The 17th at Pebble Beach is where good rounds go to die

June 19, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson may have discovered the easiest way to make birdie on the par-3 17th hole at Pebble Beach — use the flagstick. It may also be the only way.

With a diabolical left-pin placement and a green so narrow you almost have to parachute your ball down from the sky to hold it, No. 17 once again showed its teeth in the opening round of the U.S. Open on Thursday. Of the 156 players in the field, only 32 (20.5 percent) hit the green. Twelve players, including first-round co-leader Brendon De Jonge, managed to make birdie, but 75 guys carded bogeys, the most on any one hole Thursday.

Of the nine players to finish under par on Day 1, five made bogey the 208-yard par 3, including Mike Weir, K.J. Choi and first-round co-leader Shaun Micheel. Weir was 3-under when he came to the 17th and finished bogey-bogey. John Rollins was tied for the lead at 2-under when he shanked his chip shot toward the 18th tee, dropped his third shot in the rough and wound up with a triple-bogey. He then double-bogeyed the 18th to shoot 74. Pre-U.S. Open favorite Phil Mickelson hit his tee shot off the rocks into the Pacific Ocean and scrambled to make bogey.

Not that any of this should come as a surprise. While the pretty seventh hole at Pebble gets all of the attention (at 109 yards it’s the shortest hole in major championship golf), the 17th is the one that breaks hearts. In the four previous U.S. Opens held at Pebble Beach (1972, ’82, ’92 and 2000), it played as the most difficult hole relative to par, and it stayed that way on Thursday, playing to a stroke average of 3.5769.

On a course with two par 4s measuring more than 500 yards and a 580-yard par 5 (14th hole) which annually ranks among the most difficult on the PGA Tour, that’s quite a feat for a par 3.

“The 17th hole is maybe the smallest par-3 green for the length that I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Tom Watson in the recently released book, Play Golf the Pebble Way. “It takes every bit of your skill to get the ball on that green.”

Earlier this week, Watson described the tee shot on No. 17 as the most critical shot on the course. What makes the tee shot so challenging is the hourglass shape to the green, extremely narrow in the center and not much wider on the ends. It’s like a figure-8 on its side. The traditional U.S. Open pin placement is on the left side, very close to the ocean, and to hold a longer iron into a green no bigger than 15 yards deep is virtually impossible, even for the best players in the world.

“You’re trying to hit a medium to long-iron into a very small target area, and if the hook wind is blowing, like it was yesterday, it’s going to take a little spin off the ball,” said Laird Small, Director of the Pebble Beach Golf Academy and a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher. “The ball is coming in on a flatter trajectory, so it’s going to run off the back of the green, leaving the players with a difficult downhill chip.”

That’s the danger with firing at the flagstick: Even if the player hits a perfect shot, chances are the ball is going to find the greenside rough, leaving him with a treacherous up-and-down. Some players, as Tiger Woods did in 2000, will purposely hit their tee shot into the front greenside bunker and try and make par from there. It’s a similar strategy to what players employed at the infamous par-3 seventh at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. Finding it virtually impossible to hold the green, players chose to hit their second shots from the left greenside bunker, where they could apply some spin to the ball, rather than chip from behind the green and risk the ball rolling off once more.

If players opt to do the same thing this week, targeting the bunker, they’re going to find it a bit trickier than in 2000, says Small.

“They’ve fluffed the bunkers up this year,” said Small. “The sand is more pillowy, so if the ball hits in there it’s plugging. Out of the bunker the ball is going to roll more and it’s much harder to control.”

During Watson’s practice round Wednesday, he hit four 3-irons into the small, bowl-shaped green and didn’t, as he put it, “sniff” it. One of his tee shots hit on the downslope just over the bunker and scooted over the back of the green into some thick rough, not that far from where he chipped in for birdie (off the flagstick) on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open. Many people consider that the greatest golf shot in major championship history. A close second is the 1-iron Nicklaus one-hopped into the flagstick on the very same hole for birdie 10 years earlier, also in the U.S. Open.

“To hit the proper shot there you’ve got to go up in the air and you better be strong enough to get it up in the air and have it come down softly,” said Watson, who bogeyed the hole on Thursday. “I used to be able to do that. I’m not quite capable of doing that right now, but I’m still going to give it a try.”