Keeping Score

Open bombers give Pebble short shrift

The 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is history, and for the record, it was a memorable success.

Gary Woodland showed the stuff of an Open champion. He hit fairways and greens like an Open champ should. He made big putts and executed clutch shots. Brooks Koepka, the game’s top player, chased Woodland to the finish as he tried to win a historic third straight Open. Former Open champ Justin Rose was a threat until midway through the final nine, too.

It was good drama, a good show, a good Open.

But some part of it was amiss and didn’t feel quite right. I couldn’t figure out why, until I sat down to write a column suggesting a smaller U.S. Open rota of courses in the future, limited to Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Oakmont, with perhaps a fourth course rotated among Winged Foot and Pinehurst No. 2 – the usual suspects.

When I had to make the case for why those Big Three should take over the Open, I couldn’t do it because of what I saw in the past three Opens: The courses are too short.

I never shook off a Jordan Spieth quote from 2016 leading up to the Open at Oakmont. He made a note, just short of a complaint, about not being able to hit driver on many holes because he found Oakmont to be too short. He also said, six weeks before the Open, that the course was so tough that he’d gladly sign for even par for 72 holes and take his chances.

But Oakmont? Too short? Spieth is longer than average but not a big hitter like Dustin Johnson, who won that 2016 Open at Oakmont, or Rory McIlroy.

I’ve covered U.S. Opens at Oakmont since 1983 and played about 10 rounds there. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for the past 20 years, and “too short” is a phrase I never had heard uttered in the same sentence as Oakmont. It always has been a beast. The deep rough, the glassy and heavily-sloped greens, and the tilted or kinked fairways made it a beast. The beast of all beasts in golf.

When I played in the West Penn Amateur there earlier this decade, the tee at the par-3 eighth hole, which can be stretched to 300 yards, was so far back that I hit driver knowing I probably couldn’t reach the green.

But the 2016 Open showed that Spieth was right. Driver was not necessary on many holes, in part because of length and in part because it was so vital to stay out of the rough, as with most Opens.

Pebble Beach played at just more than 7,000 yards. Even with fairly ferocious rough, Woodland’s winning score was 13 under par. When Tiger Woods won the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach, he shot 12 under par … and won by 15 strokes.

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Brooks Koepka follows his 3-wood tee shot at the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, before he hit a 3-iron through the green at the par 5, which was listed at 539 yards.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Brooks Koepka follows his 3-wood tee shot at the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, before he hit a 3-iron through the green at the par 5, which was listed at 539 yards.

The 18th at Pebble Beach was listed at 539 yards, yet Koepka, needing an eagle or birdie at the 72nd hole, hit 3-wood off the tee and 3-iron just over the green. I saw Woods play No. 2 by hitting 3-wood off the tee and having a 206-yard second shot. My math skills haven’t totally eroded, so that told that me that his 3-wood went 309 yards. I have written about distance trends before, usually ranting about drivers. We’re in an age of 300-yard 3-woods, people, and if that doesn’t tell you that distance is out of control, I don’t know what will.

Last week, it was interesting that Woods hung around in semi-contention for most of the first two rounds despite rarely hitting driver. I don’t know whether it was the chilly temperatures in the mid-50s that knotted up his back or whether he just didn’t have the confidence to pull out the big stick, but Woods smartly played chess off the tee with an assortment of clubs. He kept it in play, relied on his short game and was even par through 34 holes – not near the lead but not quite out of contention – until he finished bogey-bogey and was out of it.

Golf courses, even most of America’s greatest tracks, have been rendered obsolete by the distance revolution in the 21st century. Augusta National stayed ahead of the curve with its changes. I don’t hear players saying it’s too short to hit driver there.

Just about the only courses long enough to handle PGA Tour players anymore are the stops on the PGA Tour itself. When players average 300 yards-plus off the tee, even 7,500-yard country clubs are cake for them.

Check out the winning scores on the former Web.com Tour. It usually takes something like 25 under to win out there most weeks. They are played on regular golf courses, ones that don’t have the money or the land to expand or don’t have the interest to do so just to accommodate pros for one week a year.

The players chew them up.

At Pebble Beach, the 14th and 18th holes used to be reachable in two by only the game’s truly longest hitters. Now, just about every Joe Schlabotnik on tour takes a crack at those greens if he hits it in the fairway.

The USGA has only one defense for the reign of terror of how far today’s players drive the ball: deep rough. That rough at Pebble Beach barely slowed down Woodland and Koepka. It did slow down many others, notably Johnson and Phil Mickelson, so maybe it worked.

The U.S. Open is supposed to be the ultimate test of all 14 clubs. Narrow fairways and deep, man-eating rough are designed to test accuracy. Now, they’re there to induce enough fear to take driver out of the players’ hands and maybe keep the course from being exposed.

The throwback concept of growing deep rough again, an idea discussed favorably in many golf circles before the Open, was in vogue in the 1970s and ’80s. Players complained then about having driver taken out of their hands because of narrow landing areas. It was all about accuracy then. I remember writing an offbeat column for my newspaper from one of those mid-’80s Opens, a first-person piece supposedly by Seve Ballesteros’ driver whining about the deep rough and skinny fairways and how he – it – wasn’t being used and he –it – was mucho unhappy.

It may have been a lame attempt at humor. It probably was. Three decades later, golf is “back to the future” and facing the same problem of keeping traditional courses relevant for the world’s best players. Grow the rough deeply? It’s no longer an option.

The Open at Pebble Beach was enjoyable. Who doesn’t love the Monterey Peninsula? It is golf’s sweetest spot. But when I think of how few holes at Pebble where players bothered to hit drivers – Nos. 2, 9, 10 and 14 – I wonder whether it still will be a worthy test when Pebble Beach hosts the 2027 U.S. Open.

I’d like to say, yes, absolutely. It’s Pebble Beach, dammit.

But after last week, I’m not so sure.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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