Life’s a beach: America’s prettiest golf course puts its game face on for US Open

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Published: June 16, 2019 1:25:11 AM

For the game’s aficionados, Pebble Beach’s history is inextricably interwined with the US Open—a tournament it’s hosting for the sixth time.

Life's a beach, America, prettiest golf course, US Open, 1972 US Open, Pebble Beach, North America, US Open trophy, 1982 US Open, An impression of Jack Nicklaus’ famous ‘miracle’ 1-iron on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach in 1972 Dudley Bienvenu (DUDLEY BIENVENU)

“If I only had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach.” Jack Nicklaus’s sentiments on his favourite track aren’t surprising: there’s general consensus that the quartet of golf courses laid out in this stunning coastal region of California presents the most coveted tee times in North America. Of the four, Pebble Beach Golf Links—hemmed in by Carmel Bay, the Pacific Ocean and the Monterey Peninsula on three sides—hugging the rugged coastline, leaves first-time visitors gobsmacked. Just for its sheer natural grandeur punctuated by dramatic greens perched on oceanside cliffs, Pebble Beach is one of the prettiest golf courses in the world. But that’s all old hat: if you’re a golf fan then you don’t need to be informed about Pebble Beach’s natural beauty: the seventh hole is possibly the most photographed short par-3 in the world, the eighth hole with its ‘cliffs of doom’ might be the most dramatic, and the 18th hole is widely regarded as the best finishing par-5 in the game. No less than nine supremely picturesque holes wind along the ocean.

For the game’s aficionados, Pebble Beach’s history is inextricably interwined with the US Open—a tournament it’s hosting for the sixth time. It’s the place where Jack Nicklaus hit that magical 1-iron during the 1972 US Open. Leading by two strokes with two holes to go, Nicklaus drilled his longest iron into a strong headwind; the ball hit the pin and settled inches from the cup for a gimme birdie that sealed Nicklaus’s win. A bit of trivia that might interest readers: last year, Dustin Johnson, while training at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Las Vegas, had a go when Nicklaus handed him the same 1-iron to hit at the range. For the record, Johnson hit that club 232 yards, which puts Nicklaus’ 219-yard into-the-wind effort into perspective.

Nicklaus, seeking his fifth US Open trophy was at the receiving end at the 1982 US Open when Tom Watson made an impossible chip-in birdie on the same hole to take a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus with one hole to go. Watson who birdied the last to win by two has often said that he regards that shot as the “highlight of his career”; fitting because it was his solitary US Open triumph. Then, in 2000, came Tiger Woods. In his inimitable fashion, a young feisty Woods dismantled the course and the field in unprecedented fashion eventually winning by an astounding 15 shots. That performance is still regarded as Woods’ greatest ever; four special days when the most dominant player of our generation was in complete control of his game. South African Ernie Els, one of the best players in the game at the time tried to catch Woods but gave up early. “I wanted to shoot a good number (in the final round). After six holes you could see it was over. I kind of just tried to enjoy the walk with him. It was a good walk on a beautiful Sunday.”

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The last Open at Pebble Beach was the scene of Ulsterman Graeme Mc Dowell’s breakthrough Major triumph in 2010. The same 17th hole that saw heroics from Nicklaus and Watson gave no reason to cheer in 2010. Tim Clark holed a bunker shot for the sole birdie in the final round of that year’s event at what was the toughest hole of the championship.

What differentiates Pebble Beach from any other Major Championship venue, is that the course has not been lengthened significantly. In 2010, Pebble Beach Golf Links stretched out to 7,040 yards and this year it’s playing only 35 yards longer than that. By US Open standards that approach 8,000 yards, this is a very short track—only Merion in 2013 played marginally shorter. But Pebble Beach Golf Links is not longer because it doesn’t need to be. The course has always had the smallest greens on the PGA Tour, and then there’s that unpredictable ocean breeze, that can ratchet up to gale-speed for no apparent reason. The greens are between 12–15 on the stimpmeter—slick beyond belief. But, apart from a few tweaks here and there this is pretty much the same golf course that hosted the US Open in 2010.

At the time this column is being written, the second round is yet to commence. But the first question: how many players will break par has already been answered—39 on Thursday. Justin Rose leads at six-under, and the entire platoon of hopefuls is in with a chance. This includes Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele, Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Day and Francesco Molinari who’re in the Top-10. Shauffele has made a habit of popping up on leaderboards in Majors.

I’m still putting my money on the last guy in red—Tiger Woods at 1-under. Woods still instils terror in the hearts of players half his age who’ve never gone up against him in a Major, and he’s fresh off his win at the Masters Tournament. Crucially he knows how to win at Pebble Beach—he’s done in twice and that includes that monumental US Open win in 2000. But there’s really no suspense about the odds. Brooks Koepka, who’s won four of the last eight Majors he’s entered will be aiming for a third consecutive US Open title at Pebble Beach. Koepka hit seven fairways and 12 greens in regulation on the first day and is in the running at two-under-par. It’ll all depend on how the conditions change at Pebble Beach Golf Links over the weekend.

For me, what really differentiates this layout from other Major championship venues is that it’s a public course (a ‘Muny’ in American lingo). Sure it’s expensive to play—$500 on average just for the green fee—but the fact remains that you can play it if you like. That instantly elevates its stock above other contenders like Augusta in Georgia which hosts the Masters Tournament. Augusta, a private club, still represents a hackneyed, exclusionary narrative, which the game would do well to digress from if it has to grow and attract young people into its fold. Don’t miss the action today folks; promises to be a humdinger!

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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