California trippin’: Headin’ North

Prologue:  We started our first California excursion in 9 years with a flight from Philly to LA with a stop in Denver.  If you never had the experience of flying into Denver, you should try it once.  The turbulence on approach, caused by winds coming off the Rockies, will give you several opportunities to re-examine your religious faith and fire off a quick Act of Contrition (assuming you are Catholic)!  But other than losing in Scrabble to my better half on the plane and being constantly ridiculed for losing tiny plastic travel Scrabble letters due to fat-finger-itis, it was an uneventful flight.

The objective of our trip was to help my brother, Pat celebrate his retirement.  Pat’s spousal unit would be our hostess and co-guide throughout our excursions, which would include a jaunt up north to the Monterey Peninsula to play two rounds of golf at the Pebble Beach Resort, followed by a leisurely drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Day One:  Sunday … Woke up in the Shirley Temple Room.  ‘Twas a delightful repose!  But I can’t get used to rolling out of bed at the civilized of hour of 9:30 PDT (Suffering from reverse jet lag!) to find out I have only 30 minutes until the Eagles game comes on!  Sweet mother of Chuck Bednarik!  I barely get a toe-hold on my caffeine intake and I’m supposed to be pumped up for game time!?!  Who lives like this?!?

Day Two:  Monday … Up at oh-it’s-still-dark hundred hours (a repeating theme throughout the trip), but frankly you have to be up early to beat the LA morning rush-hour traffic, which was already extremely heavy going into the city at 6:30 as we headed out.  Can’t imagine what that looks like at 8:00!

As we head out of the city, the scenery begins to change.

Hills everywhere … houses perched on ridges, homes hanging from steep hillsides … hills in dry, brittle browns spotted with squat green trees … steep vertical slopes rising rapidly from winding roadways …

Quaint Danish architecture

We stop in a neat little village called Solvang, which touts itself as the Danish Capital of America.  Founded in 1911 by a group of Danish teachers looking to escape midwestern winters, the town sits in the Santa Ynez Valley and consists of shoppes, bakeries and restaurants, many in buildings of bright, colorful Danish design.

Ate breakfast at Paula’s Pancake House.  Great coffee … Have the Danish pancakes, they are fantastic … the size of dinner plates but thin, light and delicious!
 
Did the touristy thing for a while, then climbed back into the car for the sprint up Rt 101 to Carmel.  Our plan was to hit the Monterey Peninsula quickly, and enjoy the coastal sights on the return trip south.

obligatory Danish windmill

 
And so we made our sprint northward  …
 
Vineyards … everywhere vineyards … signs labeling types of wine made from specific grapes … farm country … dry, barren hills give way to green cultivated fields set on valley floors …  fields of produce worked by bent figures and large machinery … trucks full of lettuce, a trailer filled with butternut squash … dust clouds rising from fallow fields being prepped for planting off in the distance …
 
The number of vineyards is perhaps the biggest change I noticed from our last visit almost a decade ago.  In addition to the acres and acres of vines, you must – of course – have hundreds of outlets for wines.  And so it appears that the state’s official past time is now Wine Tastings!   
 
As we approach  Carmel, an ominous sign … a thick ocean layer blocks out the sun along wide swaths of the nearby coast. 
 
We get into Carmel, which is situated just south of the Monterey Peninsula, at mid-afternoon and check in at the Mission Ranch Resort, which was preserved and renovated by Clint Eastwood – actor, director and Carmel’s former mayor.  The resort is absolutely gorgeous, ten buildings in rustic design with incredible views of Point Lobos, the Carmel River and the Pacific.  You can enjoy these views from the restaurant and expansive patio (great for late afternoon cocktails) that overlook a large meadow complete with its own herd of grazing, well-mannered sheep.  
 

View from near the Mission Ranch restaurant patio

 Dinner at the restaurant that night was excellent!  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the duck, but everyone clearly enjoyed their meals.  The service was excellent; the drinks strong; the atmosphere cozy, relaxed and pleasant.
 
One very nice amenity at Mission Ranch is the complimentary breakfast, served in the tennis court clubhouse.  Nothing fancy, just good, basic continental breakfast fare.
 
