Pebble Beach rarely short on excitement
Sight unseen, it made no sense. A national golf championship on the other side of the country? Might as well have been the other side of the world.
At least that was the assessment put forth by sports columnist John Kieran, who wrote in The New York Times on Jan. 2, 1929:
“What about this Pebble Beach course? Explorers who have returned from the coast report that it is laid out along the shores of Carmel Bay, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. This is suspicious.”
True, the game given to us by Scots was fairly new to America, but this much was gospel in the provincial Northeast: The best courses were in the metropolitan area.
Perhaps Kieran, with his erudite style, was having fun with such cultural snobbery. But in the aftermath of a U.S. Golf Association announcement that the 1929 Amateur Championship would be held at Pebble Beach, Kieran sounded skeptical.
“A golfer . . . would be foolish to go all the way to California to play a course that included part of the Pacific Ocean as a water hazard,” he wrote. “It’s a long way to go to get beaten.”
When as fate would have it, the golf nation’s pride and joy, Bobby Jones, went from co-medalist to first-round loser, Kieran and similarly-thinking critics seemingly had their fuel.
The mighty Jones ousted? Blame it on Pebble.
Given the luxury of time and the advancements in travel and technology, we have been able to change that perception. Once the great unknown, Pebble Beach today stands as the great monument.
“If ever there was a place that was worth the price of admission,” Curtis Strange said, “it’s Pebble Beach.”
That “admission” is nearly $500, yes, but thanks to the power of television, Pebble Beach annually has been whisked into our living rooms and our consciousness. What is truly public is not the access to the resort (the huge majority of the golf citizenry could never afford it) but the embrace that has been put upon Pebble Beach by golfers, not to mention an organization once condemned for being overly smitten with stuffy enclaves in the Northeast.
It took the USGA 77 years to bring the U.S. Open to the Monterey Peninsula. It took a good look around and a deep breath of the crisp, salty air to conclude it will go nowhere better.
“It’s really something similar to when the British Open goes to St. Andrews,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions. “It’s not necessarily the best golf course or the best test of golf, but there’s a history, a mystique, a beauty – and you get that with Pebble Beach.”
Jack Nicklaus is on record as saying that if he had but one round to play, it would be at Pebble Beach. Tiger Woods, so often asked about his dream foursome, has answered that it would only matter if it were he and his father – at Pebble Beach.
And the USGA? Well, this week it will set up its U.S. Open at Pebble Beach for the fifth time since its debut in 1972. In that time, no other course has hosted more than four.
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Why go back?
“Because something always special happens there,” Strange said. “I remember I got on Jack (Nicklaus) for saying that, but Jack was right.”
It was Nicklaus who produced the magic in the ’72 Open. His incomparable 1-iron at the brutally difficult par-3 17th in the final round struck the flagstick and set up a tap-in birdie that cemented his third U.S. Open victory and 11th professional major. Ten years later, Tom Watson at that same hole made birdie from an improbable lie in greenside rough to seal his two-stroke win over Nicklaus and his only U.S. Open triumph. Tom Kite in 1992 handled ferocious, fourth-round wind better than anyone and prevailed for his only major title.
Three U.S. Opens, three Hall-of-Fame winners, though nothing resonates with the mention of the words “Pebble Beach” more than a tie-in with what took place in 2000. In a career that arguably will set the standard by which others in golf are judged, Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open demonstrated that the impossible was possible and the improbable probable.
He came closest to playing perfect golf.
“I don’t think we’ll see another performance like that ever again,” Davis said of Woods’ record-smashing, 15-stroke triumph.
“A four-day clinic,” said Strange, a two-time champion who played his last U.S. Open that summer.
And what still can be heard in the winds off of Carmel Bay are words delivered by a beleaguered Ernie Els, whose skills were a distant second to Woods that week. Told that Woods had broken a record for margin of victory in a major that dated to Old Tom Morris, Els cringed.
“If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger Woods, he’d probably beat him by 80 shots right now,” Els said. “Hey, the guy is unbelievable, man. I’m running out of words. Give me a break.”
There was no break for the competition that year, not when Woods and Pebble Beach were together. Nearly four months earlier, Woods had won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, wiping out a seven-stroke deficit in just seven holes.
Matt Gogel, playing his fourth tournament in his rookie PGA Tour season, went out in 31 that Monday morning to snap a tie with Mark Brooks and seize the lead. He stole a glance at the leaderboard behind the 10th green, saw that Vijay Singh and Notah Begay III were his closest challengers, “but I never saw Tiger Woods’ name.”
Playing the 13th hole, Gogel heard a roar up ahead, but didn’t pay heed. Then, at the 16th, having bogeyed the 15th, “I saw that I was one behind Tiger Woods,” Gogel said. “I didn’t have time to wonder how the hell that happened.”
Call it magic, Woods making birdie at the 12th, holing out for eagle at the 15th, stuffing it for birdie at 16, then finishing with a birdie at 18. Five under for his last seven holes, Woods had won for the sixth consecutive time.
When they met face-to-face at the end, Gogel needed to know just how the phenom had scripted this comeback. Knowing none of the details, he asked Woods, “How the hell did you eagle (the par-5) 14?”
Woods smiled. “He told me that he hadn’t,” Gogel said. “That he had eagled 15. We laughed. I mean, it was pretty stunning.”
Only not as stunning as what Woods would do four months later over a firmer, faster and more ferocious Pebble Beach. Twenty-one birdies, three of them at the famed par-3 seventh, a 10-stroke lead through 36, a bogey-free 67 to close out the most dominating major golf performance ever.
Yet another U.S. Open at Pebble Beach had produced an unforgettable memory and put further into the archives Johnny Goodman’s stunning defeat of Jones. In the years that followed that ’29 happening, USGA officials believed that Pebble Beach, while a great golf course, was too remote to attract great crowds, that it was a difficult site to prepare.
In fact, it would be 32 years before the USGA would return there with the national amateur. This time, a reverse of 1929 happened – the premier amateur of his time, Nicklaus, posted an overwhelming 8-and-6 victory over Dudley Wyson. It was as if all was forgiven, that what percolated now was a belief that Pebble Beach was a great stage upon which great theater could be played out.
Eleven summers later, Nicklaus replayed some Pebble Beach magic and signaled a new dawn for our nation’s most coveted golf course. Pebble Beach has become to the U.S. Open what St. Andrews is to the British Open.
Except for this: “You almost wish you didn’t have to wait 10 years to come back,” Davis said. “For me, you just can’t go back there enough.”