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The Pebble Mystique

It is perhaps the most spectacular golf course in America and Golf’s most glorious union of Earth and Ocean anywhere in the world.

This week, Pebble Beach plays host to the 2010 US Open Championship. It will be the fifth time in the storied history of Pebble Beach that it plays host to the USGA’s marquee event. Each of the previous four Opens there provided memorable theater that stays with us today.

1972 was the first year that Pebble Beach hosted the US Open and was appropriately won by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus was in the prime of his career and he has often referred to Pebble as his favorite golf course. A tough combination to beat. He didn’t disappoint and won his third Open by two shots in brutal conditions.

In 1982, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were locked in a two man battle until Watson holed one of the most famous chip shots in history. After hitting his tee shot on the 17th hole a little too far long and left, Watson chipped in from an impossible lie in the rough for a birdie that secured his victory.

In 1992, Tom Kite won his first and only Major Championship on these links in the most difficult conditions imaginable. With winds gusting at 40 mph, the greatest players in the world were made to look like rank beginners. The average score in the final round was a colossal 77.3, but Kite survived by shooting a final round even par, 72, that gave him a two shot victory over Jeff Sluman.

The 2000 US Open, gave us one of the most dominant and spell-binding performances ever in a Major Championship. Tiger Woods won by a staggering 15 shots over Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Woods so decimated the rest of the field that it seemed as though there were two separate events being played. One by Woods and the other by everybody else. It was complete mastery.

Pebble Beach is not the greatest golf course in the world. In fact there are many purists who would say that is only the third best course on the Monterrey Peninsula after Cyprus Point and Spyglass. It has some very ‘ordinary’ holes. The par 5, 2nd hole is a benign, straightway hole, the likes of which can be routinely found on any municipal facility. Same can be said of the par 4, 3rd hole and the stretch of holes from 12 to 16.

The “teeth” of Pebble happens from the 7th to the 10th holes. If a player comes through this terrifying stretch in even par, they have made up two shots on the field. Navigate these four holes safely and you will have a good round.

There are a great many birdie opportunities at Pebble Beach, more so perhaps than any other US Open venue. Holes 1-4, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18 are all legitimate scoring opportunities, so why have two of the highest 3 scoring averages in US Open history (1972 and 1982) happened at Pebble?

Fast greens.

If you play Pebble Beach on a still and calm day, chances are that you will post a very good score but those days are few and far between.

The course was designed to be played in the wind (like some of the classic Scottish links courses) so it is short in terms of distance. From the back tees it only measures 7,040 yards which is very short in modern day golf.

The best example of this is the par 3, 7th, which may be the best short par-3 in the world. You stand on an elevated tee box some 40 yards above the green below with the Pacific Ocean on your horizon. The hole is 125 yards at its longest and more routinely played from 106 yards. Depending on the ferocity and direction of the wind, the choice of club ranges from a Sand Wedge to a 3 iron. On the windiest of days, players have been known to deliberately, “lay-up” with a three iron into the front bunker and this hole is just over one hundred yards long.

The key to playing Pebble well is to always leave yourself uphill putts. Often times a 30 foot uphill putt will be easier than a downhill 3 footer. Most of the greens descend in elevation from back to front. Being “above” the hole is to be avoided at all costs, especially in US Open conditions where the USGA always has green speeds at their most precipitous. When you combine those factors with the Poa Annua greens (because Poa grows at irregular directions it can make a putt that looks like it will break 4 inches from right to left go the entire opposite direction) you have created a recipe for serious combustion.

Each of the first four winners of the US Open at Pebble Beach are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. It is no coincidence that the cream has always risen to the top at this most magnificent of venues.

Who will it be in 2010?