The Father-Son Magic Of Pebble Beach

There’s No Better American Golf Venue To Mark A Milestone

pebble beach vic-alex

As the golf world settles in for what promises to be a momentous U.S. Open at what I believe is the event’s greatest venue — Pebble Beach Golf Links — on its 100th birthday, it’s the perfect time to revisit one of my favorite columns ever, which originally appeared in the December 2007 edition of Fairways + Greens magazine. As you’ll see, it’s also an apropos Father’s Day story. I hope all the dads and sons out there find it inspiring. The bottom line: In American golf, there’s no finer bucket list destination than Pebble Beach.

On the brink of perhaps America’s greatest 4-par stand a man and his son. The son is a man, too, has been for a while, but now it’s official. He’s turning 21 in a very different place, mentality and situation than his dad did 26 years before, and here, on the very edge of the West, it all becomes achingly clear that they’re moving through a sunlit moment that will never come their way again. Nor should it. Not like this.

The son swings first, 5-wood in hand, the green 205 yards away, downhill and across a churning ladle-ful of seawater scooped out by God Himself. Standing over his own ball 50 yards closer to the hole and shy of Pacific oblivion by maybe 10 paces, Dad watches his oldest of four kids — the man — as his ball soars over the near cliff, toward its target, with a seeing-eye fade. “Looking good, son!” he yells.

It ends up better than good, stopping about three steps onto the smallish green. “Oh yeah!” the son yelps with a leap, silhouetted against the ocean in a rush of unbelieving ecstasy only a golfer can understand. Dad jumps, too, and feels his hands head heavenward, then come together in a clap of pure pride. “Great shot!” he manages before turning away to let the tears come, if only for a split second.

Cliché or not, it truly doesn’t get any better than this. Not when it’s taken two decades to make this father-son trip happen, the first time they’ve been away from their hometown together, just the two of them, for more than a few hours. Not after divorce and remarriage, school and jobs, the aches and strains and setbacks and triumphs of life — accumulated memories that fleet breathlessly by, yet somehow form a continuum and keep the family intact. Not after all that has preceded this getaway on a day when Dad nears 50 and son rounds the bend toward his senior collegiate circuit.

Not when it all comes together on No. 8 at Pebble Beach, with the clock sliding past 5 o’clock and the marine layer slipping its fingers into the nooks and crannies of Carmel Bay. So the tears come, salty as the sea below. Tears of love for the game, for this fabled place where the game has been played for nearly 90 years … and, above all, for the son, Alex.

Dad looks up, as guys often do to stanch the tears, takes a couple of steps toward his beaming boy and says, “You know, we’ll remember this moment the rest of our lives.”

Alex smiles. “This is awesome.”

It was also a longshot. Pebble gets more than its share of ink, and rightly so. I doubt there’s one avid golfer in America who doesn’t know its layout by heart whether they’ve set foot on its storied flanks or not. So I shined on the standard-issue travel piece angle and appealed to something more visceral, with more soul. I went in knowing full well that the Pebble Beach power brokers had a soft spot for the whole father-son ethos — in fact, they’d put it at the center of a longstanding print and TV ad campaign. It took them a few weeks, but finally they bit on my idea of bringing Alex to the Peninsula for his 21st birthday, and giving the experience the good ol’ editorial blow-by-blow.

So here we were on a gorgeous afternoon in early August, walking in Jack and Tom and Tiger’s footsteps and retracing the path made by countless fathers and sons before us. And it all reached its apogee on No. 8 in a flurry of whoops and laughs and tears. Alex’s epic 5-wood must have inspired me; fighting the raw emotion of watching that shot and his priceless reaction, I stepped up to my own ball, took dead aim with a 7-iron and followed its left-to-right flight directly at the stick stuck at the rear of the “Figure 8” green. This could be pretty decent, I thought. The ball landed just to the left of the pin, took two hops into the rough behind the green and settled in for a certain trip to bogeyland.

Alex and I jumped into our cart sporting dizzy smiles. That feeling of warm disbelief affecting most Pebble pilgrims was settling in for the duration. We rounded No. 8’s lagoon and, taking one look at the abyss he’d just cleared, got all worked up again. “Oh, man! That might be the best shot I’ve ever hit!” he said, or something like it. It’s certainly the best shot I’ve ever seen him hit, and we’ve played our share of rounds together since he was around 11 — not even close to the number I wish we’d played over the years, if not for the general busyness of life and my own regrettable recalcitrance to reach out to those most close to me.

