Back when newspapers still had the fiscal resources to staff big sporting events, I was dispatched to San Francisco for an NFL playoff game between the 49ers and Redskins. After Washington lost, I remained in the Bay Area for the NFC Championship, which meant a week of writing stories about two teams my subscribers had no interest in reading.
Early that Tuesday morning, the phone rang in my hotel room. This made no sense; the maids hadn’t even gotten to work yet. “The boss wants you to go play Pebble Beach,” my editor said, leaving me to wonder if I’d be hanging out in a hot tub with Heather Locklear afterward.
Like any good soldier, I followed orders and drove 2½ hours to Monterey the next day. In January 1993, it wasn’t terribly difficult to walk on at Pebble, and I’m still not sure whether I rented a set of clubs or had been dumb enough to bring my own bag on such a trip, but the experience was everything I could have imagined. Challenging. Exhilarating. And somewhat awkward in that I had to agree with all I’d read and heard about the place.
Several additional rounds at Pebble over the years have only increased my appreciation for the seaside gem’s exotic visuals and strategic nuances. For whatever reasons, however, the last three U.S. Opens there haven’t produced the edgy Sunday afternoon suspense and stylish play we yearn for but don’t often get at America’s national championship.
Among the venues most often chosen to host the USGA’s biggest event, Pebble Beach, you’d think, would provide the most fireworks. It’s the one place that the bluecoats don’t turn into a bogey farm, although this week’s rough appears to be fairly robust. It’s almost as if the organization’s course-management team has been afraid to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, much less adorn her with a few pimples.
The best finish I’ve ever covered at a golf tournament involved Tiger Woods at Pebble in 2000, just not the one you were thinking. Four months before he trampled the field by 15 shots and set sail toward the so-called Tiger Slam, Woods trailed Matt Gogel by seven strokes with seven holes to play at the AT&T National Pro-Am. Weather had pushed the finish to Monday, which is a headache when you work for a weekly magazine, especially when there’s a three-hour time difference.
No big deal, I figured. Gogel couldn’t possibly cough up this one. He’d hit every fairway and green on the front, piling up five birdies, meaning I could start writing my story early and maybe even beat the mid-afternoon deadline. I was probably three-quarters done when Woods embarked on this ridiculously inhumane stretch of golf, which featured the hole-out for eagle at the par-4 15th and a couple of birdies after that.
Gogel didn’t do much to lose, but he did. Woods’ closing 64 would serve as the launch point of the greatest year of golf ever played, and I needed an ambulance after sending my story at 5:30. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who played with Woods that day as Jim Furyk’s pro-am partner, referred to the finish as the most dumbfounding thing he’d ever seen in sports.
So, you can score at Pebble Beach if you’re got it all working, although it certainly hasn’t happened very often at the last three U.S. Opens. Nine years ago, Graeme McDowell won at even par despite shooting a 74, holding off Gregory Havret, of all people. Woods and Phil Mickelson were in excellent position to swipe a major but got nothing done down the stretch, combining for just two birdies all day in what amounted to an utterly catatonic display of championship golf by everyone on the leaderboard.
If 2010 was a closely contested snail race to the end, 2000 was the opposite: a historic runaway triumph in which drama could be measured only by the size of Woods’ lead. The final margin of 15 continues to defy reality, an unfathomable performance not unlike Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game. Unforgettable? Absolutely. Exciting? Ummm…. If Woods’ previous trip to Pebble had resulted in a victory on a Monday afternoon, this one ended early Saturday.
You could easily make a case that drama is in the eye of the beholder, which takes us back to 1992. A majorless Tom Kite turned the final round at Pebble into a clinic on how to play superb golf in a ferocious wind, as 40-mph gusts led to a scoring average of 77.3. One player in the final 15 pairings hit the green at the par-3 seventh, which measures 106 yards when you stretch that baby out.
Kite’s chip-in birdie on the hole was one of many stupendous shots on a day when his short game was impeccable. His even-par 72 beat Jeff Sluman by two, but this was man against Mother Nature, a bit like watching a bunch of Marines trying to scale a 20-foot wall smothered in Vaseline. Interesting for a while, funny at times, but at a certain point, you can only watch so many of the world’s best players fighting to break 80.
Forgive me for preferring a bit of mystery with my carnage. This week’s gathering comes with perhaps the greatest collection of pre-tournament storylines in the modern era: Brooks Koepka’s attempt to become the first man in more than 100 years to win three consecutive U.S. Opens; Mickelson’s elusive quest to win just one; Woods’ pursuit of a 16th major title. And though you certainly can’t blame any golf course for a tournament that turns out as non-descript as it is important, Pebble Beach is as overdue as it is beautiful.
Kind of like Heather Locklear. In her day, anyway.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org