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Pebble Beach plays host to perfectly unique pro-am and tourney: Walmart First Tee Open

Zachary Michael JackBy Zachary Michael Jack,
Jeff Sluman - Pebble Beach Golf Links - hole 18
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Eventual winner Jeff Sluman plays his way up the pivotal 18th at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the 2009 Walmart First Tee Open. (Zachary Michael Jack/WorldGolf.com)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - In a day of rarities, defending champ Jeff Sluman backed up his 2008 victory at the Walmart First Tee Open with an unlikely come-from-behind 2009 win that featured his fifth lifetime competitive hole-in-one. This despite a gusty day of northwest winds on the famously unpredictable Monterey Peninsula.

The ace came Sept. 6 on the par 3, 178-yard fifth at Pebble Beach Golf Links. "I'm kinda hemming and hawing with my caddie (Jimmy Walker)," Sluman said, "and he says, 'I'm not really a fan of 178-yard 8 irons, but if there's ever one, it's right now. ... I'm nearly 52, so I never saw it go in."

Behind Sluman, who didn't look at the leaderboard until the 11th, still stranger things happened to never-nervous Loren Roberts, the "boss of the moss," who would scatter 31 putts around Pebble to card a 78. The usually rock-solid Mark O'Meara, Roberts' playing partner in what figured to be a two-man race, also made uncharacteristic errors on a course on which he has collected 5 of his 16 career victories, a rate of return Tom Watson joked earlier in the week was practically "an annuity."

Neither Roberts nor O'Meara birdied a hole until 18, when O'Meara rolled in a birdie bid to post a 75 and tie Tom Lehman for third.

On a round that saw the average score balloon to nearly 75 in a preview of likely 2010 U.S. Open conditions, Sluman fired a remarkable 6-under-par 68 to come from six shots back to defeat journeyman pro Gene Jones by two.

Sluman also narrowly missed winning the pro-am competition with his playing partner Ericka Schneider, who was bested by the team of pro Dave Eger and junior Will Bishop, who finished at 17 under in the unique better-ball competition wherein pros team up with nationwide First Tee representatives ages 14 to 18. The First Tee provides young people of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop life-enhancing values, such as confidence, perseverance and judgment, through golf and character education.

The real winner in the Walmart event, now in its sixth year, is the First Tee itself, which receives 100 percent of the net proceeds from the event. According to president and CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, Ollie Nutt, the charitable Foundation gave out 220 grants worth $8 million in Northern California alone last year.

"Currently we're probably the largest funder in (Monterey) County," Nutt said. Clint Eastwood and former President George Bush serve as chairmen for the unique tournament, which, like the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am, draws celebs as well as what Nutt calls "the best field of the year on the Champions Tour with the exception of a major."

And what would a Pebble Beach pro-am be without comic mainstays George Lopez and Bill Murray, the latter of whom has partnered with the eventual winner each of the last three years? Murray, a 10-handicapper, childhood caddie and notoriously avid golfer, appeared on the last hole wearing a baby blue sweater and drinking a glass of red wine to cheerlead fellow Chicagoan Sluman on to a repeat victory.

Sluman, who lists among his hobbies wine and old cars, feels right at home at Pebble Beach, known for both its libations and its autos, as each August it plays host to the Concours D'Elegance, where the globe's most valuable cars line the 18th fairway in what is widely regarded as the premier car show.

And Pebble also boasts a decent golf course, too. "This would be the place I would play if I had one round left," Sluman said of the legendary layout, echoing Jack Nicklaus's famous tribute to the course Golf Digest has often ranked No. 1 in the country.

The three-day event, broadcast by the Golf Channel, produced some remarkable images - not only of the always pictueresque, blue-green surf of Carmel Bay but, more importantly, of the hundreds of local First Tee participants who marched up the 18th fairway behind O'Meara and Roberts, British Open style. The tournament grants free admission to children with a paying adult and opens the Wednesday and Thursday practice rounds to the public for free.

The Walmart First Tee Open offers ticketholders what is arguably the closest, most unfettered access to professional golfers on any tour, a haven for every autograph-hound in America and a golden chance for golf-loving adults and children alike to set foot on Pebble without shelling out the nearly $500 that, any other time, it would take to play the storied Jack Neville, Douglas Grant masterpiece.

As September ushers in the fairest of the fair weather months on the Monterey Peninsula, and as the beautifully free Carmel Beach beckons immediately beside and below Pebble's breathtaking, seaside ninth and 10th, this Labor Day tournament tradition with a heart of gold is one to do more with than just pencil in on your calendar.

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Pebble Beach Golf Links - hole 17Briana Mao - Walmart First Tee OpenMark O'Meara - Loren Roberts - Pebble Beach - hole 17

Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

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