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Only at Pebble: ‘Arnold Palmer on rocks’

Pebble Beach 7th Hole
Pebble Beach’s 7th hole has mystified generations of golfers, who hit anything from a wedge to a driver based on the wind at the iconic seaside par 3.

Samuel F.B. Morse, the man responsible for creating the Pebble Beach Golf Links where the U.S. Open will be played next week, was a visionary

Samuel F.B. Morse, the man responsible for creating the Pebble Beach Golf Links where the U.S. Open will be played next week, was a visionary. He was in charge of developing the area on the central California coast where the course sits, a long piece of prime real estate perched on a cliff overlooking Carmel Bay. The views are spectacular, and lots for homesites could have been sold for a great return.

Morse saw it differently. He envisioned the perfect site for a first-rate golf course. Homesites would be on the inland side of the course or at other locations around famed 17-mile Drive, a prime attraction for visitors in the early 1900s.

To design the course, Morse brought in Jack Neville, a two-time California State Amateur champion, who had never designed a golf course. Neville had a great eye for creating holes inland and along the coastal areas. The routing is basically a figure eight, with the first six holes inland. Starting with the spectacular par-3 seventh hole, Carmel Bay comes into play through the 10th. From there through the 16th, the holes move inland and then cross back to the bay for the last two holes.

The entire course is beautiful, but it’s beauty with a bite. The holes are difficult and demanding and have humbled the great and occasionally created heroes of the humble.

Bob Jones got his first taste of Pebble Beach in 1929 at the U.S. Amateur. He liked the course and shot rounds of 70-75 to secure co-medalist honors with Eugene Homans. Jones had won the Amateur in 1927 and 1928 and was a favorite at Pebble Beach to win three in a row. Jones drew Johnny Goodman, an unknown amateur from Omaha, Neb., in the first round.

Conventional wisdom calls for making a move on the first six holes because the course turns unforgiving starting at No. 7. Jones found himself three down to Goodman after three holes. His drive at the first had landed in an unrepaired divot, and careless shots on the next two holes had put him in a predicament. Jones worked his way back but was still one down after 17.

Jones needed to win the 18th to go extra holes in the match. He hit a good drive, but an errant second shot looked to be headed to trouble in the right rough. However, Jones caught a break from the Pebble Beach golf gods when his ball hit a tree and bounced back to the fairway, leaving him a good lie and an open shot. Jones hit his next shot on the green at the par 5 but left his birdie putt short, and Goodman made par to win the match.

Jones isn’t the only big-name player to be humbled by Pebble Beach. Arnold Palmer played in more than 20 Crosby Pro-Ams and two U.S. Opens at Pebble without a victory, several times overwhelmed by quirky circumstances.

At the 1963 Crosby, Palmer hit a 2-iron over the par-3 17th green. He thought the ball was in Carmel Bay and hit a second shot from the tee. Upon reaching the green, Palmer was told that his first ball was on the beach, so he played to the green, salvaging a 3. After Palmer finished his round, officials reviewed the incident and disqualified him. Palmer had declared the first ball lost, so he should have played the provisional.

The following year at the Crosby, Palmer again hit over the 17th green, with his ball perched on a cliff. The area behind the green was considered part of the course and not a hazard. If Palmer declared the ball unplayable, he could have taken a one-stroke penalty and dropped his ball, keeping the spot where the ball had rested between the flagstick and the drop site, except the drop site would be in Carmel Bay.

As Jimmy Demaret explained the situation to the TV audience, “in that case, his nearest drop would be Honolulu.”

Palmer had to play from the rocks, making several attempts to hit to the green. Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist, was watching the Crosby on TV from his living room and described the event: “Palmer … was so far out on a moor in the ocean, he looked like Robinson Crusoe. His only companions were a dog and a sand wedge. I thought for a minute we had switched channels and Walt Disney was bringing us another of those heartwarming stories of a boy and his dog, but a companion, peering closely, had a better idea: ‘Shouldn’t that dog have a cask around his neck?’ ”

Palmer ended up with a 9 on the par 3 and missed the cut by one. Think of that incident the next time you order an Arnold Palmer on the rocks.

It was not only water that gave Palmer fits. In the final round of the 1967 Crosby, Palmer took a 3-wood from the fairway at the long par-5 14th and decided to go for the green. His ball hit a Monterey pine on the right side of the fairway and kicked out of bounds. Undaunted, Palmer again hit his 3-wood, hitting the same tree with the same result: out of bounds. Instead of making birdie or eagle, Palmer recorded a quadruple-bogey 9.

That night a violent storm toppled the tree that Palmer twice hit that day. Had the golf gods, who frequently smiled on Palmer, done in the offending tree? Or, as some asked, had Arnie’s Army played a role?