Day Three:  A Tuesday …  Played Pebble Beach!  (Click the link for a detailed description of that golf experience!) What a day!  We were reprimanded for wearing our hats inside The Tap Room, the renown post-round watering hole that sits less than 100 yards from the 1st tee.  Although the ambiance is impressive, the food was not much better than your average 19th hole found anywhere.  I hear the chili is very good, but I’m not a chili guy.  

Carol (left) enjoying the atmosphere at Pebble Beach Lodge

 
Day Four:  Wednesday … Played Spyglass Hill … another amazing golf experience!  If you ever go, you HAVE to play Pebble Beach for the history, scenic beauty and extraordinary golf holes.  But the best golf course – condition wise, for playability, and for the average golfer – is Spyglass Hill!  (A later post will be dedicated to playing Spyglass. And will be linked here once available.)
 
Formal Carmel canine presentation to Lady Lorri Ellen
 
Meanwhile, the women folk spent the day shopping, having lunch and enjoying a splendid afternoon in Carmel, where they were greeted by from a local canine representative (right).
 
That evening we drove up to the town of Monterey (situated north of the peninsula) for dinner and general touristy activity.  Cannery Row is your typical tourist magnet, dollar sucking locale; but every travelers’ haven has one.  We ate at an unremarkable sports bar-type establishment after we had hit the Pebble Beach (discount) store, which is a great place to find PB clothing bargains once you have recovered from the sticker shock of shopping at the Pebble Beach pro shop.
 
Day Five:  You guessed it … Thursday!  Our Pebble Beach experience 

Pat’s too sexy for his car; Too sexy for his car; Too sexy by far …

was coming to a close … until the someone brought up the Lexus freebie!  Apparently, if you stay at the PBR, you get a free excursion in one of their available Lexus automobiles.  And since it was a cool,  50-degree overcast day along the windy peninsula coast we opted – of course – for the sporty Lexus convertible coupe! 

So we took a leisurely joyride around the most scenic parts of the 17-mile drive.  It becomes obvious pretty quickly that the Monterey Peninsula must have the highest golf course-per-capita rating in the U.S.!  But it’s the ocean scenery and dramatic sea cliff topography that makes the area truly unforgettable. 

 
Rocky, forbidding beachfront … roiling surf … waves crashing over partially submerged rock formations … placid tides choked with clumps of kelp … trees bent permanently landward by ocean winds … beautiful homes perched on open hillsides … others hidden by steep drops and dense woods … spectacular ocean landscapes framed by a softening fog …   
 

Rocky shoreline along 17-mile drive

It wasn’t the best day for amateur photog work, unless you like barren, rocky sea beauty cloaked in fog.  As you wander along the drive there are ample opportunities for picture-taking or just staring at the kind of scenes you do not have on the east coast south of New England.   

The iconic symbol of Pebble Beach

 
Eventually we came upon the iconic symbol of Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress well-preserved on a treacherous-looking outcropping of rock jutting out into the forbidding sea.  It serves as the symbol of Pebble Beach Quality, so it says on the corporate-looking signs posted at the entrance to its viewing area.  The fact that the tree is basically held together with anchored cables and duct tape – you would think – might suggest they find another symbol of Quality.  Just sayin’ …
 
Once we were finished with that Lexus POS, it was time to hi-tail it off the peninsula and return to our mundane daily lives.  But along our meander down the Pacific Coast Highway, we would spend a few relaxing days in Cambria, which will be the subject of our next California post!  
 
But I would be negligent not to recommend that, on your way out of the Pebble Beach area, you should take a leisurely drive south along Carmel Way.  Unique homes in a neighborhood setting and beautiful ocean views are plentiful there.  It is a bit disingenuous to refer to most areas of Pebble Beach and the 17-mile drive as “neighborhoods”, but Carmel Way has a different, more homey feel to it even if you’re just drivin’ through.     
 
For now I’ll leave you with a few additional pictures.  
 

Sheeples with demonic eyes in the Mission Ranch meadow

More stark beauty from the Monterey Peninsula

 

More traditional California beauty (Happy Anniversary, Hon!!)

