PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The first U.S. Open that I can remember watching was in 1980 at Baltusrol.
It was Jack Nicklaus and Isao Aoki over the last two rounds, seemingly going head to head, though Lon Hinkle, Keith Fergus, Mark Hayes and Tom Watson were within two strokes of the lead when Sunday’s final round started.
Nicklaus would win by two shots, but aside from his victory with familiar caddie Angelo Argea at his side and a raised putter upon draining a 72nd-hole birdie, what I remember most was the course.
It was hot all week in Springfield, N.J., just west of New York, enhancing Baltusrol’s difficulty as players struggled to negotiate a quintessential U.S. Open course: ribbon-wide fairways with juicy rough that ringed the firm, slick greens. It was the sort of setup that every blue-jacketed USGA official praised as a total examination.
When players arrive at a U.S. Open, it’s often similar to a visit to McDonalds. They know exactly what they are going to get: one of the toughest setups in professional golf.
That philosophy changed in recent U.S. Opens. Chipping areas appeared around greens, graduated rough emerged and long par 4s were converted into drivable holes.
The U.S. Open started to evolve, going from the familiar McDonald’s to an unfamiliar challenger, with numerous options but not all of them savory.
This week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where the 119th national championship begins Thursday (tee times), the prototypical U.S. Open setup will be back.
“It tests everything of your ability, and that's the way U.S. Opens should be like,” two-time Open winner Ernie Els said after his 18-hole practice round on Tuesday. “… If you're ever going to have a blueprint on a U.S. Open, this is the one. It's just been fantastic to have played here in the past. I played in 2000 and 2010, and it's very similar. It's a little bit greener at the moment. The rough is really, really up.”
With thick rough and firm greens in the forecast, the four days at Pebble Beach will look a lot like your father’s U.S. Open. Skill and no small amount of luck will help determine who will hold the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday night.
“I think there's going to be some very unlucky lies around the greens and the tops of the bunkers,” said Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner. “It's quite a coarse grass, as well. Any ball that lands just over the top of a bunker and lands in that longer grass, I think the ball is going to stick in there and you're going to have some tough lies. And maybe you'll see guys not move a ball possibly from the tops of those bunkers. That's probably the most penal area of the golf course.”
Tiger Woods, who won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots, can remember almost every shot he played during the record performance, as well as the setup that year. The 2019 version will be better in some ways and worse in others, he said.
“Right now, I would have to say that it's more clumpy than it was in 2000,” Woods said of the rough. “In 2000, it was pretty uniform all the way through. Right now, they've got some spots where you can draw a good lie. You can get a ball to the green with no problem. And then there's spots where it's just a wedge, hack it out in the fairway and try to get up and down from the middle of the fairway. That's probably the biggest difference between uniform and clumpy, between the two years.”
The former Open winners seem to understand better than others the one key tenet of a U.S. Open week: The tournament will be a complete examination, and fairness will not be part of the discussion.
Pebble Beach will hold that total examination. Though it won’t be fair, it will afford anybody who plays poorly some gorgeous views on the way out the door.
Let the games begin.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli