PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – I recall an entertaining lunch discussion a few years ago with a very seasoned golf writer on the merits of The Players Championship and posed the question whether it would ever be, or should be, considered a major championship.
It can’t be, the writer shot back quickly, because TPC’s Stadium Course consisted of 17 holes “and a carnival.”
The carnival would be the island 17th, treacherous as it may be. At least it’s surrounded by water. Here at the 110th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the hole that makes the Adam’s apple swell is the 14th – a par 5, of all things.
In PGA Tour land, a par 5 usually has players licking their collective chops, an opportunity to make hay. But here at Pebble, be off just a tiny bit on the approach to a rolling, table-top green, and that’s where fans around the green really get their money’s worth.
Nothing quite like watching a world-ranked golfer drown in sweat and embarrassment, eh?
Ian Poulter came to No. 14 on Friday in fine shape. He’d teed off on No. 10, and even after a couple of bogeys he was sailing along at 1 over for the tournament, on the front page of the leaderboard. But his third shot pitched left of a hole location cut four paces off the left side of the green, and the ball trickled ever so slowly, so tantalizingly, until it picked up a little steam and went down the left-side bank like a kid down a hill on a Christmas sled.
The fourth shot had to be negotiated under a tree that guards the green, and when it came up 2 feet short, it only meant Poulter would be seeing it again at his shoetops. Soon. The next shot was too firm, and rolled all the way off the front of the green. Next up was a near-impossible pitch back up, his ball ending up 20 feet from the cup. Two putts, and there you have it, a crazy 8. Instead of his approach sticking and facing a putt to get to even for the tournament, he walked away 4 over and wanting to pull out every strand of his bleached hair.
Former Masters champion Zach Johnson stepped to 14 and made 9. K.J. Choi made 8. David Toms began the hole at even par and walked off 2 over after hitting his approach over the green and not being able to get his fourth shot on.
Paul Casey shot a solid round of 73, with one lone blemish: a triple-bogey 8 at the perilous 14th, where, he said, “I played seven pretty good shots and one poor one.”
Tee markers were even moved up 13 paces on the 580-yard hole to allow players to take on the right bunker off the tee. A few hit the green in two, but most chose to lay up to wedge range, and therein lies the adventure.
Said Casey, who’d hit his third shot four yards right of the flag, only to have it roll off the front of the putting surface, “There’s just no way to miss it. You’ve got to be right on the number.”
Through two rounds, only 44.2 percent of the field has hit the green in regulation – did we mention it was a par 5? On Friday, there were 16 birdies, but more significantly, 44 bogeys, 10 doubles and eight “others.” With a scoring average of 5.468, it was the most difficult hole on the course (even ahead of the 502-yard second, a par 5 converted to a par 4).
Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington looked like bystanders off the side of the highway witnessing a 12-car pile-up as they watched PGA champion Y.E. Yang make triple-bogey 8 on the hole, missing left, missing off the front, and moving back and forth in never losing his turn.
What was Harrington thinking as he watched?
“I’m glad it wasn’t me,” he said. “That hole scares the life out of players. It really does intimidate … and there’s no water on the hole. I had a pitching wedge from 107 yards, hit it to 35 feet and I’m delighted.
“I’m a happy man.”