The first thing that strikes you is that there shouldn’t be a golf hole here. It’s stupid, farcical. Golf is a stunningly dumb, maddening game mostly birthed out of a 15th-century need to kill time. Any open grassy plain would do, utilizing this one seems like an exceptional waste.
That’s the feeling for most of the hours you’ll spend walking at Pebble Beach. This is one of those stretches of land could reasonably hold its own in a Most Beautiful Places On The Planet conversation. It does not deserve to be a golf course, but rather something far better than that — perhaps a trash dump, or a nuclear waste facility, or almost anything else that doesn’t require me to hit a cutting 4-iron from 220, as a gale-force wind blows in from the Monterey Bay. It’s perhaps — no, easily — the most beautiful piece of property a man can walk stateside.
It’s completely fair to debate what might be the most iconic hole in American golf. The 12th at Augusta has a strong case, as does the 17th at Sawgrass. One is the defining turning point of every major championship where we’ve seen so many chances fall apart, another is – like it or not – the most recognizable hole for any casual fan of the game in the entire sport.
But it’s another par-three that provides the best American golf has to offer, and it’ll be where the most iconic photos from this weekend’s U.S. Open will be taken out on the Monterey Peninsula in California. At just a breath over 100 yards, Pebble Beach’s diminutive par-3 7th is the single best hole the sport has to offer in the United States.
Sure, sure — there might be a handful that might be more architecturally pleasing, and there’s certainly many more challenging. At exactly 106 yards and covering a 40-foot drop right down almost to what seems a sandbar in the Pacific, the 7th at Pebble Beach is as short of a hole as you’ll find anywhere in major professional golf. It can go shorter, too. The last time we were here for a U.S. Open, the USGA dropped the tees to just 92 yards one day. It isn’t particularly difficult, and it likely won’t swing the championship. But it is the most iconic hole at the most iconic course in the country. And the scene? It’s hard to size anything up against it.
“It’s great to play a par 3 that’s not 200 yards,” Jon Rahm told John Branch of the New York Times.“And as soon as the green gets firm, it’s like the 17th at Sawgrass. As soon as the conditions get a little bit rough, everything changes. It’s right there on the peninsula and on the rocks, and you get a 10-, 15-mile-per-hour breeze, that green is pretty small. It’s an elevated tee, so the wind has more effect. It’s a fun hole.”
That’s perhaps why, even after all the press it still gets, the 7th is underappreciated. It’s hard to fully appreciate the majesty It’s extremely easy to critique how Pebble Beach from a distance, how it isn’t this or isn’t that until you stand on the 7th on a sunny springtime Sunday morning. Considering I’ve spent the vast majority of the last year beating the drum on how the USGA & PGA saturate the same areas with majors, I was a skeptic about Pebble. I was firmly of the opinion this was a good-not-great golf course that is overhyped, and playing so many majors here deprives other population centers of majors. I believed all that until, uh, exactly this moment.
The critical evolution of what makes a great golf venue has and will continue to make golf better — today and into the future. We’ve collectively become more attuned to open, playable design that incorporates classic concepts — and that’s changed the calculus for some on what makes a great golf course. You’ll hear talk this week that Pebble’s overrated, or how it’s departed too far from the original design. Over the course of the weekend, someone will slide in with a comment that ACTUALLY, PASATIEMPO/CYPRESS/SPYGLASS IS A BETTER TRACK. Don’t be that person.
Part of that commentary is true. All of those courses are iconic. Pebble isn’t perfect, and neither is the 7th. It is public perhaps in name only, one of the tracks to get a tee time at in America — and that’s only if you have the requisite expendable income. There has been a departure from the original design, and while it isn’t near as bad as some would have you think, it’s still not ideal.
But perhaps that’s where we’ve gone too far — trying too hard to parse relatively miniscule differences to prove who can be more of an architecture hipster than the next. Pebble is ours, the 7th is ours. 100 years ago, we built one of the game’s most iconic courses over rocky seaside land on the Monterey. It is a goddamn miracle that it exists, and if the march of climate change continues unabated, the single most iconic hole in American may not survive that much longer.
So, enjoy Pebble this weekend because there’s no place like it, and it’s ours. Enjoy Pebble because who knows how many more U.S. Opens we’ll get to watch the best in the world hit a 90-some yard shot right down toward the sea. The Isles have links golf, Australia the Sandbelt. America has the 17 Mile Drive. There’s nowhere else where land and sea converge at one of the most beautiful places in the world there’s no better place to play the game. It is the most iconic venue stateside, our St. Andrews, hosting our national championship. The 7th is the fulcrum of that. It’s our Road Hole, but instead of buildings and pavement — it’s the sea, the wind, the waves, and on the right day — the sun.
American golf is quite a few things. Beautiful, but imperfect. Outgrowing itself. Often overdone. Too restrictive. The 7th is much of that. It’s been stripped of some of its original sandswept charm. It costs hundreds to play if you’re a commoner. It’s, at this point, become a sand or lob wedge for most players.
Still, even with all that, there’s few sporting scenes in the world better than a simple 100-yard seaside walk out on what seems like the edge of the earth — a place far too beautiful, far too good for a sport and a game far too trivial. Enjoy it while you still can.