I live in a golfing mecca. My apartment is a three-minute walk from the eighteenth tee at Spyglass Hill, a four-minute drive from the pro shop at Pebble Beach, and a five-minute downhill bike ride from the gorgeously framed 13th green at Cypress Point. Since moving here, I have played about 30 rounds of golf in the Monterey area. Not one of these rounds has been at Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, or Spyglass Hill — nor have they been, for that matter, at Monterey Peninsula, Poppy Hills, or Spanish Bay. Inside the 17-Mile Drive gates, where I live, I can’t afford the greens fees.
I’m a teacher. I live rent-free on the campus of a boarding school in Pebble Beach. That’s the only way my family and I can subsist on this stretch of the Central Coast.
When we arrived in August 2015, I had played only a few rounds in the previous decade. I had neither the time nor the money to maintain many hobbies during college and graduate school, and I had come to see golf as overly expensive and rather stuffy. But as I settled into my new life as an adult with a wife and a kid and a real job, I began to feel around for a pastime. I found out that most of my colleagues in Pebble Beach were either surfers or golfers. Once the golfers discovered that I could play, they started to invite me out to the local public tracks. Soon I found myself researching new equipment and subscribing to Peter Finch on YouTube. Since you have managed to find this obscure blog of mine, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. The golf bug.
I had been bitten before. When I was 12, I joined the Santa Barbara Junior Golf Tour. I played competitive rounds at Sandpiper, La Cumbre, La Purisima. Intrigued by the distinctive personalities of these tracks, I became excited about golf course architecture. I ordered back issues of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. I sketched layouts of imaginary golf courses with names like “Raspberry Pines” and “The Hawk.” I ordered used copies of the New World Atlas of Golf and Alister Mackenzie’s Spirit of St. Andrews. The night before I played Mackenzie’s Valley Club of Montecito in a tournament, I was too excited to sleep.
My dad, a lifelong golf nut, joyfully accompanied me in my obsession. On weekends we woke up in the dark to make early tee times. We took a couple of West Coast golf trips, playing Pasatiempo and Pumpkin Ridge and plenty of other courses that I, with all the hauteur of a middle schooler who knew the names of four Golden Age architects, regarded less highly.
During these rounds, I noted a trend in my dad’s demeanor. He was far more likely to effuse about a flat, tree-lined muni than about a Top 100 masterpiece. The “better” the course, the more uncomfortable he seemed in the pro shop. Only years later did I come to understand what he may have been feeling. We were not poor, but a $100 greens fee meant something. The cost probably affected my dad like mild arthritis — not sufficiently severe to keep him away, but enough to dim his enjoyment.
My first golfing phase came to an end when I was 14. I wrenched my back at the driving range and, after a few weeks of recovery, injured it again mid-competition. That was that.
When I got back into the game last year — with just as stiff a back but a much shorter swing — I found that I had lost my desire to rack up Top 100 courses. I calculated that I could play 10 rounds at my beloved Pacific Grove, which has real dunes, for the price of one round at Spanish Bay, which has fake dunes. Why, I muttered to myself, would anyone pay that much more for an inferior experience? I had become my dad, except grouchier.
Not that I would turn down an invitation to Cypress Point. I’m a crank, not an idiot.
The game has changed since I left it 1998. There seems to be a consensus that, in post-recession America, golf is in decline. Participation rates are down. Public courses are closing. Nike has stopped making clubs. The “millennial” generation — of which I am a specimen — reportedly hates anything that fails to provide instant gratification. Tiger Woods is some kind of Navy SEAL cosplaying shut-in.
The result has been a bunch of rich guys pulling their silver hair out and twisting “grow” into a transitive verb: “grow the game.” I’m anxious, too, but not over TV ratings or PGA Tour purses or the neuroses of an aging star. Rather, I’m concerned that the golf courses and equipment manufacturers that appeal to people like me and my dad will disappear, and that the popular but mistaken perception of golf as purely aristocratic will soon be revealed as prophecy. Like the middle class in general, the middle class of golf is ailing.
But we don’t have to let it die.
This blog will be guided by the principle that golf can and should be accessible, affordable, and inclusive. Here at Public Golfer you will not find reviews of upscale courses or new $500 drivers. Instead, I will focus on municipal tracks and used equipment. I may also occasionally wade into the current debates of the golf world: how to “grow the game” properly, what the PGA Tour can do to put out a less boring product, and whether golf carts should be burned or recycled.
I will kick things off with a hole-by-hole tour of Pacific Grove Golf Links, my home course and a living testament to what American municipal golf once was and could be again.