PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Eighty-one years later, things have certainly changed. It seems the lure of Pebble Beach Golf Links has taken a turn to the positive.
Whereas in 1929 – when the U.S. Golf Association discovered there were not only golf courses west of Philadelphia, there were even a few of ’em in some place called California – only nine gentlemen from New York and eight from Massachusetts bothered to make the trip to take on the challenge of a national amateur at Pebble Beach, for this week’s U.S. Open we’ve got chaps from Lop Buri, Mossel Bay, Saitama and Aalborg.
For you 16-handicappers in geography and the nuances of the world rankings, we’re talking the countries of Thailand, South Africa, Japan, and Denmark, which have sent Thongchai Jaidee, Louis Oosthuizen, Ryo Ishikawa and Soren Kjeldsen, respectively, to this week’s festivities at the edge of the Pacific.
Yes, things surely are different than they were on the threshold of the Great Depression. It was in September of 1929 when Easterners deemed it ludicrous to travel clear across the country to play a golf course that, according to the New York Times’ John Kieran probably had “a number of imposing water holes.”
In fact, Kieran wrote: “A Van Cortlandt golfer who can’t carry the curling pond at the 11th hole 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.”
A long line of elitists took it to heart, though it hardly made a difference since the only golfer who mattered, Bobby Jones, made the trip. But when Jones, aiming for a third consecutive U.S. Amateur title, lost, there was total shock.
If you go with the assumption that the great Jones got lost making his way from parking lot 15 to Pebble Beach’s first tee and was thus disqualified, you’d be wrong. That could happen this week, perhaps, but in 1929, Jones was simply outplayed in Round 1 by Johnny Goodman.
Perhaps as punishment for Jones’ early exit, the USGA waited 32 years before it returned to Pebble Beach for a men’s national championship. The fact that Jack Nicklaus won the 1961 U.S. Amateur righted the wrongs of 1929 and put Pebble back in good graces. Thankfully, too, because while it does take you about 43 miles to navigate 17 Mile Drive and while you need to re-finance your home to afford a seven-night stay in a Best Western (the local Marriott would cost you your house and your children), there is something magical about Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Is it to the U.S. Open what St. Andrews is to the Open Championship, Augusta National to the Masters and Valhalla to the PGA Championship? (Only kidding about that last one.) You’d be hard-pressed to argue it isn’t, because while Oakmont might be more demanding and Shinnecock Hills a better overall golf course, Pebble Beach brings it all into play – a mystique, a breathtaking backdrop, and oh, yeah, a challenge.
It is that last aspect that sometimes gets lost in the discussion simply because the last time we were here, in 2000, Tiger Woods posted 12 under to win. But remind yourself that the next-best golfer was 3-over that week, that in the 1992 U.S. Open Tom Kite won at 285 and Nick Faldo closed with a 77 and still finished T-4, and that in the 1982 edition only nine players broke a par of 288.
Then take note that USGA officials have had years to devise better defenses against today’s player and Pebble Beach authorities have given the blessings to new tees, added yardage, deeper and more treacherous bunkers, and shaved-down areas along the cliffs and, well, there is serious bite to the most iconic of America’s championship golf courses.
Twelve-under? No chance. Especially with Mother Nature likely to provide cool, stiff winds, and sun-splashed days to dry the place out.
“Par would be a very nice score to shoot this week,” Padraig Harrington.
But would it win? Harrington shook his head.
“Seventy-two pars isn’t going to be what you want. You’ve got to take the attitude that if you make a number of birdies that allows for a certain number of mistakes.”
Those mistakes, players agree, will come from errant shots into relatively generous fairways and exceedingly small greens.
“The rough is very thick,” Ernie Els said. “It doesn’t look very long, maybe on television, but when you get in it, it’s very thick. It’s very difficult to move the ball around when you get in the rough.”
At 7,040 yards, Pebble Beach is certainly short by today’s standards. But the great equalizer is a series of greens that are far smaller than what players are used to.
“Very tricky,” Els said. “I went out (Monday) in the evening and hit some chip shots and putts on the greens. There’s a huge difference from the morning to late afternoon, when the poa really dries up.
“When you hit the brown patches, the ball really doesn’t stop on the greens.”
It was when we were here last for a U.S. Open, in 2000, that Harrington discovered how demanding a proposition it was to stop the ball on small, firm, fast greens. So he told the story of sitting down, digging in and deepening his grooves, handing them to USGA officials, and doing so until he had gotten them right to the edge.
Ten years later, those greens are even more devilish, only there is a stricter limit to the grooves. That is just another element that makes Pebble Beach perhaps the ultimate test.
“As a venue,” Els said, “I don’t think you can get a better venue any place in the world. It’s great to be back.”
That sentiment would rank as unanimous.