Cypress Point Club at Pebble Beach

March 9, 2008 7:10:11 PM PDT
Something strange is happening. I'm turning into a parody of that obsessive Richard Dreyfus character from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But, instead of carving mashed potatoes into mountains, I see green, piney tunnels. They're everywhere.

Last week, for example, while walking down a narrow hallway, I observed to my working partner, "This reminds me of the trees."

"Not again," he moaned. Lately, I'm telling everyone about the trees.

Blame Cypress Point Golf Club. Most of us have seen only the sign. It is small, understated, and easily missed along the Monterey Peninsula's 17 Mile Drive. The sign's first line reads, 'Cypress Club', and the second, 'Members Only'.

A short road leads to a parking lot that might twenty cars on a busy day. If you were to transplant the modest, white wooden clubhouse to an older suburban neighborhood, no one would pay it any notice.

The overall effect takes a person back to a simpler, more genteel time. Five groups may have played Cypress that day, including ours . The clubs reeks of exclusivity with an absence of pretense. No one needs to flaunt anything. Members seem to regard their wealth as casually as their daily air.

For all the lore, I came to Cypress without expectations, but did solicit advice from people who had played there in the past.

"Don't worry about score," said one.

"Hit no more than a mid-iron off the tee on nine," advised another.

"Do exactly what your caddy tells you," wrote a third.

That caddy introduced himself as Scott---mid-thirties, clean-shaven, bald as a cue ball, and a good player in his own rite. "Shot 66 here once," Scott told me, but only after prodding.

I had never hired a caddy before, anywhere. "Just tell me where to hit it and how far," I told him.

"We'll get you around," Scott replied. From then on, the man spoiled me. He knew the subtleties of every bounce, lie, and break from any angle on any putt. Within five holes, he also knew my game.

"Take it over the bunker and right of the flag," Scott instructed before my lay up on the par five, 518 yard 5th. After executing the shot I discovered why. An unseen large tree would have blocked any approach from the left. "You didn't mention that," I said to Scott as we trudged.

"A good caddy tells a player where to hit the ball. He doesn't tell him where not to hit it."

My caddie was a also professional optimist---an excellent trait in his line of work. With Scott, even bad shots presented positive options. "Good spot for a horrible lie," he opined after I buried a ball in sand and weeds above the par four 13th. "Nudge it to the top and it'll trickle down." Somehow, I put the ball on the green, but then it rolled fifteen feet past the flag. "Great shot! " Scott exclaimed. I figured we would make bogey, but he convinced me that what looked I read as a four inch break in the upcoming putt was just another optical illusion.

"Straight at it," said Scott in a way that seemed to absolve me of responsibility. The ball fell in the hole.

Cypress Point looks as if God created a spectacular landscape and deigned to drop a golf course on top of it. Actually, architect Alister Mackenzie did. Everything fits. From an elevated tee on #1, a player dares to clear Joe DiMaggio's tree, so-named because it has a reputation for catching everything.

The course rolls into a valley, up into the forest, then down into sand dunes where, by the 8th and 9th, the smell of sea replaces that of pines. Cypress is nothing less than a golf preserve. It would be a wonderful walk even without clubs. With any step, one may pause, look anywhere, and see perfection.

The par three 15th takes a player's breath away. It's only 143 yards, but requires a shot across a turbulent cove to a green guarded by rocks, surf, wind, and seals. Little did I know that with this sensory overload, Mackenzie was setting us up.

Here is where the visions come in.

A few steps past the 15th, we entered a canopy of twisted cypress trees. They're surreal. I don't know whether this tunnel lasted fifty yards or a hundred, but in the minute or so it takes for a player to walk through, they separate a player from the course. He hears the sea, but those trees shelter and isolate him from most other elements, leaving him to ponder the challenge to follow.

I'd heard plenty of the 16th at Cypress, but that tree tunnel caught me by surprise. I had played a very intense and concentrated round to that point, and while not worried about score, I knew I was two over par. The tunnel focused me---providing a moment of transition. Oddly, its significance and symbolism didn't register until after the round.

When the tunnel finally opens, I gazed upon the fabled 16th?a picture we've seen and studied so many times before, but this time I had it for real, and in three-dimensions. The small, fragile tee box defied the crashing surf, extending out like a small, exclusive stage. Beyond stretched whitecaps and, 219 yards away, at the end of a narrow peninsula, the flag of this fearsome, bigger-than-life, seemingly impossible par three.

The 16th at cypress must be golf's greatest gauntlet.

In this moment of profound challenge and trepidation, I talked to my ball as if it actually had ears. "You've been good to me through fifteen holes," I said. "Let's stay together."

I kissed that Titleist and put it on the tee.

"Think of it as a big, wide fairway," Scott suggested. I took a stance, trusted my swing and, with trembling knees, willed the ball in a high cutting arc across the frothing, watery hazard. My ball landed in the middle and rolled to the back fringe, twelve feet from the hole. I felt as if I had just driven the entire Pacific Ocean.

It may sound corny, but the trip from the tunnel through the 16th was something of a rebirth, and apparently, I am not alone in such thoughts. Other golfers, too, describe it as a seminal moment or religious experience in terms of their games. All of us describe walking into that grove as one golfer and finishing the 16th as another. Having conquered my fears and passed that test with a score on the line, it's difficult to imagine another shot intimidating me quite as much. It's a trial by water.

The next night, before my wife and I went to sleep, I confessed, "Honey, I had a spiritual golf moment."

"Yes, dear."

"No, really."

"I'm sure you did, dear."

"I told you about the trees, right?"

"Ten times, sweetheart. " She closed her eyes and rolled away like a missed three-footer gaining speed, and becoming an impossible come-backer.

"I want to tell you again."

"Tell me, tomorrow."

I did. And in twenty years, will do so, again.