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America's Golf Mecca

Pebble Beach will host the U.S. Open for the fifth time in June, a testament to one of the greatest settings for the country’s national championship
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

(continued from page 5)

It was a gray Sunday at Pebble Beach, but the atmosphere was electric. Watson was tied for the lead with the mighty Jack Nicklaus with two holes to play. Nicklaus was sitting in the scorer's tent, finishing with a 69, his fate in Watson's hands.

Watson struck his 2-iron shot to the long par 3 17th, trying to find any piece of the green's tiny left side. When the ball finished in the gnarly rough off the left side of the green, leaving Watson a chip he would do well to get 10 feet from the hole, Nicklaus was feeling pretty good about his chances.

Watson was feeling otherwise.

After assessing the shot, Watson chose a sand wedge. As caddy Bruce Edwards handed it to him, he said: "Get it close."

To which Watson replied: "I'm not going to get it close, I'm going to make it."

And he did, for a birdie.

With one of the most dramatic shots in golf history Watson won his only U.S. Open championship. The shot and the title were made immeasurably grander by his defeat of the legendary Nicklaus and by the grandeur of the setting. To win it at Pebble Beach, a course that Nicklaus himself cherished and championed, was to win at the very pinnacle of golf in America.

Now the Open returns to Pebble Beach this June for the fifth time since it was first held there in 1972, and if it is anything at all like the four that proceeded, it will be among the most memorable of championships.

From Nicklaus's methodical win in 1972 to Watson's chip-in win to Tom Kite's survival-of-the fittest win in 1992 to Tiger Woods's dominating win in 2000, the Opens at Pebble Beach have certainly been the most dramatic of the television age and rank among the best of all time.

And don't you think Tiger Woods doesn't want to get back to Pebble Beach? It was here in 2000 that Woods put on the most overwhelming display of championship golf ever, pulverizing and humbling the field with a 15-shot victory, the largest margin of victory in a major. His break from golf to deal with his substantial infidelity issues will end at the Masters Tournament in April, but he claimed a certain percentage of ownership rights in Pebble Beach with his AT&T National Pro-Am win in February of 2000, coming from seven shots behind in the final round, then his General Sherman march to the Open title in June. You just think he has to come back to Pebble Beach.

He won't be alone. You can expect Woods will have competition this year-from the dogged Steve Stricker, from the magical-if-mercurial Phil Mickelson, from the Englishmen Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, from the Irishman Padraig Harrington, from the exciting Colombian Camilo Villegas. Maybe upstarts like Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy or Ryo Ishikawa will be in the mix. And shouldn't the 60-year-old Watson, based on his extraordinary performance at the British Open last year, get one more crack at an Open at Pebble Beach with an exemption from the United States Golf Association?

Whether the championship this June comes down to a lap-the-field victory like Woods's or a neck-and-neck battle like Watson's, Pebble Beach will showcase it like no other course. This Open is very much a homecoming for golf in America. No other course in the Open rota-not Winged Foot, not Oakmont, not Baltusrol or even Shinnecock Hills-evokes such stirring images of the game or such a passionate longing.

Of the thousands of words Nicklaus has used to describe and analyze his favorite course, just one of them tells you everything you need to know. He calls Pebble Beach "majestic."

"This is as close as we have to a national course for our championship," says Kite. "Just think of it-what other course combines so many wonderful things that are great about our game? The site is unmatchable anywhere in golf. The layout is terrific. The shot values are wonderful. The views are jaw-dropping. It's not a private club. Anybody can play there. Everybody wants to play there."

"The greatest recognition our resort can achieve is that we can handle and put up the stern test that the USGA requires for an Open," says RJ Harper, senior vice president for golf at Pebble Beach and general chairman of the Open. "To be considered a true championship is extremely important to us for business purposes. It creates demand across the world."

From any aspect, Pebble Beach reaches into our senses. Standing on the sixth green, the entire course in your view over 180 degrees. Standing on the 7th green, waves crashing against the rocks while sea otters dive for abalone (cracking the shell with a rock on their stomachs as they float atop the kelp beds). Standing on the precipice of the 8th hole, contemplating the most awesome shot in golf across the harrowing chasm. Standing on the 17th tee, hitting to the largest green on the course, except that it is bisected into the two smallest targets. Standing on the 18th tee, marveling at the seething Pacific and praying to avoid it. And praying that you will come back.

