News & Opinion

U.S. Amateur spotlights Pebble again

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – They’re playing this week’s 118th U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

That just sounds right, doesn’t it?

The U.S. Amateur is the nation’s oldest championship, stretching all the way back to 1895 and predating the U.S. Open by one day. This historic event represents a nod to the game’s roots, a time without turbocharged golf balls, space-age clubs or truckloads of prize money.

So, it seems fitting to hold this year’s edition at Pebble Beach, which sits alongside Augusta National as the most famous courses in the country. The history at Pebble is powerful, providing a perfect stage for the world’s finest amateur players.

Consider all the memorable moments to unfold on the storied seaside links. That’s where Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Amateur in 1961 and U.S. Open in 1972, where Tom Watson’s epic chip shot allowed him to conquer Nicklaus in the ’82 Open, where Tiger Woods authored the most dominant performance ever in winning the 2000 Open by a preposterous 15 shots.

And consider some of the most notable U.S. Amateur champions over the years: five-time winner Bobby Jones, two-time champions Francis Ouimet, Lawson Little, Harvie Ward and Nicklaus, plus future major champions Arnold Palmer, Mark O’Meara and Phil Mickelson.  

David Gossett understands. His pro career didn’t pan out the way he hoped, but he won the Amateur the last time it was played at Pebble, in 1999.

That matters, absolutely.

“The legacy of the U.S. Amateur is awesome,” Gossett said during a visit to Pebble last month. “All the names on that trophy – I’m always grateful to be part of that fraternity. And to win at Pebble Beach is icing on the cake.

“To walk out here the other day with my wife, to stand in the lobby and look out at the ocean and think about the history of the golf course and the championships, I count myself as very fortunate.”

Gossett stopped in Pebble’s golf shop at one point, turned a corner and found himself in a modest locker room. Watson, Woods and Nicklaus each had a locker bearing his name (as did the late entertainer Bing Crosby, whose son Nathaniel won the 1981 U.S. Amateur). So did Gossett, because he won a USGA event at Pebble Beach.

That’s cool company, to say the least.

This week’s tournament, which began Monday (scores), marks the fifth U.S. Amateur at Pebble (with nearby Spyglass Hill serving as the other stroke-play course). Harrison Johnston won the first, in 1929, followed by Robert H. “Skee” Riegel in 1947.

Then came Nicklaus’ utterly dominant victory in ’61 – he won his semifinal match, 9 and 8, and the title match, 8 and 6. Yes, you might call that a not-so-subtle preview of his impending pro career.

“I played every round under par, which I thought was a pretty good accomplishment at Pebble Beach,” Nicklaus said recently. “[Wife] Barbara was pregnant with Jackie, our first child – he was born two or three weeks after that tournament.

“I just had a love affair with Pebble Beach, and always have.”

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus returned to the Monterey Peninsula this week to watch another son, Gary, play in the Amateur. He qualified at age 49, outlasting a 14-year-old named Luke Clanton in their sudden-death playoff.

That’s another appealing aspect of this event. Much like the U.S. Open, it’s inherently democratic. Play well and you have a chance to earn a tee time.

Maybe even at Pebble Beach.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick