Pebble Beach, USGA a match made in heaven

No. 7 at Pebble Beach

No. 7 at Pebble Beach

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Certainly, you don’t get the sensation walking off of the first tee. It starts to creep in as you approach the second green, and by the time you’re walking down the third fairway, you are hooked.

Then, somewhere along the walk between holes 4 through 10, it hits you: How in the name of Horace Rawlins did it take until 1972 for the U.S. Open to land at Pebble Beach?

Now we know the U.S. Golf Association had knowledge that such a course existed. After all, the 1929 U.S. Amateur was held there. But for whatever the reason – payback for ‘29 when Bobby Jones (gasp!) lost in the first round, the fact that there was such an East Coast bias and the USGA didn’t know golf courses existed west of Inverness or Canterbury, that troublesome three-hour time difference, or bad directions out of San Francisco – it took until the national championship was in its 72nd edition and Sansabelt was the rage to get the blue blazers to put the U.S. Open into this corner of Monterey Peninsula.

That’s the sad news.

But the good news: Once it found Pebble, the USGA realized there wasn’t anywhere better to play the national open. Thus has Pebble Beach become to the U.S. Open what St. Andrews is to the Open Championship – that is, a pilgrimage of sorts, a major championship that simply is more special than all others.

How magical has the connection between the U.S. Open and Pebble Beach become? Consider that a few weeks before last summer’s U.S. Open was to be held at Pebble, a small dinner gathering – three USGA types, three Pebble officials – was being held when someone mentioned that in 2019, Pebble Beach would celebrate its 100th birthday.

“Some harmonic convergence was going on in that room,” said R.J. Harper, a senior vice president of the Pebble Beach Co. who doubles as chairman whenever the U.S. Open is held there.

Said Bill Perocchi, Pebble Beach’s chief executive officer: “It’s like a light went on in the room.”

That’s because all six gentlemen arrived at the same thought: Pebble Beach’s 100th birthday party had to include the 2019 U.S. Open. They reached a tentative agreement “and here we hadn’t even hit a shot in the 2010 U.S. Open,” Perocchi said.

But, oh, what symmetry. After all, Pebble Beach had hosted the 100th playing of the U.S. Open, in 2000, so why wouldn’t the USGA bring its championship there to celebrate Pebble’s centennial? The news was made public last June, the day before the U.S. Open began, and papers were recently signed. The deal also includes playing host to the U.S. Amateur in 2018, but what it essentially cements is a thought process embraced by so many in the game: that Pebble is America’s most iconic golf course and should be the stage for many U.S. Opens.

“I’d love to see it here every five or six years,” said Brad Faxon, who played in the 1982, ‘92, and ‘00 U.S. Opens at Pebble. Though honored by such a compliment, Perocchi and Harper know that’s a little much. But when 2019 rolls around, Pebble Beach will be hosting its sixth U.S. Open. Since 1972, no other course has been used more often.

When asked what resonates more, the fact that 2010 is over or the reality that 2019 is on the horizon, Harper laughed. “I still can’t believe (2010) is over. We built a city and had to break it down.”

But the truth is, Perocchi, Harper and their Pebble Beach colleagues know 2019 isn’t as far away as it might seem. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the world will look like eight years from now, let alone golf’s little piece of it, but Perocchi understands this much: The U.S. Open continues to get bigger and bigger every year, but inside “the forest” of Monterey Peninsula, the space remains cozy – very, very cozy.

“We don’t have a lot of open space,” Perocchi said. “We have to be creative. We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Where can we make better use of space?’ ”

The Del Monte Forest Project no longer includes plans for another golf course, but it is going forward with other improvements. A more modern driving range will be constructed at what is called Collins Field, adjacent to where the practice area was for the 2010 U.S. Open, and what is also coming are more rooms at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach.

Though no one would deny that the majestic Pacific wasn’t a spectacular backdrop, it does preclude Pebble Beach officials from moving spectators and constructing corporate chalets on one side of the course. Thus did officials in 2010 build multilevel hospitality structures at “the triangle,” where views of the sixth, eighth, ninth and 13th holes were possible.

Even though corporate support was down in 2010, a byproduct of a sluggish economy, the Open was a hugely successful effort. That point was driven home at the recent USGA meeting when President Jim Hyler told the assembled crowd that 2010 was the group’s best-ever financially, which explains why plans for 2019 were put in motion even before 2010 was played out.

Harper said they will hold tickets at 37,500, the same as 2010, but one thing that won’t be the same come 2019 is Pebble Beach’s diabolical 14th green.

“It will be rebuilt according to USGA specs,” Perocchi said, though he emphasized it’s part of Pebble’s long-range plan to convert all of its greens. The 14th as it currently sits presents an enormous challenge to players, even with wedges in their hands. There’s very little room to land approach shots to an elevated left side, and the right side is very low and hole locations are virtually non-existent.

Perocchi said Arnold Palmer – not only an icon, but part of the group that owns Pebble Beach – will oversee development of a plan for the 14th. Expect an expansion of the upper left side of the green, as well as a softening of the steep slope to the right. No decision has been made as to when the changes will be made, but Perocchi said it probably would be in the next two to four years.

In the meantime, Pebble Beach will go on as the country’s most appealing golf course, a distinction that could have only increased given the way it played out on television in brilliant weather last weekend at the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

It shows beautifully on TV. It’s even more spectacular in person. Just ask the USGA.

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