Now Pebble beckons the world's finest players again. Will the winner stack up to Pebble's champions of the past? Will he be among the greats? Will Pebble Beach again define the greatness of a player as it defines all that is great about the game itself?

Here's a look at the four previous Opens at Pebble Beach and the great champions who won them.

Jack Nicklaus, 1972
By 1972 Jack Nicklaus had established himself as the best player of all time. He had won 10 major championships and had lost in a play off for the Open the previous year to Lee Trevino. With the Open played for the first time at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus was the clear favorite. He had won the second of his two U.S. Amateur Championships at Pebble in 1961. He had won three "Crosbys." It was his favorite course.

The United States Golf Association had made sure Pebble would be a stern test of golf. The rough was up, and the greens were mowed to the nub and starved of water. If there was any weather at all, this was going to be one tough Open.

"Pebble Beach is not a difficult golf course under benign conditions," says Nicklaus. "It's a very difficult golf course under severe conditions."

The wind blew for most of the four days and only the highly skilled and highly determined players would contend. Those conditions would play straight into Nicklaus's hands, but he wasn't surrounded by slouches.

Again Trevino, (suffering with something akin to pneumonia) was nipping at his heels. Arnold Palmer, on the downturn of his legendary career, was putting up one more battle in U.S. Open. The dour but dangerous Bruce Crampton had a toehold on the leaderboard.

Nicklaus had a one-stroke lead over Trevino to start the final round and was paired with him. Nicklaus opened a three-shot lead through the front nine, then the wind got him on the 10th hole, where it tossed his drive off the bluff on the right. He made double bogey. But in these conditions, nobody could get closer to him than a shot and by the time he reached the 17th hole he was three shots ahead. It was blowing a gale at the 17th, so all Nicklaus had to do was avoid disaster.

Instead, he made history.

Smack into the wall of wind he ripped a one-iron of more than 200 yards that struck the green just in front of the pin, hit the stick flush and dropped down a few inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie. With a conservative bogey on the 18th, Jack Nicklaus had won the first Open at Pebble Beach and Pebble Beach had won Jack Nicklaus.

Tom Watson, 1982
A decade later, Watson had overtaken Nicklaus as the dominant player in the game. But Nicklaus was still dangerous. He was up to 13 major championships after wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980.

Still Watson had become as much a nemesis for him as Lee Trevino had been a decade earlier. He had beaten Nicklaus twice in 1977, at the Masters and British Open. He had beaten Nicklaus again at the 1981 Masters.

Watson started the final day tied for the lead with Bill Rogers and three shots ahead of Nicklaus. Nicklaus crafted a fine 69 in benign weather and when he signed his card in the scorer's tent he was tied for the lead with Watson, then Watson chipped in on him for the win.

Rogers, Watson's playing partner, said afterward, "You could hit that chip a hundred times and not get it close to the pin, much less in the hole."

"A thousand times," said a stunned Nicklaus.

"I was at the peak of my confidence," said Watson recently. "There wasn't any reason for me to not believe I could make it."

In the end, Nicklaus sat slumped and stunned in the scorer's tent and Watson raced around the 17th green like an unbridled pony. The late, great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind remarked that Watson's chip "was the most sensational shot since World War II."

Tom Kite, 1992
The weather forecast was ominous for the final round, with high winds predicted to pick up by noon and blowing straight into the hopes and dreams of the leaders. On an historic note, Dr. Gil Morgan had become the first player in known Open history to reach double digits under par when he birdied the 3rd, 6th and 7th holes on Friday to move to 12 under par (he would then go nine over par in the next seven holes).

Kite birdied the first hole on Sunday to tie for the lead, but already the wind was starting to gust. Pebble, in its typical Open setup, was hard and fast. Too fast for Nick Faldo's liking. "If they want greens like this, I'm going to take up topless darts," said Faldo. "It would be easier to catch them in your teeth today."
By the time Kite arrived at the fourth hole, it was howling. He made a double bogey on the short par 4, but bounced back with birdie on the par 5 6th. There on the 6th green, on the highest point on the course, Kite's pants were flapping like sails in a squall. It was all he could do to keep his balance, but he rolled in a 20-footer for the birdie.


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