PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s one of my favorite moments at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
If you were at the U.S. Open 10 years ago, or witnessed it on TV, you can probably still see Jack Nicklaus sitting by himself on the wooden fence behind the 18th tee in what would be his final round of his final U.S. Open. With the surf pounding Carmel Bay’s craggy shoreline behind him, Nicklaus paused to soak in the grandeur.
In that moment, Nicklaus was more than the greatest player who ever lived. He might have been you. Or me. Or every man, woman or child who has fallen in love with the ruggedly spectacular meeting of land and sea that is Pebble Beach. He was as much spectator as player, mere mortal admiring the collaborative genius of man and a higher power.
“I’ve always said, if I had one round of golf to go play, I’d probably go play at Pebble Beach,” Nicklaus said again at the Memorial last week.
For the first time since 1916, the year the PGA Championship joined the major championship rotation, the season’s final three majors will be played on public access venues. From Pebble Beach to St. Andrews’ Old Course and Whistling Straits, the public, with advanced notice and plenty of cash, can enjoy the same Grand Slam ground as the pros.
GolfChannel.com dispatched three correspondents to make the major rounds. Check the progress of each course and the people that make the Grand Slam pilgrimage.
Public Access features:
Hoggard: The 2010 Majors
Baggs: Old Course at St. Andrews
Peterson: Whistling Straits
Public access adds a dimension to a U.S. Open that isn’t there at Oakmont, Winged Foot, Shinnecock or other private venues.
It’s what makes this summer different from any major championship summer golf’s ever seen.
For the first summer in history, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship will all be played at venues open to the public.
The prices may be steep, but the common man’s never had more access to golf’s uncommon tests with Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits hosting.
Chuck Dunbar, the head professional at Pebble Beach, learned the sacrifices the average working man is willing to make to play the game’s great tests. He was working the pro shop one morning when a middle-aged man marched in before his tee time to pay the $300 greens fee required back then. He marched in with a bundle full of rolled up quarters.
“He said he’d been saving a long, long time to play Pebble Beach, throwing spare quarters in a dish at the end of every work day,” Dunbar said. “That’s how he paid for his trip to golf’s Mecca, a quarter at a time, and he said it was important to him to actually pay for the round with those quarters. I thought that was dynamite, but I was also glad he didn’t pay with dimes, nickels and pennies.”
The greens fee today is $495. It’s expensive, but with more than 50,000 rounds played every year it’s a lush playground that’s not restricted to the world’s most gifted ball strikers, richest CEOs and most famous celebrities.
Hubert Allen was there along the 18th tee that day Nicklaus took up his seat on the fence before his final U.S. Open tee shot, but Allen can go one better with his memory in relaying the powerful draw that hole has upon the golfing public. He’s been the Pebble Beach Golf Links pro shop manager for 12 years, a starter for two years before that. Every time a new employee joins his staff, he passes along a story. He tells them about the day he escorted a brother and sister on a special trip to the 18th tee.
“Their father had died, and he wanted his ashes spread there,” Allen said. “We waited until play cleared, and they spread the ashes. They were crying. It was quite emotional.”
When they were done, Allen asked the son and daughter how often their father had come to play Pebble Beach.
“They said he’d never been here, but it was always his dream to come and play,” Allen said. “So bringing his ashes to Pebble Beach was their gift to him. That really hit home with me about what this place means to people.”
Pebble Beach is a patch of heaven even to those who’ve journeyed beyond earth’s realm. Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, had his ashes scattered from a helicopter above Carmel Bay.
When Allen, 52, began work at Pebble Beach as a starter, he was struck by the emotion he sensed in those who knew they were partaking in a once in a lifetime experience.
“One day this gentleman wandered up to me on his way to the first tee and asked me to pinch him,” Allen said. “He said he had been waiting his entire life for this moment, and he wanted to make sure he was really alive. You feel privileged and humbled to be part of the experience.”
Casey Boyns, 54, grew up in Pebble Beach two miles from the golf course. He won the California State Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1989 and ’93. He played countless junior and high school matches there and used to sneak onto the course with his boyhood pals, Neal Schlegel and Mark DeVincenzi, to play nine holes before dark.
For the last 29 years, Boyns has been a Pebble Beach caddie. While all that time on the course might make it easy to lose the sense of wonder Pebble Beach brings, Boyns says he’s reminded on the first tee every day.
“I see people shaking on the first tee, they’re so nervous,” Boyns said. “I’ve seen people who can’t put the ball on the tee because their hands are shaking so badly. You see them hit shots off the hotel or chunk shots fat. You see how much it means.”
Count this reporter among the nervous first-timers. After watching Dunbar, the head pro, pound his tee shot straight down the middle of the first fairway, I blocked mine right into the trees.
I didn’t feel so bad, though, when my caddie, Patrick Wood, relayed how he felt hitting his first tee shot back in the fall.
Wood, who used to own a hotel near the Old Course at St. Andrews, got a rare call to action when a foursome was a player short and asked if any of the caddies were available to play. Wood is a decent player who toured the Old Course 103 times in the four years he ran his hotel there, but he felt like a high-handicapper racing to the first tee at Pebble Beach.
“It was a very big deal to get to play,” Wood said. “About 25 to 30 caddies came out to watch me tee off, the pro and the assistant pro came out. My knees were shaking.”
Wood barely got a 3-wood off the ground but delighted in his chance to play.
Dunbar, 46, is the quintessential dream come true at Pebble Beach. He didn’t start playing golf until he was in his 20s but rose to become head pro when he was 34. After graduating from UC-Sacramento in ’88, his father tried to talk him into joining him in the insurance business.
A bartender at the time, Dunbar had other ideas, but they didn’t exactly bowl over the rest of the family. He wanted to be a game show host.
In a not-so subtle hint that it was time to find a career, Dunbar’s father bought him a suit upon graduation.
“It was a classic case of fight or flight,” Dunbar cracked. “I flew.”
Dunbar took flight in the Club Med chain, where he eventually landed as a bartender at Club Med Sand Piper in Port St. Lucie, Fla. At 25, he bought his first set of golf clubs.
“I asked a guy what they did for fun down there, and he said they played golf all day, so I bought a $199 set of Wilson golf clubs at Costco before I left home for the job,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar mixed drinks at night and played golf in the day, shaving his handicap from a 30 to a 12 in a year without a single lesson. After marrying, leaving Club Med and returning home to California, he faced another crossroads.
“I’m married, and I’m thinking I better find something I can make a paycheck in,” Dunbar said.
Vacationing in Aptos, Calif., he spied a want ad in a local newspaper. Seascape Golf Club was looking for an assistant pro. By that time, Dunbar was about a 6-handicap player.
“Somehow, I talked my way into the job,” Dunbar said.
From there, Dunbar earned his PGA certification, and that would lead to an interview with the Pebble Beach Co. in 1995 and a job as an assistant pro at Spanish Bay.
“I remember thinking, 'I’m out of my league. I have no golf pedigree. I didn’t play high school golf or college golf. How the hell did I land this job?’” Dunbar said.
But he quickly proved himself more than worthy, working his way to head pro at Pebble Beach in four years.
As head pro, Dunbar has met President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, actors Clint Eastwood and Nicole Kidman, rocker Bono and other famous people, but he understands what it was like for Nicklaus to sit on that fence at the 18th and gaze into Carmel Bay. He understands as well as anyone the wonder of a place like Pebble Beach, where we can all marvel at the uncommon path our lives can take us.
Public Access features:
Rex Hoggard: The 2010 Majors
Mercer Baggs: Old Course at St. Andrews
Erik Peterson: Whistling Straits