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WEEKEND ESCAPE: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Fore! for Less

When you golf a public course on the Monterey Peninsula, and shun that inn for a motel, you get scenic savings

May 16, 1999|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Lucretia Bingham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Cypress--the names of these golf courses flow through golfers' dreams like gold coins through a miser's fingers. And that is just the problem: To play them almost takes real gold. During the height of the season, Pebble Beach Golf Links is, at $330 per person, the most expensive public-access golf course in the country. Spyglass Hill and the Links at Spanish Bay, $250 and $210 respectively, are not far behind. And that's assuming you can even get a reservation.

Yet the last time I visited the Monterey Peninsula, I passed a links course that looked out over the same astonishing Pacific Ocean view, careened through the same exquisite sand dunes along the shore, and had even more of the rugged nature of Scotland than the others. The best news of all: I discovered that it was a municipal course where 18 holes cost only $35 per person on weekends. I felt I had died and gone to miser's golf heaven.

I had called the Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course reservations line exactly one week ahead of when we wanted to play. After no more than five minutes of pressing redial, I snagged a reservation for Friday, and then for the following two days as well, choosing to make three reservations to cut us some slack in terms of weather. My friend Garrard and I left Los Angeles at 1 p.m. on Thursday and swept into Pacific Grove, at the westernmost tip of the Monterey Peninsula, 5 1/2 hours later.

If Monterey still has the brash edge of Steinbeck's cheery whores, and Carmel the refined charm of San Francisco ladies who lunch, then Pacific Grove is their more old-fashioned cousin. It has the same wonderful, craggy coastline, with wind-swept Monterey pines and long breakers rolling into pristine coves, but it also has a collection of Victorian houses with gingerbread cutouts and tiny front porches, a long, quiet main street and a lively collection of excellent, moderately priced restaurants.

We checked into Borg's Oceanfront Motel, which is right on famed Lover's Point, one of the most beautiful spots on the Monterey Peninsula. While the motel itself lacks charm, the beds are comfortable, the price is right and the view from the second-floor oceanfront rooms ($89 to $99) is unparalleled.

That night we ate at Peppers Mexicali Cafe, with a lively local scene. Dawn added joggers, dog walkers and a herd of leaping sea lions to the view from our room.

Since Borg's does not serve breakfast, each morning we chose a different one of the many family-style cafes that line Lighthouse Avenue. Our third morning, we breakfasted right next to the motel in the Tinnery, which had a fine view and more fresh fruit and fleece-suited tourists than the others. On that first morning, the Lighthouse Cafe gave us strong coffee, fluffy blueberry pancakes and a rasher of crisp bacon to fortify us for walking 18 holes.

We drove all of two minutes to the pro shop at the Pacific Grove Golf Links, checked in with the starter and were delighted to discover that the course designer of the back nine was Jack Neville, the original designer of Pebble Beach. Asked to describe the course, the starter said, "It's a kick in the pants! And fun for all levels."

The front nine is a lovely, unpretentious English parkland course with mature trees alongside wide fairways, sweeping views of Monterey Bay from almost every hole, and lush but tight-cut greens. We played alone, with no one in front and no one pressing from behind. The air was sweet, the sky blue, the breeze a mere zephyr.

As good as this was, the back nine, because of its proximity to the ocean, was sublime. This is a truly natural links course where the rough is untamed sand dunes banked with sticky sea fig, a red-tinged ice plant. The nearby, more manicured Links at Spanish Bay shares the same view of the rough Pacific Ocean.

The 11th hole rolled down to a green tucked below a giant sheltering dune. At a tiny pond on the right, a herd of 16 Pacific blacktail deer grazed. Then the 12th hole literally took our breath away. From the elevated tee, the fairway curved out gently to the right, following the line of the shore, then ducked away in a sharp dogleg; the green was hidden behind a line of billowing sand dunes to the right of the fairway. The hole seemed a perfect blend of land, water, wind and golf. Garrard's tee shot did just what it was supposed to do: It headed straight out, then faded right. "The wind and the land naturally shape the shot, and that is a great thing!" he enthused.

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