Nick Faldo also found tree trouble on the 14th hole. In the 1992 U.S. Open, Faldo’s third shot to the green, with a 9-iron, lodged in an oak tree. Faldo climbed up the tree to locate his ball and to identify it as his.

There was a good reason for Faldo’s climbing. If he could identify his ball, he could declare it unplayable and take a one-stroke penalty. If not, he’d have to declare the ball lost, incurring a stroke-and-distance penalty.

There was a lot of frivolity around the climbing incident, with Faldo shouting out, “Where the hell is Jane?” a reference to Tarzan’s mate. Faldo had difficulty getting down from the tree, eventually hanging on a limb and dropping down another 5 feet. The ball was not located, and Faldo ended up with a triple-bogey 8.

The seventh hole at Pebble Beach is a short, downhill par 3, a wedge to a small green at the tip of Arrowhead Point jutting into Carmel Bay. In addition to the water, the green is surrounded by six bunkers. On a windy day, instead of the wedge, the shot could require a 5-iron or more. One year at the Crosby, host Bing, who carried a 2-handicap, needed a driver to get to the green. On another occasion, to keep his ball below a stiff wind, Sam Snead elected to hit his putter from the tee to a greenside bunker and play up from there.

In the 1959 Crosby, San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie, a future winner on the Senior Tour, hit his tee shot on No. 7 into the cup for a 3. His first shot was in the ocean. Not quite a hole-in-one, but still a great shot. Brodie was playing as a professional and finished the day with a 2-over 74.

And some guys have days when they get all the breaks. In the last round of the 1984 Crosby, Hale Irwin hit his drive on 18 into the ocean, or so he thought. The ball hit a rock and flew back onto the fairway, and Irwin made a birdie to tie Jim Nelford for the lead and force a playoff. On the second playoff hole, the 16th, Irwin hit a poor drive, about 180 yards into a fairway bunker. Undeterred, Irwin hit a 2-iron from the bunker to within 9 feet of the cup, made his putt and won the Crosby. Some days, the fates are with you.

It’s also possible to make your own luck at Pebble Beach. On the start of the last day of the 1982 U.S. Open, Tom Watson shared the lead with Bill Rogers. At the ninth hole, Watson’s 7-iron to the green drifted slightly right, and Watson thought his ball would be down on the beach. Instead, it stopped on a small perch of ground on the bank below the green. Watson was able to pitch his ball up short of the green. He then chipped in for a par.

At the 17th, Watson’s shot ended in high rough just off the left side of the green, but he caught a bit of luck; his ball was sitting up in the rough, not nestled deeply. Watson took his wedge as his caddie, Bruce Edwards, urged him to get it close. Watson’s reply: “Hell, I’m going to sink it,” and he did, for a birdie en route to a one-stroke victory. It wasn’t just luck or the golf gods smiling on him. Watson knew that during the championship, he was going to be in the heavy rough at some time, so he had been practicing that shot.

Sometimes, it’s just the excitement that can cause trouble. Take Tony Lema. He’d just gotten his PGA card, and the 1957 Crosby was his first big-time event as a professional. At the ninth hole, Lema hit his approach from the right side of the fairway near the drop-off to the beach. His shot was perfect, and he gave a jump for joy … and fell 18 feet to the beach. Lema was pretty banged up and had a badly bruised knee, but he soldiered on, shooting 69.

Perhaps the greatest recovery shot from Pebble’s perils occurred in 1929 at the U.S. Amateur, the one in which Jones lost in the first round to Goodman. Few people remember that the winner of the 1929 Amateur was Harrison “Jimmy” Johnston. Johnston was one down to Dr. O.F. Willing as they headed to the 18th hole in the morning round of the scheduled 36-hole final match. Both hit nice drives, and Willing played a firm brassie up short of the green. Johnston, instead of following suit, hit his second shot with a severe hook, over the sea wall and onto the beach.

Johnston thought his ball would be lost or unplayable, but when he got to the beach, his caddie told him that it was playable, though the water from Carmel Bay was lapping up against it. Johnston was so far down that he couldn’t see the green, but he grabbed his niblick and watched the water several times as it rose up to his ball and then receded. As the water receded, he hit a tremendous recovery shot near the front of the green, then chipped on and made his putt for a par.

Though it was in the middle of the match, Johnston had turned a sure loss of hole into a halve and went on to win, 4 and 3.

When it was suggested to Bing Crosby that he move the Crosby Pro-Am to Palm Springs for better weather, he replied, “You wouldn’t ask Laurence Olivier to perform in a bowling alley. No, this is da place!”

And Pebble Beach will be “da place” for U.S. Open week. Just remember: As beautiful as Pebble is, trouble lurks.

John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: jfischeriii@icloud.com