Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)


What You Might Not Know About Pebble Beach

May 25, 2010

Championship golf courses aren't born that way, they evolve. Every major venue was a minor in the beginning, and each suffers through growing pains. Still, the evolution of Pebble Beach Golf Links has been messier than most, mainly because it has been incessantly poked and prodded by well-meaning amateurs, professionals, architects, engineers, artists and committees, committees, committees. Ultimately it turned out great, of course, and June 17-20 Pebble will be the site of its fifth U.S. Open (to go with four U.S. Amateurs).

But for a lot of years, Pebble Beach, ranked No. 6 on Golf Digest's latest list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, looked a lot more like a platypus than a barracuda. Therein lies a story -- many stories, actually -- on how a pile of rocks was transformed, by accident and by intent, into the most breathtaking, thrilling and fearsome intersection of golf and shoreline in the universe.

The Spot Where Tom Watson Chipped In Is No Longer There

Jack nicklaus, the victim of Watson's heroics, later called it "one of the great shots in the history of the game." Watson was tied with Nicklaus for the lead in the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open when his tee shot at the par-3 17th went left and landed in deep rough between the green and the sea. With the ball above the hole, it looked like an extremely difficult up-and-down. But after Watson's caddie, Bruce Edwards, told him to knock it close, Watson famously responded, "Close? Hell, I'm going to sink it."

Watson's chip hit the flagstick and dropped for a birdie, and he followed with another birdie at the par-5 18th for a two-stroke victory. Ten years later, Nicklaus told us that losing to Watson's chip-in was the biggest disappointment of his Open career: "If it didn't hit," Nicklaus said, "the ball was going eight or 10 feet by."


The winter after the '82 Open, a huge storm struck Pebble. Enormous waves pounded the coastline, and during the night, a huge chunk of the 17th green and 18th tee slid into the sea. With it went the slight mound from which Watson played his historic shot.

The sea wall was quickly patched and the 17th green and surrounds were soon backfilled and re-sodded, although the precise elevation of Watson's spot could not be duplicated. Not until a new seawall was constructed in 1997 was the back tee box of the 18th re-established.

History Can't Be Repeated

Not long after Watson's chip-in, he organized a group that tried to replicate the shot.

It happened prior to the 1983 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Watson was having dinner at the Lodge with friends, including former USGA president Frank (Sandy) Tatum, and they were later joined by cartoonist Hank Ketcham, creator of the "Dennis the Menace" cartoon character. After a bottle or two of champagne, Watson blurted, "Hey, let's go play the shot!" He left the dining room, then returned, as Tatum says, with three balls and the club used to perform the deed. It didn't matter that it was after 10:30 at night. Six men traipsed out to the 17th green.

After some fussing about the exact location -- "Everyone had an opinion, and Tom's was the one listened to the least," Tatum recalled -- they placed a ball to represent the hole, then retreated to the rough and took turns trying to "hole it."

As Nicklaus might have predicted, no one came close. Watson, according to informed sources, finished only third or fourth in the competition.

__Tatum's Tinkering Nearly Cost His Buddy (Watson) That '82 Open __

Prior to pebble's first Open, in 1972, Tatum headed a committee that revamped the course. When the Open returned in 1982, Tatum urged officials to implement a couple of renovations that didn't get done 10 years before. One was the deepening of a fairway bunker on the right side of the par-4 16th. He got it rebuilt, complete with a three-foot vertical front wall of stacked sod. In the final round, his good friend Watson, leading Nicklaus by one with three to play, drove into that bunker, right up against that face. Watson had to pitch out sideways and bogeyed the hole to drop into a share of the lead before his miraculous finish.

If Tatum, who was in the gallery on 16 when Watson drove into the bunker, felt any remorse over its severity, he didn't express it. Instead, he turned to friends and said, "That's what this bunker was meant to do."

The Par-5 18th Was An Afterthought

When pebble Beach opened in 1919, its 18th hole was a short, straight par 4. In defense of the original designers, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, it was the best they could do. Their topographic map shows they positioned the green just in front of a deep ravine, with the Pacific on the left and a 75-cent toll road called 17 Mile Drive, soon relocated, close on the right. It wasn't their fault the green was only 325 yards from the tee. They'd proposed an ocean-side tee box to stretch the hole to 379 yards, but it wasn't built. Funds were limited.

In April 1920, Pebble's owner, Samuel Finley Brown Morse, invited British golf architect W. Herbert Fowler to inspect Pebble Beach. Sure enough, Fowler suggested an ocean-side tee for 18, and this time, Morse had it built.

In October 1921, stung by the criticism of the California Golf Association that Pebble still had "a woefully poor finishing hole," Morse brought Fowler back. This time Fowler proposed filling in the ravine, building a sea wall and backfilling a new green location some 170 yards farther up the shoreline, turning the hole into a boomerang-shape par 5.

Thus was created what many consider the finest finishing hole in golf -- certainly the most photogenic. Over the years, bunkers have been added and shifted, trees removed and transplanted, and the tee box and sea walls reconstructed from bedrock up, but the 18th remains as Fowler suggested 90 years ago. (The 18th will play at 543 yards for this year's Open.)

By the way, photos show that Fowler also ran a creek through a pipe buried in a smaller ravine to create the base for his new green. The remainder of that ravine was filled in during the 1950s. If, some day, Pebble's 18th green suddenly collapses into a trench, it won't be because of an earthquake. It will be because that buried culvert -- made of wood, rock or concrete? -- finally gave way.


S.F.B. Morse Was A Tightwad

Morse was only 30 when he began disposing of the heavily taxed property on the Monterey Peninsula. At first he started selling the land off as housing lots, but then he changed his mind. He was convinced he could build and maintain 18 holes on the cheap. The place for the course was ocean frontage called Pebble Beach.

