Golf wasn’t even part of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s consciousness when the Spanish explorer first laid eyes on the white-sand beach and pine forest of Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula 50 years after Columbus discovered America.
But he made note of its beauty and local bounty, which laid the groundwork two centuries later when Father Junipero Serra founded California’s second mission in 1771, which still stands today on the edge of present day Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The mission and its tiny hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea were the only bits of civilization in an otherwise wild, albeit breathtakingly beautiful, stretch of paradise. Railroads wouldn’t arrive for another hundred years, nor would Pacific Improvement Company’s illustrious 17-Mile Drive, the Hotel Del Monte or the first nine of the Del Monte Golf Course.
By the time Carmel-by-the-Sea became a city in 1916, the population had grown to almost 450. The village was composed of luminaries such as authors Sinclair Lewis, Mary Austin and Lincoln Steffens. At one point, local writers Grace Sartwell Mason, Frederick Becholdt and Harry Leon Wilson all appeared in the same week’s edition of the Saturday Evening Post. And, legend has it that Robert Louis Stevenson received his inspiration for Treasure Island while walking on the beach near Point Lobos.
Carmel has always been on the down-low. While the rest of the Monterey Peninsula today revels in Pebble Beach and Justin Rose’s recent AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am performance, Carmel stands as a seductive option or augment for PB-obsessed.
The more relaxed and down-to-earth younger sisters to the San Francisco peninsula to the north, the quaint but bustling communities of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Big Sur attract those looking to wind down over a short weekend jaunt or to enjoy an extended stay, soaking in the luxuries of casual or competitive golf, fine wine and cuisine, and upscale boutique or beach hopping. Located just south of Santa Cruz along the Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey County encompasses some of the most beautiful and stunning oceanside vistas, thriving sea life, and award-winning golf courses that Northern and Central California has to offer.
Once you arrive at San Jose’s Norman Y. Mineta International Airport and rent your preferred mode of travel, if efficiency is what you prefer, then take a direct shot down highway 101 towards the misty bay of Monterey. Midway through your journey southward you will find yourself passing through Gilroy, the smell of garlic permeating your senses. Naturally, when you find yourself in the garlic capital of the U.S. you should make it a point to pick up some fresh minced cloves or hand-stone-ground garlic mustard from one of the myriad roadside farm stands. However, if you prefer a more indirect but rewardingly scenic route, take a dogleg to the west once out of Silicon Valley and make your way to your destination along the PCH, through the town of Santa Cruz, stopping to enjoy a stroll along the Beach Boardwalk or a ride on the famous Giant Dipper wooden coaster.
As you near your destination, the dense forest of awe-inspiringly massive, century-aged redwoods that act as the natural buffer between the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey, gives way to rolling dunes of sand and sporadic patches of Pacific reedgrass with signs directing you towards Cannery Row and the historic town of Monterey. Merely follow a slight bend to the left and you will arrive in lovely, quaint Carmel. While best known as the home of gorgeous and world-renowned Pebble Beach, just a touch south you will find Quail Lodge and Golf Club nestled in the heart of Carmel Valley with an inviting championship 18-holer hugging both sides of the lazily winding Carmel River offering casual and friendly play.
Due to the Valley’s highly desirable moderate climate, there is never a bad time to cart your clubs to Carmel. But if you are looking for that extra special pairing, schedule your visit during the Pebble Beach Wine & Food Festival in mid-April or Monterey Jazz Festival in September. And of course the U.S. Open makes its home at Pebble Beach once or so a decade. Gary Woodland won it last time in 2019 and seemed so much at home he might just take up residence here.
World-class lodging, golf
There is no shortage of superior hospitality in the area but Quail Lodge truly brings its A-game. Nestled on 850 acres of lush fairways, oak-studded meadows and sparkling lakes and surrounded by rolling hills, the hotel recently celebrated 55 years and was reopened in March 2013 following an extensive top-to-bottom renovation, with tennis courts, swimming pools, fitness cabanas, a bocce court and extensive nature trails offering the destination golfer plenty of downtime distractions.
A perfect companion to the sprawling resort, the recently enhanced 6,500 yard, par-71 Quail Lodge Golf Club is perfect for the walking (or riding) golfer of all ages and skill, with play that runs right at fourteen minutes per hole and offering just enough bite to make it interesting. Known for its playability, pristine conditions and beautifully manicured greens, this Monterey Bay golf course was originally designed by Robert Muir Graves in 1964 and then refined in 2015 by Principal Designer Todd Eckenrode of Origins Golf Design, and has been awarded “Best Playing Conditions” for Central California by GreensKeeper in both 2016 and 2017.
