There are plenty of par 3 tee shots to get the adrenaline going in every golfer: Perhaps the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, the 12th at Augusta or the ‘postage stamp’ 8th at Royal Troon. However, nothing can compare to the daunting task of carrying 215 yards of open Pacific Ocean as the waves crash onto rocks far below the cliff on which you stand. Not to mention that five bunkers surround the green, should you be so bold as to make it there. Of course, there is a bailout option with a shorter carry to the left, but this is a par 3 and which self-respecting golfer would shy away from the challenge? After all, this is the 16th at Cypress Point!
Like many before and many to follow, I gifted the Pacific yet another ball after it cannoned off the cliff face, just a couple of feet below the green. Despite my heroic attempt failing, this was the most exhilarating and fulfilling experience of my golfing life. Of course it’s not a purist’s par 3, as you need to be a long-hitter and a straight long-hitter at that, just to have a chance of making the green in regulation. The 16th is pure fantasy and the feeling as I emerged from the cluster of Cypress trees to see the most glorious sight in golf will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Make no mistake though, the holes leading up to and following the fabled par 3, are far from a support act. In my opinion, this is the most perfect golf course on earth, with eighteen beautifully-crafted holes forming Alister Mackenzie’s most thrilling progression of twists and turns. Unlike many of its neighbours, Cypress Point does not boast a palatial clubhouse. It is a relatively small building with its locker room appearing unchanged in a hundred years and a tiny pro shop, with odds and ends of club merchandise crammed-in on rails and tables. Whilst guests are not allowed in the clubhouse without being accompanied by a member, I found all of the staff and caddies to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. Their guidance was crucial at the 1st tee, where a six-foot hedge stands between you and the fairway. Only after emerging from behind this obstacle does it truly feel like you are on the course.
The par 4 1st serves as a gentle introduction before McKenzie tests you with the longest hole on the course, a tricky par 5 which climbs steadily away from the ocean and towards the forest. The 3rd is a relatively straightforward par 3, requiring a decent mid to high iron shot to avoid a series of sprawling bunkers, which will punish anything falling short and right. Following a tight tee-shot on the par 4 4th hole, you journey into the forest and face a tricky uphill approach into an undulating green. It feels like a different course here, as the tall Monterey Pines grow denser and narrow the fairways on surely the best back-to-back par 5s to be found anywhere. The 5th hole perfectly divides each one of your shots to the green with three distinct plateaus, separated by steep uphill climbs and classic McKenzie bunker complexes. Number six curves gently to the left and swoops softly down back towards the dunes, with a long and narrow bunker cleverly-positioned behind the green to deter longer hitters blasting a 3-wood at the pin. These par 5s are designed to be played as such and with steady, straight shots, I managed to play them in regulation. The tree-lined fairways and measured terrain changes test your accuracy before progressing onto the dunes, where the par 3 7th leads onto a ledge, from which you hit a blind tee shot on the dog-leg 8th over a monstrous dune. It is not necessary to shape your shot left to right here, but simply to take a line from the caddie and hit a straight drive which will set you up for a short iron or wedge up to the T-shaped green.
The 9th tee provides one of the great vistas of Cypress point, looking over the picturesque bunkering around the 13th green with the Pacific Ocean in the background. 9, 10 and 11 all present choices on line and length to be made from the tee, but the way in which the holes lie mean you can map out your route to the green, without any blind shots to contend with. McKenzie’s philosophy on minimising blind shots is then displayed alongside his belief that a course should utilise natural beauty, as the 12th and 13th feature remarkable examples of bunkers blending seamlessly into sand dunes.
Cue scene change again, as you leave the dunes behind and begin the stunning sequence of ocean holes. A wide open fairway on 14 invites you to open your shoulders before steering your approach shot through a narrow gap in the Cypress trees to a small green which slopes significantly back to front. Now onto the most idyllic and thrilling three-hole progression in the world, due in large part to the incredible scenery, dramatic cliffs and invigorating ocean breeze. The way in which McKenzie utilised the jagged coastline here though is nothing short of genius. Only Amen Corner at Augusta National can come anywhere close to the notoriety of this trio. With back-to-back par 3s at 15 and 16, you are challenged by tee shots over gushing waves and families of seals on the rocks below, but also by undulating greens and intricate bunkers which drain balls from the edge of the putting surface.
Despite being the shortest hole on the course with the highest stroke index, I would argue that the 15th is far from the easiest. A short and high flight is required to battle with the ocean wind off the tee and no less than eight bunkers surround Cypress Point’s smallest green. It presents a totally different set of challenges to the 16th, which requires a solid fairway wood or even driver, for most amateurs to consider getting close to the green. The 17th then gives no respite as it demands yet another tee shot across the ocean to a fairway aligned tightly with the cliff-top. However, the biggest hazard here is a clump of trees which break up the direct route to the green. They force a choice of playing safely around to the left, or flirting with another steep drop into the water by cutting the corner from the right of the fairway. Whilst my approach came up short of the green here, I was saved from losing another ball by a greenside bunker with a thirty-foot drop from its back lip onto the rocks below.
Before playing Cypress Point, I had seen the 18th described as little more than a walk back to the clubhouse and the one weakness in McKenzie’s masterpiece. I beg to differ, as it is perhaps only because of the dramatic progression leading up to the final hole that a golfer leaves slightly disappointed with the finale. The 18th actually requires precise placement off the tee, where a drive to the left half of the fairway will set up a straight shot up through the tight chute of tall Cypress trees to the green. After watching my trademark fade/slice return on this hole though, I was left with no line to the green and had to play sideways before making my approach. The final green slopes consistently back to front and sits in the shadow of the understated green and white clubhouse. Faced with a long putt here, I pictured Ben Hogan draining his lengthy birdie effort in 1956, when he set the course record of 63 which still stands today. Try telling the ‘Hawk’ that the 18th is a stroll back to the clubhouse!
Granted, the vast majority of golfers will only ever dream of playing Cypress Point. I count myself as immensely privileged to have been invited through the gates to experience the majesty of Monterey’s crown jewel. The vivid detail I have recounted in this review bears testament to the elation and excitement on every hole. Cypress Point filled me with a sense of awe that I am sure no other golf course on earth could match.
Date: June 08, 2010