“Yeah, the last time I played here, I tripled this hole,” I said. “But not this time. We’re both in great shape.”

Still, par was a 50-50 proposition. After all, this is a hole where I sat during the breezy third round of the 2000 U.S. Open, watching plenty of guys go down to the pressure and elements. Monty took 7 out of the back bunker. Sergio went wide-right into the sea. Only Fred Couples managed a bird, draining a 15-footer from below the hole. So I was in solid company. I snapped a photo of Alex giving a thumbs-up over his ball, then went to mine and sized it up. The lie wasn’t good; the shot was downhill to a tight pin. But as I stood over the delicate wedge shot, I felt a cool calmness wash over me and pictured it as clearly as I could hear the surf 30 feet below. Alex’s putt had come up short, and I was away. Back went the wedge, through the deep stuff, into the ball … which fluttered out, grabbed the green and took a three-foot left turn into the cup. Birdie.

For the second time in one hole, I raised my arms and let out a whoop. This time, Alex cheered for me, as did Dave and Kyle, the two Canadian guys playing with us, and their laugh-a-minute caddie, Terry. The group on No. 9 tee right behind us — a family of grandpa, son, daughter-in-law and grandkids — must have thought we’d all gone nuts. Perhaps we had.

That’s cool. Playing Pebble can do that to a guy. I coulda cried again right there. This was getting good.

Alex ended up three-putting for a 5, but no matter. We’d just played one of the world’s most famous golf holes in even par, hit as fine a shots as we could manage under the circumstances, cleared that Pacific chasm as if it wasn’t there. And I stood at 1-over par for the front nine going into the brutal ninth. “A double or better and a I break 40,” I said to Alex. “Cool,” he replied.

Big mistake. The golf gods don’t take kindly to such “all I need to do” folly. I took triple, then a double on 10. Alex went 5-5, so overall he beat me by a pop on that storied trio of two-shotters. I was proud of him; it would amount to his best golf of the round. But then again, back on No. 1, as Alex verged on displaying the temper that mirrors my own, I proclaimed that we were there to have fun. “Forget about the score,” I said. “This is all about just being together and enjoying it.”

Yeah, we tallied the damage anyway, but no blowup could match our cigar-smoking, beer-sipping, joke-telling, fresh-air-gulping glee. Even when we both tripled No. 14, which was playing about 600 yards from the middle tees thanks to a stout north breeze, we laughed it off. Determined to finish before dark, we had our giddy good fortune to propel us. Alex hit another fantastic 5-wood at 15, this time converting for par. I made par at 16 and 17, the latter after rattling the stick out of the sand, Nicklaus-style. Then we all assembled on the final tee and stood there transfixed and humbled and silent, as if at an altar — which it most certainly is. Terry snapped our photo, arm in arm in the gloaming, the camera’s flash betraying our broad smiles of pride and undeniable, don’t-let-it-end sadness, while behind us the grand dame of American 5-pars swerved off to the left, toward the lights of the Lodge. That shot is now my laptop’s screensaver, and probably will be for life.

“You know,” Alex said at some point during our round, “A lot of guys I know celebrate their 21st out drinking, getting hammered.” I nodded, having been one of those very guys myself, in 1981, pub crawling through the well-documented party mecca of Chico, Calif., until I finished the festivities getting sewn up in the ER with a split lip and busted schnozz. “How many guys did you take on?” I remember the doctor asking me as I woke up from my self-induced fog. “Nobody,” I slurred. “Just a flight of stairs.”

That, and my own demons.

But Alex had no demons to wrestle on this day, except the occasional slice or cold-top, the normal golf devilry that afflicts us all.  “My buddies wouldn’t believe what I’m doing for my birthday,” he continued. “Not one of them will ever beat this.”

I must say, it was music to my ears, and the song just got sweeter as the day wore on. By nature I’m guardedly optimistic, but everything about this trip was surpassing expectations. Blowing them away, really. And we’d had four months to build them up into a thunderhead of anticipation.

