' car as we toured 17-Mile Drive, the famous road that divides the most beautiful section of the Monterey Peninsula coastline from the fairways and resort hotels of the Pebble Beach Company, and the contrast was astonishing. On the western side of Mom's Plymouth Valiant were the most stunning vistas I'd ever seen: Fanshell Beach, with its sand as white as chalk; Restless Sea, where aquamarine waves lifted off the gray Pacific and then exploded in spray; Cypress Point, where you could take in the whole, magical cove in one sighting. On the eastern side of the car was a blasted patch of dead grass where groups of men dressed like children doggedly beat sticks toward the ground. The three of us puzzled over them for some time. We were from Berkeley, where no one played golf, and where the word itself conjured a whole set of dubious associations: idle wealth, Republicanism, retreat from the world of ideas. But we couldn't keep our eyes off those men - what was it about the game and the place that inspired such loyalty?

This summer I determined to find out. I went back to Pebble Beach, crossing the road from sand to grass - which is now the hallucinatory dark green made possible at that time of year by 1,000 gallons of recycled water per green every four to six days - and checking into one of the resort's three hotels, the Inn at Spanish Bay, where I would spend an enlightening 48 hours in and among the golfers and their companions. It was an interlude of staggering beauty, flashes of insight, constant financial outlay, and nonstop, good-natured conversations about the glorious frustration and eternal promise of amateur golf.

The Inn at Spanish Bay is the kind of substantial, hushed, extensively staffed hotel that bespeaks seriousness. Serious money, serious food and drink, and - in this case - serious golf. To be around men who are indulging themselves in a few days of golf at Pebble Beach (there are plenty of women at the resort - you see them at the restaurants, tennis courts, and spa - but very few head out to the greens to play) is to be around a group of people who are in the grip of a powerful dream. They are like gamblers, always chasing the belief that the next round they'll do better, that personal greatness is always at hand. I asked one man what the course meant to him, and he said, "If you're a baseball fan, you dream of watching a game at Yankee Stadium, and if you're a golf fan, you dream of playing a round at Pebble Beach. …

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