Brownie points! 
 

Teaser photo for a later post on playing Spyglass Hill

Choking down a day at Pebble Beach

pearlpbLiterally, I was choking down my Pebble Beach experience.  My big chance to play one of the iconic golf courses in the country and the sport, and an hour-and-a-half before our tee-time my Anxiety-O-Meter was shutting down my internal organs!  I had NEVER felt like this before playing a round of golf.  As much as I tried to relax; to take in the surroundings; to enjoy my Eggs Benedict, I was very, very close to a Critical Mass Event!

There were several possible reasons.

  • We had left Mission Ranch, where we had stayed the night before with the woman folk, at 0-it’s-still-so-freakin’-dark hundred hours, so it felt like we were sneaking onto the most famous golf resort in America like a pair of illegals.  I half expected the immaculately uniformed attendants and valets to lay hands upon us and eject us from the premises!
  • Everything about this place is intimidating when you allow the mystique of Pebble Beach and the potential heights of its golf experience to get a stranglehold on your emotions.
  • And of course, every golfer can appreciate the phenomena of First Tee Jitters.  Now just multiply that by several orders of magnitude and suddenly those Eggs Benedict are like trying to swallow a chunk of fairway turf.  My biggest fear was cleaving a foot-sized divot from the first tee and seeing my golf ball mocking me from its perch, untouched by my TaylorMade!

Yes, that would explain a lot!  But eventually it passed, though I’m not sure exactly when or how.  After a ride out to the range and a bucket of balls, it was time to face the legacy of Pebble Beach and those golf legends that had played there before us.

Of course I had to make a few adjustments to my golf-playing expectations, given my surroundings, the difficulty of some of the holes we would play, and the fact that I was still battling the flight side of my fight-or-flight survival instincts.

  1. I knew – or at least expected – that unless I morphed into my Tiger Woods PGA Tour video game icon, the quality of my golf game was going to be a distant second to the overall aura of playing Pebble Beach.
  2. I was going to enjoy the atmosphere, scenery and uniqueness of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, regardless of how well or poorly I played.
  3. I wasn’t about to permit the demons of my sporadic golf game to ruin such a monumental day!  But – may Johnny Miller forgive me – if I did chunk up a big piece of Pebble Beach fairway, it might just be ground-under-repair for a few months; because THAT hunk of turf would be heading back East with me if I had to wear it as a hair hat the rest of the trip!

And then we were on the first tee!  I think that the overload of panic I felt earlier that morning somehow mitigated the horrendous crush of first-tee jitters I had anticipated.  The first tee area wasn’t nearly as crowded as I had anticipated for our 9:00 a.m. tee time, which I’m sure helped.  And all the ancillary distractions of meeting our caddy, Josh (another first for me!), our playing partners, and even the relatively tame layout of the first hole allowed me to swing my driver without hurting anyone.

Of course, that dreaded high fade didn’t help.  But I wasn’t the only one who needed to hit a provisional ball off the 1st tee.  The second drive was much better; and I played the first two holes pretty well, including a bogie on the par 5 #2 hole.  On Hole #3 you get your first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.  It’s just a teaser for what’s to follow; but it’s enough to make your putter take notice!

First glimpse of ocean at #3

At #4 my dastardly fade cost me my first ball on the first true ocean hole.  (I would only lose 6-8 for the day, which was far better than I expected!)  Then the REAL FUN began.  #5 is a par 3 that runs along the ocean cliffs; and I didn’t play that hole too badly, given the difficulty of finding my pulled tee shot after it bounded down the cart path.  My brother, Pat, deposited his tee shot off a tree and into what was purportedly Charles Schwab’s backyard!

Little bro, Pat putting on #4

Holes #6, 7 and 8 are three of the most beautiful holes in golf.  And I would say that #8 is indeed one of the greatest holes I’ve ever played!

The second shot up the hill to the second fairway and green of #6 is the first of those grip-grinding moments you face at Pebble, at least if you’re a short hitter like me and it looks like you have to clear a 8-story building to reach the upper portion of the fairway.  You have to marvel at those strong and brave enough to play right-to-left over the most dangerous portion of the sea cliff.

