U.S. Open 2019: How Pebble Beach became the USGA's crown jewel of U.S. Open sites
Photo by Dom Furore
Pebble Beach is located in a forest, though not the Amazon Rainforest or the Siberian taiga. Either might have been a reasonable assumption given the USGA’s handwringing over taking the U.S. Open to the Del Monte Forest for the first time. Remote was an understatement to the blue-blazer, blue-blood denizens from the northeast. It was part of California’s own flyover country, somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles, its most populated neighboring city the farming hub of Salinas.
“Pebble Beach was at the end of the world,” the late Frank Hannigan told me once in recalling the USGA’s concerns. Hannigan was its tournament relations manager then, before becoming its executive director. “We considered going to Pebble Beach for the ’72 Open very risky. There might not have been anybody there. We thought, ‘People can’t get to Pebble Beach.’ The U.S. Amateur was played at Pebble Beach [in 1961] and nobody was there.”
Turns out, though, that the earth wasn’t flat and Pebble Beach wasn’t teetering on its edge. Many found their way to Pebble Beach, including this writer and friends, who bought tickets at the gate, though the ability to do so perhaps suggests the USGA’s crowd concerns were not necessarily unfounded. The Open was not a sellout.
And then Jack Nicklaus, at the par-3 17th hole, the 71st hole of the championship, with a flourish of his MacGregor 1-iron, gave Pebble Beach its greatest boost since Robert Louis Stevenson—or maybe someone else; it remains an open question—penned this paean to Pebble, “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation.”
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Beginning with its memorable debut in 1972, Pebble Beach has become the crown jewel of the USGA’s favored U.S. Open venues. Next week, the Open will return to Pebble Beach for the sixth time, most in the last 50 years and one up on Oakmont Country Club. It already is scheduled to return to Pebble Beach in 2027.
Several factors contributed to the transformation of the Open at Pebble Beach from risky venture in the hinterlands to the citadel of our national championship. Nicklaus, of course, helped. So did Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Tiger Woods in the ensuing three U.S. Opens there, “all artistic successes,” former USGA Executive Director David Fay said.
It helped, too, that two USGA vanguards—California natives and future USGA presidents Sandy Tatum and Grant Spaeth—advocated leading an expedition to the backwoods to colonize Pebble Beach and take the U.S. Open there.
“That was a problem,” the late Tatum said in 2010. “I had a lot to do with that one, especially because the issues were out there. In those days, going all the way to the West Coast and down there to that course was controversial.”
Spaeth was much more succinct regarding the USGA’s crowd concerns. “Absolute baloney,” he said recently. “It was a miscalculation. The crowds were a lot more than predicted by the savants.”
The USGA also was concerned that Pebble Beach was a public-access course without a membership on which it could depend for volunteers, curiously. “We’d been doing that with the Crosby for 25 years,” Pebble Beach Company historian Neal Hotelling said. “Other clubs in the area helped to provide volunteers.”
The USGA tepidly agreed to an Open at Pebble Beach only after Del Monte Properties president Tim Michaud offered the association a $250,000 guarantee, “so you won’t lose money,” Hotelling said. “You’ll make money, guaranteed, no risk.”
At the time, the USGA was in the midst of expanding its portfolio of Open courses beyond the traditional sites—Oakmont, Oakland Hills, Baltusrol, Merion, Winged Foot and others, Fay said. “Seventy-two at Pebble Beach, 1970 was Hazeltine [National Golf Club], 1969 was Champions Golf Club in Houston, 1976 was the Atlanta Athletic Club, 1964 it went to Congressional, ’65 was Bellerive. They were sort of in the midst of taking a look at fresh faces.”
The ’72 Open at Pebble Beach exceeded all expectations. The late Dan Jenkins, then writing for Sports Illustrated, called Pebble Beach “the real star of the Open,” notwithstanding a leader board that had Nicklaus first, Arnold Palmer third, Lee Trevino tied for fourth and Johnny Miller seventh.
“Considering that Merion is maybe too short and Pine Valley is too tormentingly special,” Jenkins wrote, “Pebble Beach might have proved that when it is in good condition, as it was for the Open, it is America’s greatest championship test.”
It was photogenic, as well. Pebble Beach was always going to win a U.S. Open beauty contest, a boon to television, notably as televisions and telecasts improved and eventually allowed Sunday’s finish to occur in prime time in the east.
But Pebble Beach also has delivered on the USGA’s de facto U.S. Open mandate, as Tatum once described it, not to embarrass the best players but to identify them. It has produced Hall of Fame champions and some of major championship golf’s most memorable shots.
Nicklaus’ 1-iron on the penultimate hole of the ’72 U.S. Open set the tone. “The ultimate dimension to that Open, indeed to Nicklaus’ career, was the 1-iron off the pin,” Tatum said. Nicklaus, who had won the Masters a few months earlier, had a tap-in birdie and won by three.
A decade later, the par-3 17th hole exacted a measure of revenge on Nicklaus in the final round. Watson and Nicklaus were tied for the lead, the latter having completed his round. Watson missed the green left of the hole, his ball nestling in the brutally thick rough. “I’m going to make it,” Watson told his caddie with conviction that belied the probability of his doing so.
Remarkably and memorably, Watson indeed holed it, then added a birdie at 18 to defeat Nicklaus by two. “I could have stood there with 100 balls and pitched them all at the hole from where he was and not gotten any of them in,” Bill Rogers, Watson’s playing partner, said.
In 1992, on a difficult course in windy conditions, Kite at a less dramatic juncture delivered an equally important and memorable hole-out, a chip from gnarly rough behind the seventh green.
Tiger in the 2000 Open produced a highlight reel all his own, winning by a record 15 shots. “Just the perfect display of golf,” runner-up Ernie Els called it. “If you want to watch a guy win the U.S. Open playing perfectly, you've just seen it.”
And Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland was a popular winner of the 2010 U.S. Open, though his victory likely broke the chain of Hall of Fame winners at Pebble Beach.
“It’s just the success,” Hotelling said. “We’ve had some of the best championships. That’s definitely a part of it. And obviously, the USGA decided public-access golf is a good thing. Pebble Beach was the only one until the USGA finally gave Pinehurst the Open in ’99. Then Bethpage, Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay, Erin Hills, they’ve kind of decided maybe it’s not a bad thing, public-access golf.”
The roll call of Open winners at Pebble enhanced the prettiest place in golf and stamped it as the center of the USGA’s golf universe. “Wonderful partners,” former USGA president Diana Murphy called it. Bill Perocchi, CEO of Pebble Beach Company, called it “a special long-standing partnership.”
This partnership that included the U.S. Amateur last year and this year’s Open, will continue into the next decade and likely the decades to follow. The USGA will return in 2023 with the U.S. Women’s Open and again in 2027 with the U.S. Open.
All roads, the USGA discovered belatedly, lead to Pebble Beach.
“The combination of characteristics of that golf course are not reproducible anywhere,” Tatum said. “The routing is absolutely brilliant. It picks up as much of the coastline that makes it so very special as you can get in that property.
“Pebble Beach as an Open site is as good as it gets.”