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Book Review: Let There Be Pebble: A Middle-Handicapper’s Year in America’s Garden of Golf by Zachary Michael Jack

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Despite how much we may love what writers can do with words, there are times when words are simply insufficient. Try as you might, words alone cannot adequately describe da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a tropical island or a perfectly executed movement in dance or athletics. Even describing the effect of such things cannot do them justice.

As a result, anyone writing about Pebble Beach Golf Links and its environs faces a daunting task. Zachary Michael Jack’s approach was to actually immerse himself in the life and culture of Pebble Beach and nearby Carmel, California, for a year. While the resulting book, Let There Be Pebble: A Middle-Handicapper’s Year in America’s Garden of Golf, relays that experience it suffers an inexplicable flaw: aside from the cover, the book contains no pictures, maps or even drawings of the golf course or Carmel.

Although the book is part personal journey into a golf mecca and part homage to a father who built a greens-less pasture golf course on their Iowa farmstead, it also is aimed at trying to describe the course and how it is viewed by golf professionals, area residents and others. Yet if you are going to detail the course and changes on it over the years, shouldn’t you at least have even a scorecard-like drawing of the layout? Likewise, quoting someone that “the eighth [hole], tee shot at the tenth, the fourteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth are holes that cannot be equaled anywhere,” loses a lot without seeing the holes. The same is true for the repeated references to the necessary second shot over a ravine on the eighth hole. And discussions of the Carmel gate to the golf course and various streets and locations in the town mean less without a small map showing their spatial relationship.

Maybe these were thought unnecessary as the market for Let There Be Pebble are those at least somewhat familiar with the course from personal visits or television. I have had the pleasure of playing Pebble Beach twice in my life (before the advent of $500 green fees) and spent three weeks living a mile or so south of Carmel. Yet even with that familiarity, pictures or maps would have enhanced the book for me. Thus, they would seem almost crucial for someone who hasn’t actually trod that ground.

Granted, this criticism doesn’t go to Jack’s efforts or the substantive content. Once we get past a few too many of the kinds of metaphors that tend to haunt sportswriting, Let There Be Pebble immerses the reader in the history, myths and legends of Pebble Beach. Jack lets us hear firsthand from golfers, local historians, employees and former local reporters — even those with contrarian views — while blending in the written history. (The history includes the following oath taken by golfers on the course’s opening day on Washington’s birthday weekend in February 1919: “”We Pledge Ourselves by Our Faith in the Cherry Tree to Turn In Honest Score Cards.”) In embarking on his total immersion approach, Jack takes two unique, almost surprising, approaches.

First, Jack doesn’t repeatedly play Pebble Beach and regale us with stories of his trials, tribulations and successes. To the contrary, we accompany him only once playing Pebble Beach and as he plays with members of The Shivas Irons Society on nearby Pacific Grove Golf Links. Most of the book is built around Jack, on a sabbatical from the college at which he teaches English, working as a reporter for several tournaments at Pebble Beach, including the 2010 U.S. Open, and living in neighboring Carmel.

The latter gives readers a closer look at Carmel than one might expect in a book about Pebble Beach. Although Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina, may too often serve as a prism, Jack takes us house hunting and inside city politics and the history of the town and area. As such, this is more complete view of Pebble Beach as archetype and destination than Pebble Beach the golf course. With such an approach, Jack may be treading a fine line between those readers who care only about the course and those who want the broader view of the life and culture of the course and its setting. Still, he should be commended for taking a more expansive perspective — even if he left out the pictures.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.