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The 5th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links has always been the mole on Marilyn's face, an awkward little par-3 lacking in aesthetics as well as shot value. When the Pebble Beach Co. announced two years ago that it was going to build a new number 5 along Stillwater Cove, the praise was unanimous, especially with the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open coming to town in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Lately, though, all anyone around Pebble can talk about is the oak tree that sits smack in the middle of the proposed site for the new green and is due to be removed when ground is broken in April.
Building golf courses, especially along the California coast, is always a tango between the competing interests of environmentalists and golfers, but only at Pebble Beach could it involve New Age mysticism, the threat of terminally ill children chaining themselves to trees and pitched dissertations on heart rot.
This story goes back more than 80 years. While planning his course, Pebble Beach patriarch S.F.B. Morse had tried to acquire a 5.5-acre lot that was a perfect spot for a seaside par-3. Thwarted, he was forced to build inland, and the 166-yard 5th hole was born, featuring a blind uphill tee shot to a green pinched by trees on both sides. In time, the shady, bowl-shaped green would develop such drainage problems that it had to be replaced for the 1992 U.S. Open.
When the lot Morse had coveted came up for sale in 1996, the Pebble Beach Co. bought it for $8.75 million and commissioned Jack Nicklaus to realize Morse's original dream. Among the many bureaucracies that signed off on the project were the California Coastal Commission and the California Division of Forestry.
All was going smoothly until December, when the San Francisco Chronicle published an article under the muckraking headline MIGHTY FIGHT OVER OAK and placed the age of the tree at 300 years or more. The story spread like kikuyu grass, and tree-huggers began crawling out of the woodwork. Terre Noble, a local whose '96 New Age CD, The Mists, includes a paean to the embattled tree titled Old Oak, told Coast Weekly, "I was attracted to the tree because of its age and wisdom. It's like a grandfather to me." One Pebble Beach Co. executive even got a voice-mail message that said seven terminally ill children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation were going to chain themselves to the tree. The call was a hoax but was indicative of the tenor of the battle.
Fighting back, the Pebble Beach Co. asked Ralph Osterling, the incoming president of the California Oak Foundation, to examine the tree. He put its age at 125supporting the company's contention that the oak was a landscape tree planted by previous ownersand said the tree's days were numbered because of root fungus and heart rot. "Good forest management says it should come out...and prevent the disease from spreading," said Osterling. That pretty much sealed this old oak's fate, though when Nicklaus comes to town this week for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am he's going to look at the viability of reconfiguring the hole to spare the tree. He shouldn't waste his time.
The Chronicle article that started all the hullabaloo posed the question, What's more important, an oak tree or a Jack Nicklaus green? In this case our vote goes to the green.
No one could have imagined that would be only 192 days.
Issue date: February 2, 1998
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