PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Let’s get one thing straight: This isn’t Wishbone Ash opening for the Rolling Stones. The U.S. Amateur isn’t a warmup act. It’s the oldest championship in the United States Golf Association stable, first held in 1895, a day before the first U.S. Open.
This is the most prestigious championship in amateur golf, a rock on which the game was founded in this country, a major before “the majors” became majors.
Nobody connected with golf’s governing body thinks of the championship going on this week at Pebble Beach Golf Links as a prelude. “We’re here to conduct the U.S. Amateur, foremost,” said Jeff Hall, USGA managing director of rules and open championships.
That said, Pebble Beach also will be home to the 2019 U.S. Open, 100 years after designers Jack Neville and Douglas S. Grant first opened the teeing grounds. The coastline-hugging property has been the site of five previous U.S. Opens, the first in 1972, the most recent in 2010. Those championships have produced some of golf’s most glamorous moments, and some of its greatest champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. It also played host to the 1977 PGA, won by Lanny Wadkins.
With the possible exception of Augusta National Golf Club – and underline possible – Pebble Beach is the best-known golf course in the country, at least to the general public. More than a bucket-list destination, it is a museum, a national treasure.
Pebble Beach also is 2,980 miles west of USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. “You don’t want to waste the trip,” Hall said. “You come and pay attention and watch a few things.”
With that in mind, what takes place this week at the 118th playing of the U.S. Amateur does not necessarily stay at the U.S. Amateur. The remnants could show up next June at the 119th U.S. Open.
“You know, it will be nine years next year since we were here for the U.S. Open, so certainly a few things have changed,” Hall said. “A few greens have been restored to some original dimensions, so we’re looking to see how that presents itself this week. There are maybe some hole locations that we might not have otherwise had available to us.
“There’s a new tee that was added to No. 9 that’s in play this week. So, we’ll get to see where that drive zone is with the new tee, which is some 20-25 yards farther back. But the good news is, we’re not unfamiliar with Pebble Beach. We’ve got data from a number of U.S. Opens.”
But the most recent statistics are nearly a decade old. Golf has changed quite a bit in that time: the rules, the equipment, the players. The links at Pebble Beach haven’t moved. They’re still located on captivating 17-Mile Drive. But they now host players with 17-mile drives.
Sure, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is played each year on the PGA Tour circuit. But it takes place at a different time of year, under amusement-park circumstances. The first three rounds are a celebrity-spiced pro-am. The course is set up at about 6,800 yards. The fairways are generous, and the greens are pacifying. The goal is to keep Bill Murray coming back.
A U.S. Amateur gives the USGA a more accurate read. The average age of the 312 competitors who began the week on the Monterey Peninsula was 22.59. They are mostly flat bellies, some on the cusp of PGA Tour careers, others entertaining the dream. They can hit formidable shots and play with fearless abandon. They can attack Pebble Beach in a way that gives Hall and his associates some credible U.S. Open fodder.
“They hit Tour-quality golf shots,” Hall said. “They may not string together as many as the guys on the PGA Tour – that’s the next stage of their career. But we can see Tour-quality golf shots executed on every hole here, which still gives us a glimpse into what things can look like for the U.S. Open.”
“The golf course is certainly going to be presented differently. They’re still in the middle of their resort season [now], so the rough’s not quite as penal. The fairways are at resort width, if you will. They will be coming in for the U.S. Open.
“But it’s still Pebble Beach; make no mistake about it. The greens don’t get any bigger. The greens are still these tiny little targets, and it’ll be a heck of a good test, and certainly that was proven out in stroke play.”
Again, this is an amateur championship setup. For the 2010 U.S. Open, won by Graeme McDowell, the fairways averaged 35 yards in width. Green speeds ran 11-11½ on the Stimpmeter, the primary rough was 2½-3 inches deep and the real stuff measured 4½-5.
Since then, four greens have been restored: Nos. 9, 13, 14 and 17. For U.S. Amateur matches on Wednesday (scoring), Pebble Beach played at more than 7,000 yards. The No. 2 hole, normally a par 5, was choreographed as a 513-yard par 4. The subtle “ocean pull” of the greens was in play, and the occasional wind blew.
A cause-and-effect read is gettable, if you’re in a U.S. Open state of mind.
“The new teeing ground on 9 is certainly something we can get a look at, because that left fairway bunker is now more in play than it was with the former tee,” Hall said. “It’s important to look at that. The guys were driving it so far down that hill, that they weren’t getting that little hanging lie. You look at old footage and see guys standing that way and you want to see it play that way.”
So, the U.S. Amateur will conclude this weekend, in all of its glory. Another Pebble Beach backdrop will enchant the viewers, and another Pebble Beach champion will be crowned with a lifetime memory.
Meanwhile, Jeff Hall and others will take a few notes. This isn’t just another USGA championship. This is a homework assignment.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD