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The U.S. Open That Has Everything

By John M. Ross,
Pebble Beach Golf Links
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The U.S. Open this year comes to Pebble Beach for just the fourth time. (Courtesy of Pebble Beach Golf Links)

The upcoming U.S. Open Championship has enough hoopla ingredients to make a Madison Avenue balloon-blower wince. For one thing, it has historical significance, being the 100th championship and the first of the new century.

It is being played on what many think is the best test of golf in the world - Pebble Beach, surely the most beautiful. And finally, it has Tiger Woods coming back for another go at the miracles he performed on his last visit.

Put them all together and they don't spell "mother," but they do give the promise of an upcoming sports spectacular. Pebble Beach has always held that kind of promise for me. Heading into the course on 17-mile Drive, my heart seems to beat a little faster, and I have a heightened anticipation that something great is going to happen. It doesn't always turn out that way, but just being at Pebble, I think, puts you in that frame of mind.

Robert Louis Stevenson said it best when he wrote this about the Monterey Peninsula: "It is the most beautiful meeting of land and water that nature has produced." That's the impact on the first meeting. And then, when you embark on the course with clubs in hand and see what nature and Pebble's original designers, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, have collaborated on, you simply step back again and again and say, "Wow!"

The Open has been to Pebble three times before - 1972, 1982 and 1992 - and considering the esteem in which the course is held, that's not very many. Established Open site Baltusrol has hosted the event seven times. Oakmont and Oakland Hills have had six. I've seen most of them, but the exciting moments that stick in my mind most prominently are those that happened at Pebble.

The first time the USGA assigned its Open to Pebble, in 1972, Jack Nicklaus, at his peak at 32, was the natural favorite. He had already won the Open twice and had a victory in The Crosby over the same track, but as the final round played down there were some questions whether Nicklaus could hold his lead going into Pebble's terrifying 17th and 18th. Both were along the rocky coastline of Carmel Bay, and the shifting winds coming in over the water struck fear in the hearts of the staunchest.

At the par-3, 209-yard 17th, Nicklaus elected to hit his iron into a stiff wind. The ball faded out of his view momentarily, and then he heard a roar from the crowd. The sound of music! The ball had struck the flagstick and nestled about two inches away. The title would be his, even after he three-putted the par-5 18th.

When Nicklaus returned to Pebble for the 1982 Open, he didn't find the same happy ending. Once again the scene was the 17th, and he was tied for the lead with Tom Watson. Jack was already in the clubhouse, and since Watson's tee-shot had landed in six-inch rough at the back left of the green, the Bear's chances of racking up a record-fifth Open seemed excellent. But remember, this was Pebble Beach.

Faced with disaster, Watson braced himself and then flipped the ball over the fringe. It rolled down the bank of the hard green and into the cup for a 20-foot birdie chip. Elated, Tom circled the green on a trot, holding his putter aloft, and each time I go back to Pebble I can feel that excitement at the 17th and catch the vision of Watson in his victory dance.

Yes, it was a victory dance. The miracle chip gave Tom a one-shot edge, which he stretched with another birdie on the closing hole. Historians agree it was one of the most electrifying shots in the history of the U.S. Open.

Nicklaus was in a different role for the Open's return to Pebble in 1992. Two years before the event, Jack and his golf course design company were brought in by the Pebble operators to improve the condition of the course, which had taken some bad hits from the fickle weather of Monterey Bay.

The assignment was restoration - not redesign. The course, built in 1915, had suffered somewhat in the aging process. The greens had shrunk and departed from their original contours; bunkers had gotten bigger; and the plague-like kikuyu grass was everywhere. Nicklaus was asked to get the course back to its original size and shape, and put it in top condition for the '92 championship.

Jack and his team reseeded the fairways with kikuyu-resistant perennial rye grass and rebuilt a few greens. But the big task was solving the problem of the 5th hole, a par-3 166-yarder that sat in the shade of tall trees. Because of its location, it was slow to defrost after a cold night during the winter. To solve this, they installed water pipes under the surface that were flushed with hot water whenever the temperature dropped below 55 degrees. Presto! No more frozen greens.

But the job on the 5th hole didn't end there. The hole had an odd shape (some said it was the only dogleg par-3 in the world) because a coastal strip of land was not available to the original builders. In 1998, the owner decided to sell it to Pebble Beach's operators, who in turn called in Nicklaus to build a new hole.

Nicklaus, who thinks Pebble is the greatest course in the world, was delighted to have a hand in its new imprint. He remained faithful to the measurements of the hole, and kept the bunkers in the same relative positions as the old hole. When it was tried out for the first time in the AT&T National Pro-Am (formerly The Crosby), statistics showed that it played as the toughest hole on the course.

Of course, the newest change at Pebble - and one that is delighting the American golf community - is the switch in ownership. There have been frequent changes over the past 20 years, including some that infuriated golfers when the much-beloved Pebble fell into the hands of foreign owners. Especially when there was some indication that it might become a private foreign club with six-figure dues. There were questions why the world's best golf course - located in America - should be owned by foreign money.

But then in 1999, Arnold Palmer rode up on his white horse. Together with Clint Eastwood and two other major partners, as well as about 100 limited partners, they bought back Pebble for $820 million.

And now that everything is in proper place for the 100th Open, let's see if Tiger Woods can rip it apart. The last time he was here, he came from seven shots behind in the last round to win. For the Open, the grass is a little higher, the fairways narrower, and greens a little harder. Tiger, you're on the tee.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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