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Me & Paco at Cypress Point
In my humble view, Cypress Point - the Sistine Chapel of Golf - is the finest locale to tee it up on Earth. The course sits regally on a dramatic thrust of links-land that is the westernmost point of the spectacular Monterey Peninsula, an area author Robert Lewis Stevenson once called, "The greatest meeting of land and sea in the world." No argument from me. With only 250 members and an exclusivity that makes Augusta National seem like a muni, it's all but impossible for a non-member to play. Although I'm as public a golfer as you'll find, I've had the good fortune to play Cypress Point.
It was strictly a matter of serendipity on how my round happened. My brother Patrick was an executive chef for a local hotel in Monterey and had become friendly with the head chef at Cypress Point. As the course averages less that 20 golfers a day, and not many more for lunches or dinners in the white-clapboard clubhouse, there is plenty of free time for the hired help. The club allows its employees to play in the afternoons during the week.
That's how I came to meet Paco.
Patrick was invited to play Cypress with one of the cooks there - a fellow named "Paco." Patrick had kindly asked if his golf-loving big brother could tag along. Glory of glories, the answer was "Yes." At the last minute Patrick was called to work because of a crisis in his kitchen. So it was just me and Paco - who has been a cook at Cypress Point for 25 years. Paco has a slight build with a shock of black unruly hair, an easy smile, and friendly manana manner. Every time we came upon a club member or another employee he was greeted with a cheerful "Paco!" He appeared to have complete run of the place. Even more impressive, he figures he has played Cypress Point 2,000 times during his tenure there.
Paco plays the game seriously and, despite his small frame, hits the ball with a mighty wallop. I was grateful he was allowing me to play the course with him; the employees are allowed only two guests per month. There was no green fee, so it was free for me to play what many consider to be the No. 1 course in the world. How good is that? We grabbed our bags, teed off down the hill of the first hole, and began our enchanting stroll. We were the only golfers on the course.
It's quite easy to see why this is the best course in the world because it happens to reside on probably the most beautiful piece of land on the planet. The setting is seaside on the central California coast, with the course wandering through towering white-sand dunes with purple-tinged ice plant and wild golden native fescues framing its lush green fairways. It's as natural as a course could be. All this wonder is set against a wall of ocean blue due west as the Pacific expands high on the horizon while the surf relentlessly pounds the rocky shores of the coast. Throw in around 50 or so deer that silently graze the fairways and there you have absolute perfection.
The first 14 holes alone put the course into the top-10 golf layouts in the world. Dr. Alister MacKenzie's brilliant routing of holes is a continual surprise. The greens rest in natural plateaus formed deep into the wild dunes that sit like an elegant dinner table awaiting a lavish banquet. MacKenzie, arguably the greatest course designer the game has known, was an expert in camouflage in the British military. He used that skill to great effect when he built his beguiling courses around the world with visual trickery that makes a golfer think carefully where the ball needs to be played. Bunkers are laid out to defend par. He forces you to tack around them like a schooner avoiding dangerous reefs.
There's a reason for everything on a MacKenzie course; nothing was put in frivolously as you see today with outlandish modern course designs with bunkering for no reason other than eye-candy. With MacKenzie it always looks as if the layout has been there for centuries and he just showed up, removed the dust covers, and revealed a great golf course that just happened to be underneath. The guy knew what the heck he was doing.
At Cypress Point, grand as the first 14 holes are, the final four that border the Pacific send the course into the stratosphere. The par-3 16th is the most dramatic hole in the world. The green sits out on a rocky outcrop that thrusts up from the stormy sea and stands vigilantly as the surf slams the craggy shore from three sides. In essence, you're standing on the mainland of the U.S. and hitting your ball across the ocean to what appears to be the last bit of real estate before Japan. The green looks as lonely as a lighthouse.
The tee box of the 16th is perched preciously on a windy ledge dangerously close to a drop-off that free-falls down 20 yards or so to the turbulent ocean below. A watery grave of unforgiving saltwater foam awaits any shot not stuck with absolute authority. Only the heroic or the foolhardy attempt to hit directly at the small patch of land 219 yards away that plays much longer because of the winds that gale in from the Pacific. It is so awesomely beautiful and wondrous a golf hole, it seems a mere mortal couldn't have conceived it.
The club is not without controversy. Cypress Point has long guarded its privacy of membership and even decided to forgo being part of the rota of the PGA Tour's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. For years this tournament was unofficially called the "Bing Crosby Clam Bake" and was played at nearby Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Cypress Point. The three courses are no more than three miles apart and form the grandest vortex of high-caliber golf anywhere.
In 1990, the final of the four major golf tournaments that year was to be held at Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama. Not long before the tournament, the press caught wind of the fact that Shoal Creek didn't have any minority members on its roster. Hal Thompson, founder of Shoal Creek, put gas on an already-hot fire when he said to a newspaper: "We don't discriminate in any other area except for blacks." Advertisers were dropping from the televised event like flies.
Shoal Creek was told they'd better change this policy quick or would lose the prestige of having this major championship at their club. Under intense pressure, the club admitted its first black member 10 days before the tournament. The question was then asked, "What other clubs that held PGA events didn't accept minority members?" Two glaring examples were brought to light: Augusta National in Georgia, site of the Masters, and Cypress Point.
The PGA and USGA made a long-overdue ruling that any course that was to hold one their respective events would have to accept minority members. Cypress Point is the type of place that doesn't like to be told they have to do something - old money doesn't respond to threats, so they passed on continuing to have the AT&T on their hallowed turf.
As we walked up the lovely 18th fairway on our final hole on this joyous round, I asked Paco how he felt about Cypress Point. He laughed and replied, with no irony, "I feel like one lucky Mexican!"
David Wood - writer, in-demand corporate speaker, and humorist - is the author of the book, "Around the World in 80 Rounds." For information on David, visit his website: www.DavidWoodSpeaking.com or email him at David@DavidWoodSpeaking.com.