Given the go-ahead, he solicited routings from six designers (most of whose names, sadly, are long forgotten). He ended up choosing Neville and Grant, two top golfers who worked for free to preserve their amateur status. (In those days, the USGA decreed that all architects were pros.)

Among Morse's money-saving ideas were the use of sheep to clip the grass (they damaged greens and soon ended up on the menu) and the use of pelican droppings scraped from rocks as fertilizer (which killed the grass). He had to be persuaded to hire a real superintendent.

Neville and Grant produced a mixed bag. Pebble opened with mostly square greens and bunkers shaped like cigars and crescents. The course measured barely 6,000 yards.

The routing was basically as it exists today, with several notable exceptions. The ninth was a short par 4, the 10th a sharp-dogleg par 5 over a corner of the Pacific coast; today they're par 4s totaling 1,000 yards. The par-4 16th was just 277 yards to a green short of a deep ravine; now it plays at 403 yards over the ravine.

Neville and Grant got some key decisions right. They chose the spot for the short, downhill seventh -- 109 yards for this year's Open -- with its green on a point surrounded by Carmel Bay. Architect Pete Dye has said that if he'd been walking the property before the routing was done, he probably would have walked right by the seventh hole. Nicklaus agrees. "I probably would have walked right by it, too," Jack says, "because it wouldn't look like there's room enough for a hole."

The original course diagram showed the eighth green (as a par 5) well away from the ocean cliffs, in the vicinity of the present ninth tees, but it must have been relocated prior to construction. A 1920 photo shows the green in its present position, hugging the cliff, providing what Nicklaus calls his favorite shot in golf.

Once It Opened, Pebble Needed Immediate Help

After two years of construction, which Neville supervised, a preview event in March 1918 was a disaster. Pro Mike Brady shot 79-75 to win by 13 strokes. The dozen invited pros were openly critical. There were more rocks and weeds than turfgrass. There were deep ravines everywhere. The greens were impossible.

Neville was apologetic. Morse panicked and asked Harold Sampson, a pro at Morse's other course, Del Monte, to fix things. Over the next decade, Morse allowed any number of people to make refinements and improvements, including famed landscape painter Francis McComas, who penned the famous line, "the greatest meeting of land and sea," erroneously attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson. McComas was writing not of Pebble Beach, but of Point Lobos farther down the coast.


Nicklaus created the 195-yard fifth hole.

Morse also solicited suggestions from visiting architects, including Donald Ross on his only trip to California. There's evidence that Alister Mackenzie, who would create Cypress Point next door, redesigned the eighth and 13th greens.

Pebble's Biggest Blight Took 79 Years To Rectify

One of the first lots Morse sold in 1915 was a 5½-acre parcel on a bluff overlooking Stillwater Cove. William Beatty, who had paid a little more than $6,000, refused to sell it back to Morse. So Neville and Grant had to design around it, forcing them to create a par-3 fifth hole that played away from the ocean.

Arnold Palmer, a present co-owner of Pebble, described it as "an awful, terrible hole." Tee shots on the 180-yarder had to thread between trees and over a ravine. Some called it golf's only dogleg par 3.

Beatty's home went on the market after his widow died in 1941, but Morse didn't have the money to buy it. So it remained a private residence until 1995, when the Pebble Beach Co. (then owned by Japanese interests) bought the land for more than $8 million, sold two inland sections as home sites (one of them to Charles Schwab) and turned the ocean frontage over to Nicklaus to design a new par-3 fifth. It took three years, including an extended battle over removal of an ancient oak, before the hole was completed in November 1998.

Arnold Palmer Now Presides Over Pebble

Ask any pebble Beach official who it was that proposed the latest changes to the course for the 2010 U.S. Open, and the answer is always, "It was a company decision." But the company deferred, ultimately, to Palmer.

So when Neal Hotelling, director of corporate affairs and longtime Pebble Beach historian, unearthed dozens of old photographs of the course and circulated them among senior vice president of golf RJ Harper, superintendent Chris Dalhamer and others, several suggested it would be great to re-establish some bunkers and features that had eroded. But Palmer was given the final say.

He approved of a new bunker along the left side of the first green because there was one there in the 1929 Amateur. But he also insisted on adding three bunkers in a hillside on the outside corner of the dogleg-left third, even though there'd never been any bunkers there. "That's something I've wanted to do ever since I first saw Pebble Beach," Palmer says. "That whole hillside was sort of wasted."

Thad Layton, a course architect in Palmer's Orlando office, prepared the plans for new bunkers but never made a site visit to Pebble. Dalhamer supervised their construction by a contractor, hole by hole, to avoid interrupting play and requiring that green fees be discounted. That's always the company way at Pebble Beach.

Palmer also suggested transplanting several mature trees, replacing old pines on the 18th with cypress, placing new trees near the second green to tighten the approach and planting new trees down the right side of 15 to screen 17 Mile Drive from the tee.

Perhaps the most dramatic change for this year's Open came from Mike Davis of the USGA, who suggested that the fairways on Nos. 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10 be shifted closer to the cliffs to bring the ocean back in play. Palmer agreed and even suggested new bunkers on the fourth and sixth that would further push big hitters to the edge. "If they want to go long, they'd better be accurate," Palmer says.

After Dalhamer speculated that the fairways were like that in the beginning, we asked Palmer if he recalled just how close to the cliffs the fairways had been. After a long, cold stare, he replied, "I'm not that old."


Storms off Carmel Bay occasionally try to claim portions of the 208-yard 17th (top) and the fortified tee of the par-5 18th. The 505-yard par-4 ninth (below) is one of seven consecutive holes on the ocean.