Pebble Beach: Open shines on famed course

Ah, be still my beating heart. Excuse the cliché, but my pulse is racing because the U.S. Open is upon us. The 100th playing of the biggest tournament in American golf begins June 15 at the Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey Peninsula in northern California. The U.S. Open, Pebble Beach, and a centenary celebration: This should be good.

For one thing, Tiger Woods is the big favourite. That’s no surprise to anybody who has been awake and following golf the last year. Woods also won the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in February, so he’s on good terms with the famed course.

And what a course it is. Pebble Beach is one of those American classics, designed by an amateur architect — Merion and Pine Valley near Philadelphia are two others. In Pebble Beach’s case, it was Jack Neville, a real estate salesman and a superb amateur golfer who won the 1912 California State Amateur. He had quite a setting in which to work — “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation” — according to novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island.

Pebble, as everybody calls the course, was an instant hit — fit for the celebrities whoould play it later in the Clambake. Its official name was the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. Crosby was a scratch golfer who competed in national events and hosted the annual event, now called the AT&T. Year after year, a who’s who of celebrities from the entertainment world played the tournament, and still do — Jack Lemmon, Kevin Costner, Bill Murray, and many others.

Nicklaus, Watson and Kite

The course is also where Jack Nicklaus won the 1961 U.S. Amateur. It was at Pebble where Nicklaus slammed a 1-iron off the flagstick on the 17th hole the last day of the 1972 U.S. Open, the ball finishing two inches from the hole. Nicklaus went on to win that U.S. Open. Pebble is also where Nicklaus will play next week again in the U.S. Open, a championship he has captured four times. Nobody has won five U.S. Opens. Nicklaus, 60, says this is the last year he will play all four majors — the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open in July and the PGA Championship in August.

If this is his last U.S. Open, there’s no better place to end his run then at Pebble. Many readers will remember 1982, when he was neck and neck with Tom Watson coming down the stretch. Nicklaus had finished his round and was waiting near the 18th green while Watson was playing the 17th hole.

Watson had hit his tee shot on the par-three into deep rough just left of the green. He faced a tricky shot down to the hole some 35 feet away, but he had caught a decent lie. Watson, a master of the short game, knew he could get his club cleanly on the ball.

“Get it close,” Watson’s caddie Bruce Edward said. “Close, hell,” Watson said. “I’m going to make it.” And make it he did. Watson then birdied the last hole to win his only U.S. Open, by two shots over Nicklaus. Nicklaus, gracious as always, said, “I felt like I should’ve won another Open then. But, you know, someone just did something a little bit better.”

Move 10 years forward to 1992 and the last day of the U.S. Open at Pebble. That final day was cool and windy. The fairways and greens were harder than the table upon which I’m writing, or so it seemed to the competitors. The greens had no “give” in them at all. Eighty wasn’t a bad score that final round. Heck, par was probably around 80.

The course was terrifying but Tom Kite contrived a 72 to win the championship. He had to hit a six-iron, yes — a six-iron — to the stunning 106-yard seventh hole. The green sits well below the players, and directly overlooking Carmel Bay. As somebody once said, hit it in the water and the closest drop area is Hawaii. The hole calls for any club from a sand wedge to a long iron depending on the wind.

Kite’s ball sailed on the blustery coastal wind well left of the green. His ball finished near the eighth tee. Kite’s lob wedge from there dropped the ball onto the baked-out green. The ball rolled on, hit the pin and dropped into the hole. Kite went on to win the U.S. Open by two shots. It’s still his only major championship.

Let the show begin

Pebble generates these sorts of dramas — Nicklaus and Watson on 17, Kite on the seventh. The place is as popular in many golfers’ minds as Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played every April. It’s also accessible because it’s a public course, even if green fees are some $300 (U.S.).

The new owners, a group which paid $820 million for Pebble Beach and neighbouring Spyglass Hill, The Links at Spanish Bay and the Del Monte hotel course, along with a couple of hotels and a few hundred acres of undeveloped land, figure they could charge $1,500 a round. Gulp.

That group of owners includes actor Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer. Actors and golfers still feature prominently at Pebble.

So settle back and watch the action next week at Pebble. It promises to be an amazing show, full of razzle and dazzle, and lots of frazzle too. Pebble is like that — always has been, always will be. I can’t wait for this U.S. Open to start.

I might add that, as I write, two Canadians have qualified for the Open — Mike Weir and Richard Zokol. That will only make this U.S. Open more interesting for Canadians, as if Pebble and the U.S. Open didn’t constitute a powerful package in their own right. I can only add — let the show begin.