The tree-lined course was cleverly designed with a tactical approach in mind, giving players options on how to play each hole and offering several different strategies for reaching the green. The course proves to be challenging enough for the advanced player yet affords novice golfers the opportunity to learn with plenty of exciting Par 3s and 4s. And with temperatures that sit within a 20-degree band year-round from low 60s to low 80s, you will have the luxury of choosing a tee-time that fits your fancy. But late golfers beware the strong gusts that buck up in the afternoon and batter your drives on the first, fifth and sixteenth holes. Start your round off with a beautiful par-5 with a deep grass swale coming into play off the tee that crosses the fairway diagonally, delivering that extra bit of character to your drive and second shot. Longer hitters may challenge the green in two, but will have to carry a fairway bunker guarding the direct line to the hole.
Then, after a few straightforward and enjoyable holes, five’s par-3 elevated tee will bring a smile to your lips as you rip it from the tips and watch your ball flank the fairway and skirt the fringe of the frog-infested pond to the right. Hole six delights with a 120-yard water hazard that brushes the tee boxes and lies in waiting to gulp up any dunked duffs as you attempt to land your first shot in the perfect position to find the green hidden to the right. If you made it out of that hole unscathed hopefully you saved up some mental acuity to battle your way through the bunker-crazed seventh with the multiple traps’ deep, thick-cut berms and then the grueling 560-yard par-5 nine to finish off the front.
After you’ve refueled with an Edgar’s signature old-fashioned at the turn, you’ll roll right into an iconic and challenging tenth hole with blasted rock ledges on the right that keep you laser-focused on the 320-yard approach to the thin green that rests on a slightly elevated plateau and is flanked by a large tree that borders the Carmel River and seems to swallow the fairway along the left side. You may run into an unexpected hazard on the par-5 fifteen as your flyer fights against hawk-infested headwinds for 500 yards down the fairway and you hang the dogleg to the left with an out-of-bounds on the right. Then beware hole 16’s massive fairway bunker that sits centered 220 yards off the tee and guards the bend. An optional fairway to its right rewards bold play but pushes the hole’s par-4 to the limits.
An added challenge for a course so naturally lush and tranquil is the seasonal rain that frequently dampens the greens to the level of squishy and manifests wet and thick rough that will swallow balls mercilessly. Nevertheless, with a back nine that performs similar to the front, you will enjoy consistent and even play regardless of your skill level. But don’t be surprised if the course lives up to its namesake and your wormburner wakes a covey of quail as they sequester from the occasional bobcat on the prowl.
After you’ve cleaned your clubs and tossed one back at Edgar’s, head back to the Lodge and relax your muscles from the great game on the green at its award-winning Spa and Steam Room and then kick off your shoes and freshen up your short game with their nine-hole, all grass putting green. Or change it up completely and test your glow golf skills after toasting your day (and that eagle on thirteen) with a glass of Santa Lucia Pinot Noir on Carmel Beach as the sun sets the horizon ablaze with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Clinton Walker House perched in the foreground on an outcropping of stone and architectural brilliance. And don’t pass up the chance to finish off the day with a chicken and waffles skillet and nightcap at the Waypoint Bar with its well-stocked selection of aged ryes and bourbons.
Just a short hop from Sky Harbor and a 90-minute drive from San Jose, overflowing with wine tasting rooms, antique boutiques and plethora restaurants, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey Bay offers no shortage of playful pastimes, whether that’s fueling up for the fairways at Domenico’s with their signature salmon fish and chips and a Cloudy Bay Pinot, wandering the Monterey Pier after a Chaucer’s Mead tasting at Bargetto Winery, watching the sea otters frolic at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or smoking the fairway on Quail Lodge and Golf Resort’s gorgeous and approachable club course in the wistful dreamland of Carmel Valley.
Railway tycoons make tracks for glorious Monterey Peninsula
It’s hard to tell if the “Big Four” of railroad fame — Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins — peered into the future and envisioned today’s golf-centric Monterey Peninsula when the foursome opened Hotel Del Monte in 1880. Probably not.
Eleven years earlier, these ambitious gentlemen led the completion of the Trans-Continental Railway with the driving of the “Golden Spike,” and now drew tourists to the area’s sublime coastline via Southern Pacific’s Del Monte Express. Golf wouldn’t become part of the local parlance for nearly 20 years, when the first nine of the Del Monte Golf Course opened in 1897 and the second nine six years later.
The railroad barons’ Pacific Improvement Company constructed illustrious 17-Mile Drive, and rebuilt after two fires at the Hotel Del Monte and The Lodge, before relinquishing control of the sprawling 18,000-acre Del Monte Unit to Samuel F.B. Morse, a cousin of the inventor of Morse Code, in 1919. That year both the new Lodge and Pebble Beach Golf Links opened. Some things just get better with age. Info: PebbleBeach.com
Quail Lodge Resort
Brandon and Andrea Willey are avid golfers and wine connoisseurs who live in the metro Phoenix area.