Golf’s Ultimate Encounters with Nature

Pebble Beach delivers golf’s best encounter with nature

The most glorious courses not only challenge and entertain, they also transport us into stirring settings that stimulate our senses. For providing the ultimate encounter with nature, one awash in sensory overload, Pebble Beach Golf Links has no peer. It offers elements you can see, hear, feel, smell, even taste. Mix in shot values that few courses can match and even on a calm day, the experience is unforgettable. As legendary British scribe Pat Ward-Thomas once said of Pebble, “This links has a rare alliance with nature which always comes to its aid when it seems defenseless.”

Pebble’s eye candy principally revolves around the clifftop fairways that peer down at the Pacific Ocean. Accessories include a curving coastline with handsome beach sand below, 116 sprawling white bunkers, and the moodier elements, such as an ever-changing sky tinted with fog or sun or dark clouds. Green canopies extend from Monterey pines, coastal live oaks, and Monterey cypresses. But that doesn’t make Pebble Beach unique. For that, look more closely—and listen.

Admittedly, the nature encounter isn’t immediate. Pebble’s first tee can resemble a train station, with curious, if gleeful, gawkers milling about. Soon after, wooded ground and ravines beckon, replete with Blacktail deer. Perhaps there aren’t as many of Bambi and his brethren as frequent nearby Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Country Club, but they’re around.

wild side
Pebble Beach (photo by Getty Images)

To the left of the hourglass green at the 182-yard par-three 17th, not far from where Tom Watson miraculously holed a sand wedge for birdie to take command of the 1982 U.S. Open, sea otters feed on kelp in Stillwater Cove. It is here, where the now drivable, 333-yard par-four 4th intersects with the 17th that the briny smell of the sea first reaches your nostrils. The nature show hits primetime at the tiny, 106-yard par-three 7th, a mere flicked wedge downhill to a green perched adjacent to wave-splashed rocks and isolated by bunkers. Keen-eyed observers will often spot a harbor seal or two snoozing and sunning on the rocks below.

Then there are the birds, ubiquitous and occasionally unwanted. In the past two decades, Pebble Beach employed its canine corps, first “Lucky” and then “Charlie,” to shoo away the geese. It hired “Fluffy,” a steppe eagle, to disperse the seagulls, though not soon enough for one screeching specimen to snatch my still-wrapped oatmeal cookie at the par-three 12th. The cormorants and pelicans are more amusing and less intrusive.

Golf’s greatest encounter with nature concludes with the game’s definitive exclamation point, the 541-yard par-five 18th, that arcs to the left around Carmel Bay. If you’re fortunate, and the wind is blowing, the waves crashing against the rocks (now man-made, to help control erosion) that separate sea from grass, you can taste the salt in the air. You listen as the strange barking from a California sea lion pierces the mist. You pinch yourself, one final reminder that nature and golf can coexist in perfection.

3 Other Courses Where Nature Reigns

Twisting through forests of tall saguaros and thorny desert plants, the South course at the Boulders Resort in Arizona hits a literal peak at holes 6, 7, and 8 with elevated tee boxes set into the massive prehistoric rocks that give the resort its name. Roadrunners, coyotes, rattlesnakes, rabbits, bobcats, and javelinas are among the exotic critters that share the fairways.

Jabbed into Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, the Stanley Thompson 18 at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel overwhelms with mountain scenery, particularly at the par-three 4th, “Devil’s Cauldron,” which plays over a glacial lake. Equally compelling is the par-four 14th, which skirts the confluence of the Bow and Spray Rivers. Deer, an occasional bear, and herds of mating elk in early autumn frequent the course.

North of Scotland’s Royal Dornoch sits Brora, a course that feels more discovered than designed—though credit James Braid for situating the 9th green practically on the beach. Getting salted with sea spray has affected many a birdie putt. As the links resides on common pastureland, where crofters have retained farming and grazing rights, expect to see cattle and sheep walking among the foursome.

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