Pebble now an intimate meeting of land and sea
PEBBLE BEACH – One shot that stands out from the last U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was the 7-iron that Tiger Woods gouged out of the right rough on the par-5 sixth, a blind shot over the hill and onto the green to turn trouble into birdie.
He might not get so lucky if it happens this year.
That famous meeting of land and sea is a lot more intimate at this U.S. Open.
In a subtle change that could put even more fear into Pebble Beach, the USGA opted to eliminate the rough on six holes along the Pacific coastline, allowing errant shots to go over the cliff and into the biggest water hazard in golf.
“If the wind is into us on those holes, you’re going to see a lot of fun and games,” Ernie Els said. “I actually hit one onto the beach the other day on the 10th hole. If you just leak it there, there’s no way. The cliff comes into the fairway a little bit and from the tee, you might think you can fly it over that side. But you can’t. Or at least I can’t.”
Els didn’t go down to the beach to play his next shot. It was a practice round. Besides, “I don’t know if I would have come back up.”
Padraig Harrington knows where not to hit his tee shot on the sixth hole. He pushed it a little bit to the right during the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February and watched it tumble over the bluffs and onto the rocks at Stillwater Cove.
“I’m not sure if it’s playable to the right,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t playable then.”
That’s just one more element for Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and the rest of the 156-man field to contend with when the 110th U.S. Open gets under way on Thursday.
Pebble Beach already is a severe test with its tiny greens, already so firm that the USGA put water on them before the final practice round Wednesday to keep them from dying by the weekend. The forecast is for cool temperatures and no rain all week, although there is no predicting whether a marine layer will keep the sun off the Monterey Peninsula.
“Fog will be the players’ friend,” said Roger Maltbie, a Pebble regular who now works for NBC Sports. “If we get sunny conditions with a bit of breeze, this will be a great championship. And I’d be very surprised if anyone breaks par.”
Only one player broke par the last time – Woods with an unfathomable 12-under 272 to win by 15 shots.
Woods played only the back nine Wednesday, finishing with a tee shot into the bunker on the 18th, blasting out to the fairway, then ripping a 2-iron onto the green. Asked what club he used, Woods laughed and said, “None of your business.”
That was a reference to his terse reply when someone asked about the state of his marriage in his press conference Tuesday. With so much chaos in his personal life, Woods has enough to get his attention at Pebble Beach.
Pebble is as beautiful as ever this week. It figures to be as brutal a test at the U.S. Open.
“It’s a course where you need to bring your complete game,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “Of all the venues, when Pebble is set up like this, it’s the one that separates a guy who is on top of his game. That was definitely true in 2000. And I think it will be this time.”
Pebble Beach is only 7,040 yards, the shortest track for a U.S. Open in seven years, yet it tests so much of the game – off the tee, from the fairway, around the green, and the patience required at what is billed the “toughest test in golf.”
Shaving down the rough along the ocean, and around the edges of fairway bunkers, could make it even tougher. It’s not a links course, although the strategy might be similar this week.
“You’re trying to avoid the bunkers, you’re trying to avoid the ocean,” said Mike Davis, the senior director of rules and competition who set up the course. “The ground matters. We’re really accentuating gravity this week. Where is gravity taking the golf ball? We don’t get that lucky very often.”
It was a swamp at Bethpage Black last year, when Lucas Glover outlasted the field in a rain-delayed Monday finish. Even at Torrey Pines two years ago in San Diego, another coastal Open, the sticky, kikuyu grass keeps the fairways from running fast.
Pebble is a treat in so many ways.
“You have to be in complete control,” Ogilvy said. “Whether the winning score is 12 over or 12 under, if the guy with every aspect of his game wins, there’s nothing more you can ask of a golf course.”
Mickelson has one request – anything but a silver medal.
He has a record five of them already from being the runner-up at the U.S. Open, all in the past 11 years. Mickelson celebrated his 40th birthday on Wednesday by playing golf at Cypress Point, considered the finest coastal course in America.
Mickelson, who could become No. 1 in the world this week with at least a third-place finish, played Pebble Beach last week and knows it as well as anyone. He is a three-time winner of the PGA Tour stop, and he opened the 1992 U.S. Open with a 68 in his first round as a pro. He shot 81 the next day and missed the cut.
“I think it’s the best U.S. Open set up that I’ve seen,” Mickelson said. “The one area of concern I have is the greens. They’re so small and they’re so firm that, given there’s not any forecast for rain, I’m certainly concerned that we could have 14 potential seventh holes at Shinnecock if we’re not careful.”
The par-3 seventh at Shinnecock in 2004 – where Mickelson was the runner-up – became so dead that balls no longer stayed on the green and it had to be watered in the middle of the round.
Otherwise, he thinks it’s about perfect. And so do many others.
“It seems like they have it all under control,” Adam Scott said. “No matter what happens, it’s a pretty spectacular way to spend the day, whether it’s the U.S. Open or not.”