Whole-Hearted at Half Moon Bay


Old Course, Golf Links, No. 18

BEFORE MY RECENT ROUND at Half Moon Bay Golf Links, a seaside sanctuary just south of San Francisco, I wandered down a corridor just beyond the pro shop that doubles as an in-house hall of fame.

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Its walls were given over to photos of the legends who have taken on the Old Course, the first of the property’s two championship layouts, which opened for play in 1973. Scanning the displays, I paused at the profiles of Joe DiMaggio, the baseball giant (who was buddies with the course’s head pro at the time), and another of a boyish-looking Arnold Palmer, who designed the coastal routing nearly 40 years ago.

But the shot that held my gaze and lasting interest was an understated portrait of my childhood idol, the death-defying motorcyclist, Evel Knieval. In the picture, he was sussing out a putter, a strangely serene pose for a man who’d earned his keep careening over canyons. Little known to me, Knieval was a golf nut, and Half Moon Bay ranked among his favorite places.

Really, who could blame him? The course brings out the dare-devil in everyone.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last tackled the Old Course, but as I ambled to the first tee, recollections from that round remained imprinted in my mind. I remembered pristine greens and tight, serpentine fairways: a classic test of golf, stout but free of gimmicks, that asked for solid strikes, not shot-making stunts. In the course of my 18, I’d suffered some disasters: balls that kerplunked into ponds or caromed off of trees and vanished in the rough.

But what stuck with me most clearly was the exhilaration, especially the thrill that filled me at day’s end, when I came to the scintillating par-four closing hole.

Even in a region with more than its fair share of stunning coastal settings, the 18th at the Old Course deserves its own brochure. Perched atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific, it plunges from the tee box toward a slender landing area before turning up, once more, over a craggy inlet to a green cut so hard along the cliffs you fear that it might slough into the sea.

And in fact, over the years, concerns over erosion have prompted management to shift the green’s location, moving it just slightly from the rocky precipice, although it still can evoke a sense of vertigo for those prone. Play the hole today, and you feel like an explorer arriving at land’s end. Just over a steep drop off to the right of the fairway, the ocean foams and hisses. Surveying your approach shot, you’re torn between the urge to prove yourself a hero, and the knowledge that a misfire will mean certain doom.

In the years since the Links opened, a few other things have changed along this curling stretch of shoreline, the crescent moon-shaped coast from which the resort takes its name. A hotel has been built-the elegant Ritz-Carlton. So has a second 18, the Ocean Course, a links-style layout that runs beside the sea.

But the Old Course remains the more compelling challenge. To put it in a manner familiar to Knieval, it’s like jumping thirteen buses instead of three.

Despite the laws of physics, my first drive found the fairway of the opening par-five, a daunting double-dogleg and, walking after it, I was struck by a sudden, pleasant sense of deja vu. Here I was again, confronted with the challenge of a smartly designed layout, attempting to thread shots between the outstretched limbs of pines and eucalyptus while trying to gauge the impact of shifting coastal breezes, which work their fickle influence on almost every hole.

Though much of the Old Course meanders inland, the ocean seems to trail you throughout your round. You smell it in the salt air. You feel it in the gusts. Every now and then, you see glimpse it through the tree line.

And then, it confronts you, face-to-face.

The wind was puffing gently when I showed up on the tee, nature’s subtle offering to counteract my slice. With its aiding influence, my ball skipped into the fairway, settling on a flat spot just in front of the intruding ravine. By that point in the round, I was no longer in the race to shatter the course record. And my swing was leaking oil. But the drama of the setting, with the wave-battered bluffs and the world’s largest water hazard yawning just beyond, inspired to me to rev up for one final well-struck shot.

When the 18th green was moved just inward from the bluff, its back right tier was flattened in a resort-friendly gesture, but the putting surface remains severely rumpled, sloping steadily from back to front. The pin was in the middle, a mid-iron away, though from my perspective, given all the danger that lurked around it, it looked about as proximate as Alcatraz.

Geared up for the moment, I waggled, swung, and watched the ball take off, up, up, up, crossing the chasm like a crazy cyclist. Just beyond the green, a few Ritz-Carlton guests were watching the action from an outdoor patio. As far as I could tell, none of them gasped audibly at my derring-do.

Nor did they applaud, a few beats later, when my shot landed safely, ten feet from the flag.

Unheralded, unrecognized, I strode up the inclined fairway, soaking in the salt air and the sweeping vistas, enchanted by the setting but also deeply gratified by my feat.

“Nice shot!” one of the hotel guests called out.

I waved and smiled. Maybe not heroic stuff, but I like to think it might have made Knieval proud.

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