There's nothing wrong with the U.S. Open that Pebble Beach can't solve
PEBBLE BEACH — It’s not easy to get here. The road from Monterey is twisty and steep, curling through a forest of giant trees. I’m thinking no one would want to live here, remote, removed, on the edge of the world, lost even to Californians.
Yet I look through the forest, to the tops of trees, and houses are perched there, perilously it seems, teetering on hillsides where trees have been taken down by landslides. And then we descend to the peninsula’s flatland. And to the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Where all is forgiven. Robert Louis Stevenson called the Monterey Peninsula “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation.” No inkstained wretch should argue with the creator of the murderous Mr. Hyde. Still, “felicitous” is too dainty a word to describe the good work done here by, y’know, the ultimate golf architect, God. How about miraculous? It’s all breathtaking, astonishing, and pretty damn special.
The folks in charge of the United States Open golf tournament do many things well, and the thing they do best is bring their ultimate competition to the Pebble Beach Golf Links, the ultimate golf course. Maybe some places demand more of a player; Oakmont comes to mind. Maybe some places speak more to history; Augusta. No place, it says here, does all that while sending its players to the edge of the known world–way past Gilroy, just south and west of Salinas–and onto the greatest stage in golf.
We’ve all seen the Jack Nicklaus 1-iron collide with the flagstick at Pebble Beach’s 17th for a kick-in birdie that helped him win 1972 U.S. Open, the third of his four Open championships. That shot is such a piece of history that it is irrevocably tied to Pebble Beach, as if the place itself enriched Nicklaus’s record. The truth is the opposite. That Open was the first that the U.S. Golf Association dared bring to removed, remote Pebble Beach. Nicklaus already was the best ever. So his 1-iron into a stiff breeze off the ocean gave Pebble Beach its first piece of Open immortality.
It is also part of why Nicklaus wrote, “If I only had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach.”
After Nicklaus came Tom Watson in 1982 (that called chip-in at the 17th!), Tom Kite in ’92, Tiger Woods in 2000 (by 15 shots!), and Graeme McDowell in 2010. If, as one USGA executive director, Sandy Tatum, once said, the Open does not intend to “embarrass” the great players but to “identify” them, that list of champions shows that Pebble Beach has well played its role in the process.
Pebble’s return to the Open rotation nine years after McDowell’s victory—it's also coming back in 2027—may also gladden hearts of the USGA administrators who have come in for some heat of late—as the 2015 champion Jordan Spieth noted in a press conference Tuesday:
“I think recent history (for the USGA) was just kind of a bit unlucky. One golf course played a lot easier [Erin Hills, 2017]. You had a rules thing [Dustin Johnson, Oakmont, 2016], and some greens that ended up not the way that they were supposed to be [Chambers Bay, 2015]. I don’t know necessarily if all the blame goes to one place, or a number of places, or there shouldn’t be any blame. If we’re going to look at 2015, I was playing the best going in, and so was Dustin and [Jason] Day, and look at the leader board on Sunday. Maybe it wasn’t ideal conditions, but it didn’t separate who was playing the best that week. Same with DJ playing the best at Oakmont, he winds up winning. Big picture, you still had the right champions every single time.”
And now they come not to a place unknown, not to Erin Hills or Chambers Bay, but to a place called felicitous and breathtaking and “one of the most amazing pieces of property in the world” (Spieth, Tuesday). They come to Pebble Beach, a property sanctified by Nicklaus and Watson and beatified by Woods, and we’ll see if Brooks Koepka can add to the history. Victory would be Koepka’s third straight in the Open. That trifecta has been done, but only once, and a lot has happened since Willie Anderson came over from Scotland and did it in 1903, ’04, and ’05.
By the way, Robert Louis Stevenson was also Scottish. He was 29 years old in 1879 when he walked the beaches of the Monterey Peninsula. Brooks Koepka is also 29. Make of that what you will.