Pebble Beach ready to show its teeth — and new contenders could emerge

Pebble Beach ready to show its teeth — and new contenders could emerge

Even if the scores are high, the scenery at Pebble Beach will compensate for it.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — We’ve seen what pressure and the United States Open can do to the world’s best golfers and their scores. Sometimes, like on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006, it isn’t pretty.

That’s what will be different about this Open at Pebble Beach, and why there is only one thing you can guarantee this week: It will be pretty. It’s Pebble Beach. Even when the winds raked the dried-out course and ruined scores with a frightening efficiency during 1992’s notorious final round here, it was still a beautiful disaster. The ocean swells, the frothy surf, the sea lions, the gliding gulls, the lush colors of Stillwater Cove — all of it is fantasy-like.

When it comes to stunning looks, Pebble Beach is a perfect 10. The national championship will be played on a national treasure. It comes around about once a decade; the USGA announced Wednesday that the Open will return to Pebble Beach in 2019. That’s something to look forward to, even as we’re looking forward to this week.

“If St. Andrews is the home of golf, Pebble Beach feels like the home of American golf,” said Stewart Cink, a Georgia Tech alum who is the reigning British Open champion. “I know other places, like Pinehurst, would probably lay claim to that, but Pebble Beach feels like the home of championship golf. It goes all the way back to the Crosby Clambake, now the AT&T Pro-Am. It has a real sense of history here. There are so many shots we’ve seen over the years by Watson, Nicklaus, Tiger. It feels great to be back here. It just feels right.”

It just may not feel totally familiar. The Pebble Beach you see at the start of each season during the telecast of the AT&T is not the Pebble Beach you’ll see on TV this week. In February, the course is typically plagued by rain and bad weather — it’s still called Crosby weather by the real old-timers in these parts — and the course is soft and wet and plays long. Meanwhile, the greens suffer from the double-whammy of bumpy poa annua surfaces and the stampede of footprints from two pros, two amateurs and four caddies in every group.

You’ll see just the opposite in mid-June. The fairways are dry and running, and the chance of rain in California this time of year is almost zero. The greens are firm and fast. And because they’re smaller than average, hitting shots close should be fairly challenging. With gusty winds, like we saw during that memorable ’92 finale that Tom Kite survived, scoring could be hellacious. The forecast so far calls for reasonably calm conditions, but we all know how reliable weather forecasts are. And don’t forget the traditional thick Open rough.

“The setup of the course is so much more difficult,” said Phil Mickelson, a five-time Open runner-up and a native Californian who is the favorite this week. “The greens are not receptive like they are in February, and because of that, you have to look at where you want to miss it.”

Said fellow tour player Nick Watney, “It’s dramatically different compared to the AT&T. You know the layout but you’ve never seen it like this. It’s quite an adjustment.”

So the Open won’t be AT&T: The Sequel. In fact, it won’t even be the 2000 U.S. Open: Chapter Two. You may remember that week as the launchpad for the Tiger Woods blitzkrieg. He became the first player to finish in double digits under par in an Open, won by a jaw-dropping record 15 strokes and went on to claim the Tiger Slam, as some called the unparalleled feat of winning four consecutive major championships.

This is not the same course. There are new tee boxes at the ninth, 10th and 13th holes. The new ninth can play up to 505 yards, a considerable distance even for a downhill par 4, while the 10th has been upsized to 495 yards. That means longer approach shots into itty-bitty, teeny-weenie, yellow-polka-dot-bikini greens. And more potential for disaster.

A number of fairways have been shifted closer to the ocean to increase the shot-making values, notably the fourth, sixth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 18th. The cliffs, it is hoped, may be more in play than ever before.

“It adds a lot more anxiety to your shots on those holes because the slopes also carry the ball right to the cliff edges, and there’s nothing to stop it,” said Cink. “I think there’s going to be a lot of conservative play off the tees on those holes and for good reason. It’s a good job by the setup guys who had the vision for that.”

Mickelson noted earlier that he’s been hitting 4-iron off the tee on the uphill par-5 sixth and reaching the green in two shots. He has no plans to change his strategy.

What hasn’t changed is Pebble Beach’s secret. It is resistant to low scores because of its small greens and severely sloped putting surfaces, which make saving pars difficult if players miss greens in regulation. The frequent unruly weather plays a big role, too. As hard as it is, the setup follows the USGA’s recent trend of less-penal-but-still-challenging course setups. Cink likes it.

“The old way, if you missed a fairway, you were basically chipping out,” Cink said. “The scores haven’t really changed. It’s not like we’re all shooting way under par now because you can hit your ball from the rough toward the green. Scoring has not been low. So these setups aren’t yielding low scores, but I think the players are enjoying it and the spectators like it.”

Open history at Pebble Beach suggests that the course identifies the best player of that time — Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tom Watson in 1982, Tom Kite in 1992 (while not a huge winner, Kite’s consistently high finishes were Nicklaus-like) and Tiger in 2000.

In the current era, two players have separated themselves from the rest — Mickelson and Woods. Mickelson won the Masters and seems to be on top of his game. Woods returned from self-imposed golf exile after a winter of scandal, parted with his long-time teacher Hank Haney and has struggled of late.

What’s interesting about this incarnation of Pebble Beach is that it takes driver out of the hands of a lot of players and puts an emphasis on precise iron play. Given that players are going to miss more greens than usual due to the narrower fairways and thick rough, scrambling should prove critical. That would seem to level the playing field somewhat and reduce any advantage that long hitters have.

“It’s going to bring a whole array of players into the game,” said Steve Stricker, who won at Riviera earlier this season. “Different styles of players will be able to compete.”

Let’s see — you don’t have to hit driver much because you can’t overpower the course. There will be a premium on chipping and pitching. And as always, putting will be a deciding factor. That’s good for Woods and Mickelson, who have the reputation for being the best around the greens. Woods has been the best putter on Tour overall for most of the past decade, and it was the single biggest key to his runaway win here in ’00. He knows how to putt on poa annua, and he’s proved it. And if you agree that driver has been the worst club in Tiger’s bag of late, well, he can take a page from his Royal Liverpool playbook and leave it on the bench. This is not a prediction, just food for thought.

When looking for potential contenders, however, you should look past some of the usual suspects and concentrate on the players with the best short games. That would include other big names like Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson, plus other short game experts such as Luke Donald, Ben Crane and Brian Gay, to name a few.

This is your national championship, people. Buckle up for an exciting ride. As Ernie Els said of the changes to the course, “It could get interesting.”