The Morrissett brothers of Golf Club Atlas fame taught me the joy of settling golf course debates via match play. While not a perfect system to compare to works of golf architecture, it can be incredibly effective between semi-like-minded souls. Think of golf course match play as a war of attrition that sheds outside influences that muddy so many golf course rankings.
Forget the friendliness of staff, size of clubhouse and deliciousness of the cheeseburger. They can’t intrude on a straight-up, hole-by-hole duel.
Sadly, there are few forums for such debates and maybe as with 18 holes of golf, laboriously debating the merits of holes strikes some as tedious. But in an incredible week when the world of golf took us to Pebble Beach and The Old Course, the two most important jewels of their respective nations prompted a match to settle a question Matt Adams and I (sort of) addressed earlier in the week for Golf Central.
Here’s how my Pebble Beach vs. Old Course match played out. Disagree away and please, if you’ve been fortunate enough to play both, tell me your match outcomes. I won’t be hurt. (PS – we play these matches to the end, even if one course closes things out early.)
First Hole – The setting, the width, the burn, the tee where every legend of the game as stood, matched against the mediocrity of Pebble Beach’s opening hole, makes this a quickie. Old Course 1 up.
Second Hole – The “Dyke” features beautifully simple strategy, a need to consider the day’s hole location and a mind-boggling green complex at the end. While I love Pebble Beach’s second hole, changes in recent years to the landing area, the manicured barranca and a shrunken green complex add up to a loss. Old Course 2 up.
Third Hole – For years this would have been an easy win for Pebble’s third, one of my favorite holes until tweaks have taken some of the life and strategic subtlety away. Should be a Pebble win, but it’s not. Halve. Old Course 2 up.
Fourth Hole – Pebble Beach’s fourth has benefited from tree loss down the right, opening up the round’s first view of the sea. Some odd bunkering tweaks do not take away from this drive and pitch in the way gorse might be getting carried away at St. Andrews’s “Ginger Beer” par-4. Old Course 1 up.
Fifth Hole – Jack Nicklaus’ par-3 is a big improvement over the old fifth and has aged pretty well in twenty years. But the Hole O’ Cross is one of the world’s most bizarre and fascinating par-5’s, with an enormous green fronted by a deep swale that also can feed balls onto the absurd green. Old Course 2 up.
Sixth Hole – Speaking of fantastic par-5’s, Pebble Beach’s 6th remains beautiful and peculiar. A green expansion to reclaim trickier hole locations could make it better. While the Old Course’s sixth is a fine par-4, it’s not nearly as memorable as Pebble Beach’s sixth hole. Old Course 1 up.
Seventh Hole – Order another round, a long, drawn-out debate should ensue here. Pebble Beach’s 107-yard par-3 seventh remains one of the world’s most photographed and fun to play. There may be no better spot in the world of golf. But the green has morphed into a circle and old photos show a far more interesting hole. While the “High (Out)” hole requires a well-conceived tee shot, and one of the most underrated second shots in golf has you playing over the Shell bunker to a double green shared with the Eden. Sorry Pebble Beach. Old Course 2 up.
Eighth Hole – Pebble Beach’s magnificent second over the ocean easily beats out the fine, but ultimately so-so 8th in St Andrews. Old Course 1 up.
Ninth Hole – Another easy win for Pebble Beach. While St. Andrews’s 9th is fun to play, it can’t compete with the setting and shots required. Or the views. All Square.
Tenth Hole – Bobby Jones is another nice little drive and pitch, though the green shared with the 8th is a bit of a dud. The tenth at Pebble Beach? As magnificent a meeting of golf architecture and nature as you’ll find. Pebble Beach 1 up.
Eleventh Hole – The glorious High hole backed by the Eden Estuary, guarded by the Hill and Strath bunkers, offering views of town. Oh, and all of that history. Versus an uphill, mid-length par-4 with two hole locations? All Square.
Twelfth Hole – The most important short par-4 influencing designers from Jones and MacKenzie to Nicklaus and Weiskopf’s is too much for Pebble Beach’s modified Redan anchored by another circular green complex with most of the best hole locations lost. Old Course 1 up.
Thirteenth Hole – This one is tricky. The Hole O’ Cross is a strange, hard to grasp par-4 at the Old Course but ultimately one with strategy, interest and character. The uphill 13th at Pebble Beach also featured strategic charm, though I’m not sure how often in the modern game its steeply tilted green rewards drives down the left. Both are fun to play. Halve. Old Course 1 up.
Fourteenth Hole – Difficult three-shotters at both courses, the edge goes to St. Andrews on the back of its magnificent green complex and strategic variety. Old Course 2 up.
Fifteenth Hole – Straightaway par-4’s at both courses and of similar distances. Again, the green complex makes the difference. Old Course 3 up.
Sixteenth Hole – The Old Course, with its Principal’s Nose and Deacon Sime bunkers, a boundary fence and glorious green, get the edge as much as I enjoy the topography, shot shapes and difficulty of Pebble Beach’s 16th. Old Course 4 up.
Seventeenth Hole - The Road hole, even in its emasculated state with rough grass covering what should be fairway sending balls farther away from the optimum angle of attack, is still the Road hole. A restored green at Pebble Beach almost made me halve this one, but the restoration wasn’t perfect and the options just aren’t as interesting. Old Course 5 up.
Eighteenth Hole – As much as I adore the finish in St. Andrews, nothing compares to the conclusion of a day at Pebble Beach. Old Course 4 up.
There you have it. At least architecturally, a pretty turbulent match with few halves and ultimately an easy Old Course at St. Andrews win.