The par 3 #7 was the setting for my closest encounter with Pebble Beach greatness!  #7 is not particularly long at 106 yards; but the backdrop gives you much pause.  Golf jail here is in the form of a high, steep ocean cliff surrounding the green.  No one in our foursome found the green most likely due to an overabundance of caution.  Once I travelled down to the putting surface, I found my tee shot in the green-side bunker left of the pin.  In a classic “ugly but effective” moment, my semi-crisp sandwedge barely cleared the lip; was slowed by the thick grass lining the top of the trap; and tracked right at the hole.  (My cinematographer has the video evidence!)  Despite shouts of encouragement (“It’s right at the hole!”), the ball struck the edge of the cup and rolled away.  Of course I missed the comeback putt, but that couldn’t diminish the thrill of almost holing out from the sand of #7!

My “almost” sand shot position can be seen just pin high in the sand!

When we arrived on the tee of #8, Josh – our caddy for the day, warned us not to hit anything further than 200 yards off the tee.  His advice was timely given the amazing challenge awaiting us.  All four of us hit perfect tee shots to within 20 feet of the edge of the fairway, only to look down at one of the most awe-inspiring approach shots in golf.

The approach shot on the magnificent #8 at Pebble Beach

Two balls later, I had just missed clearing the yawning sea chasm.  My playing partners were more successful; but that was the kind of day it was for me.  Regardless, I was pumped at having played the kind of golf shot I might never see again!  The fascinating part of #8 is that there is no protection whatsoever – aside from politely placed signs warning of a steep drop – to keep an unsuspecting golfer (as difficult as that might be to imagine) from taking a slip ‘n slide dive into the most hazardous hazard known to the sport!

The above photo and those following show the dramatic changes in fog conditions we encountered resulting from the cool ocean layer.  Shortly before playing #8 in bright, clear sunshine, this was the view down #6 (below).  The fairway lies just left of the bunkers.

The fog was a minor nuisance.  But it did curtail the number of dramatic photo-ops we encountered, especially on those holes along the cliffs and lower shoreline (#17 & 18).

Infamous #18 along the beach from the green

This is what #18 looked like from the green down the fairway (left). You can make out the well-known seawall and sand trap that line the craggy shoreline that is death for any stray shots.  Off in the distance you can see the form of the two trees that mark the aiming point for drives off the tee.  My lone disappointment was not being able to appreciate the full incredible vista of #18 from the tee box.

It was just that kind of day on the Monterey peninsula!

The rest of our round from #10 through #16 – though devoid of spectacular vistas – was full of excellent golf holes and mind-boggling putts.  My one recommendation for anyone looking to experience Pebble Beach (or Spyglass Hill which will be posted later) is to spend the extra cash and arrange for a caddy to accompany you.  You cannot ride a cart up to your ball at Pebble as carts are always restricted to the cart paths; so the caddy (hauling both our bags) is advisable for getting the most out of your round.

In addition, the putts alone on some of the greens REQUIRE an experienced guide.  I could have easily 4 or 5-putted a number of greens without the assistance of Josh.  The first few times your caddy tries to give a read on some of the greens, your brain won’t allow you to follow his advice.  Your mind simply can’t overcome the difference between what the eye sees and what you’re being told to do.  After just one or two bad misses though, you learn to listen to your caddy and tell your brain to shut up, sit down, and enjoy the ride!

On #14, which we were told is shaved like cue ball for tournaments, I faced what looked like a severe uphill 20-foot putt.  Not so fast, counseled Josh.  It’s actually a DOWN HILL putt!  (Putting so near the ocean turns everything upside down.  Downhill can be “up”; and uphill “down” depending on your orientation to the sea.  The physics of which I cannot comprehend!)  Josh points to a spot barely 3-4 feet away from my ball and a good 8 feet – directionally – AWAY from the flag!  “Trust me.”, he says.  “Hit it here and gravity will do the rest!”  So I hit it where I’m told, then watch in disbelief as the putt breaks not once, not twice, but three times as the ball meanders UP the 8-inch slope.  The putt finishing just inches away from the hole!

Trust me, take a caddy!