In modern-day ‘Match,’ Cypress Point shows it’s still a star

October 12, 2012

For half a century it was golf's greatest bit of folklore, a round of golf so sublime it immediately passed into myth. On Jan. 10, 1956, living legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson took on precocious amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward in a friendly fourball at Cypress Point Club.

The match began with little fanfare but word quickly traveled down 17 Mile Drive, and in droves fans abandoned the Crosby Clambake practice round at Pebble Beach and made their way to Cypress. They witnessed golf for the ages — a combined 27 birdies and an eagle. But there were were no TV cameras and no Twitter accounts to record the events for posterity, and over the years the tales of that day grew so outlandish it was easy to think of Nelson and Hogan's 1-up victory as nothing more than an urban legend.

In 2007 the writer Mark Frost brought that day to life with his excellent book "The Match." But for all of Frost's vivid detail there was still something missing because by then Cypress Point had receded from public view. This most private of clubs had not welcomed spectators since leaving the Clambake rota in 1990, and so readers of Frost's book would never get to glimpse Cypress's majestic layout and craggy coastline in person, or in high definition.

On Tuesday, 56 years after Hogan and Nelson faced down Venturi and Ward, a lucky cadre of golf fans got to relive history, as Cypress Point hosted a kind of rematch of its most famous game. The competition was again supposed to have a generational theme, with aging warriors Fred Couples and Davis Love taking on new-school stars Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. When Couples's back went out at the last-minute, Nick Watney, 31, was imported as a stand-in. This wiped out the symmetry of the re-creation and thus reduced the importance of the players. Tuesday's match turned out not to be about the reigning Masters champion or the U.S. Ryder Cup captain but the rather the host course. Quite simply, Cypress Point stole the show.

(Related: Shipnuck's Tweets from "The Re-Match")

In golf the past is always prologue, and so Venturi, 83, turned up on Cypress Point's first tee on Tuesday morning to reminisce about his role in the original match. He was still glowing from the news the day before that he was been voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

A crowd of maybe 200 joined Venturi around the tee. The re-creation of "The Match" had been organized to coincide with a summit of First Tee trustees at Pebble Beach. It was invitation-only and the crowd was largely populated by members of the golf aristocracy, including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, to say nothing of George W. Bush. But there were also a bunch of scruffy Cypress caddies on hand to give the gallery a little diversity. It was an exceedingly convivial gathering. There were no gallery ropes, and Watson and Fowler and Love and Watney chatted with their fans on every tee box and strolled with them down the fairway.

The vibe was almost giddy as the first three holes were won with birdies: Fowler at the first thanks to an approach shot that nearly went in the hole, then Watney's two-putt from the fringe on the 549-yard par-5 second, followed by Love's big-breaking 20-footer on No. 3. This rat-a-tat start was an echo of 1956, when only three holes were halved.

But then the match turned into a stalemate, with Watney and Love remaining 1-up for the rest of the front nine. On the par-5 sixth all but Watson had eagle putts, and there was a little murmuring among the gallery, which boasted a good number of Cypress members.

The club has steadfastly — some would say heroically — refused to touch its timeless 6,524-yard layout. There is a feeling among much of the membership that by not supersizing Alister MacKenzie's original design, Cypress has become a living, breathing monument to how much modern equipment has affected the game. On the subject of retrofitting Cypress, Tom Fazio, who has overseen the lengthening of Pine Valley and Merion, once told me, "There have been some discussions, but nothing official. Defiance is too strong a word, but Cypress is a unique place, and change is not a priority."

(Related Photos: Shipnuck's shots from 'Re-Match' at Cypress Point)

A subtext to this 21st re-enactment was a fear that the modern Tour pro would destroy this proud layout, threatening, or even surpassing, the 63 that Hogan shot in 1956, which remains the course record. (A handful of others have tied it through the years.) Watson was clearly spoiling for a fight, bashing driver on nearly every hole.

"I just wanted to put on a show for the people," he said. "If it was a real stroke-play tournament I probably would have hit driver on only three holes."

On No. 8, a sharply doglegged par 4 that is 369 yards on the card, Watson went for the green but found a front bunker. (He got up-and-down for the birdie.) The ninth is one of golf's great short par 4s, and all four players tried to drive the green. Fowler was just a foot or two off the putting surface while the other three guys found the huge waste bunker that fronts the green.

Cypress Point's greens are tiny and can be fiendishly sloped, and the ninth may be the scariest putting surface in California. It was not a surprise that none of the four players could extract a birdie on a 289-yard par 4.

"Where they put the pins, they made it play tough," Love said. "It's the golf course's only defense. But it's a pretty good defense."

On the uphill par-5 10th, Watney trickled in a gorgeous 30-footer for eagle to send he and Love 2-up, and again this stirred old ghosts. Hogan had made a momentum-changing eagle on the same hole, holing-out a 60-yard approach.

More fireworks were to come. At 13 all four players made birdie, which led to some good-natured trash-talking. On the par-3 15th — perched so close to the Pacific that the spray from the waves could be felt on the tee box — Fowler stuffed his tee shot and made birdie to get his team back to 1-down.

It's a long walk to the 16th hole, through a dark thicket of cypress trees. Suddenly you emerge on the 16th tee, gaping at the expanse of the greatest hole in golf. Love was so excited to get to 16 he was practically cantering through the cypresses.

"Man, this is fun," he said. "I haven't been here in a long time. It's as good as I remembered."

Love then stepped up and hit maybe the purest shot of the day, a 3-iron that never left the flag. He rolled in the subsequent 10-footer to win the 16th hole. The match ended on the next hole, 2 & 1. For the round Love shot 67, Watson 70, Watney 71, Fowler 73.

Love called it "a newspaper 67" in a nod to a few gimmes, but PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell defended his scorekeeping.

"It's about as official as the first time around," Russell said. "If Hogan made a 30-footer for birdie I don't think Byron was grinding over his five-footer for par."

On a windless day, with soft greens, the scoring wasn't nearly as torrid as what the old-timers managed with their pre-historic equipment; in addition to Hogan's 63, Venturi shot a 65 and each of their partners carded 67.

Fowler ranks 58th on the PGA Tour in driving distance, at 293.2 yards a pop, but he found Cypress Point spacious enough to hit driver 10 times. "I think it stands the test of time," he said.

Love opted for more 2-irons and 3-woods off the tee. "Any MacKenzie course you have to think your way around it," he said. "This place is going to give you some birdies, obviously. But if you get out of position you can make a double bogey in a hurry."

Watson had played Cypress Point once before but this time around he fell harder for the place, calling it "my favorite course in the world. Who wouldn't want to play here every day for the rest of their life?"

Fowler was just as expansive. "It's a great experience — the history, the views, the great holes," he said. "It's a cool feeling walking these fairways."

When the match was over the players and their fans lingered around the 18th green, reliving the day. No one seemed to want it to end, including Frost, who was on hand for a living, breathing afterword to his book. Even the decorated competitors in the rematch seemed humbled just to have been a part of it. Said Watson, "It's an honor to be a character in this story."