When I sprung the idea on Alex — not just to celebrate his 21st, but to acknowledge his work ethic and high performance in college so far, with degrees in political science and perhaps economics or business in the offing — I gave him his choice: Pebble or Bandon. “Gotta be Pebble,” he said, so I made it happen. And though I’d originally planned a several-day jaunt to include perhaps Spyglass or Spanish Bay or both, we only had a scant 36 hours to live the dream. Alex had to be back to work. So we made the best of it. We did a killer warm-up round at Bayonet — the new nine is spectacular — then made for 17-Mile Drive the next morning. We stopped at Spanish Bay and the Lone Cypress, checked in at the Lodge, enjoyed a leisurely couple hours on the range, lunched at the Gallery Restaurant overlooking Pebble’s first tee, loitered around the shops, knocked around some putts on the practice green … and then it was finally, blessedly Our Turn.

Seventeen holes and five hours later, we forged our way up No. 18 as darkness bore down on us by the second. Alex’s tee shot found its way into Stillwater Cove; I followed him on my second shot, a wicked duck-hook 3-wood around the two trees that split the fairway. Alex knocked his third up the middle, took two more to reach the green and made 7. So did I, out of the deep bunker fronting the green’s left side. We holed out quickly and without fanfare, knowing several groups behind us wanted to finish, too. So we saved the handshaking and hugs for later, though, in a perfect world, I’d have held my son right there where, seven years earlier, I’d watched Jack Nicklaus tearfully hole his final U.S. Open putt. And we’d have stayed there in an unabashed, grateful embrace until they had to drag us off.

Then again, the night was young. Forty minutes removed from our 9 o’clock Tap Room reservation, we loaded our sticks in the car, grabbed our keys from the front desk and checked out our Lodge room just off the first tee and above the putting green — a mini-suite with two indescribably comfortable beds, a fireplace, flat-screen TV, balcony and palatial bathroom. My mind reeled at the possibilities: Maybe Jack stayed here. Arnie. Phil. Who knows?

Aw, hell no. Tonight, the Williams boys ruled, and we made the most of what Pebble Beach Resort had to offer on that cool, glorious Wednesday night. The Tap Room is everything a guys’ post-round hangout should be, and we worked it to the hilt. After regaling a couple of fellow golfers with the sketchy details of our round over drinks at the always three-deep bar, we dug into our meal in noisy splendor.

First came an appetizer of bacon-laden “haystack” potato skins, then steaks as big as my head (an unforgettable Delmonico for me and Filet Mignon for Alex), mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and mac and cheese, all presented with that cut-above Pebble touch that all too often gets overlooked in the presence of that little ol’ golf course just outside the door.

Alex and I shared wine duties, though in a clutch I’ll forever defer to his depth of knowledge and passion for the fruit; after working in a Reno restaurant for the past six years, at 21 he knows more about vintages than I ever will — in fact, I know he could ace the sommelier test tomorrow.

“We’ve gotta try the ’04 Joseph Phelps cab,” he said, so we did a glass each, toasting our good fortune, our shared love for golf and chow and drink and all the unspoken stuff, too. I couldn’t resist ordering a bottle of ’04 Chateauneuf du Pape, Vieux Telegraphe vintage — one that Alex had never tried (after all, this was only his 21st birthday, right?). He approved, then just as quickly upped the ante for our digestif, staying in the same year for a Fonseca tawny port. Capped with fresh coffee and a bit of dark chocolate cake, this wasn’t just a meal. It was the crescendo of an emotional, once-in-a-lifetime father-son symphony, arranged and performed on the best stage in the business.

The coda? Cigars and wine on the putting green, of course. We ran up to our room, grabbed our putters (we’d planned ahead) and lugged our stuffed and happy selves down the stairs and onto the surface where so many immortals have grooved their strokes. We mere mortals puffed and sipped and laughed from hole to hole, knocking our pills around in the dim light of the Pebble midnight. Then to bed, and the rest of our lives.

Looking back on that day and night, I know I’ve set the bar pretty high for Alex’s three younger sisters. I’ve gotta come up with 21st birthdays they’ll never forget, too. I’m game. But this one will always carry a glow of its own, bathing a man and his son in light and joy out there on No. 8, carrying them out of the rough, over the sea and across generations.

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