The history of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is short. The memories are not.
The course is famous for its sheer beauty, especially the seven holes in the middle that run along the rugged Pacific coastline, and the wall along the 18th fairway that stands between the great meeting of land and sea. Adding to its mystique is the World Hall of Fame champions Pebble produces in the U.S. Open.
The four winners collectively own 202 victories on the PGA Tour and 41 majors.
“Great venues have great winners,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “Most members have it wrong. They think high scores validate their golf course. It’s great champions that validate a golf course, don’t you think? And they’ve all been great tournaments.”
It starts in 1972 with Jack Nicklaus hitting 1-iron into the cool, ocean wind on the par-3 17th, the ball striking the pin and stopping a foot away for the birdie that gave him the second leg of the Grand Slam.
Ten years later, with perhaps the most memorable shot of all, Tom Watson chipped in for birdie from behind the 17th green to deny Nicklaus a record fifth U.S. Open. Tom Kite chipped in on the par-3 seventh hole in the blustery, punishing conditions to win in 1992.
And then there was Tiger Woods.
Asked for his favorite memory from 2000, Woods settled on the 3-foot par he made on the final hole. Nothing really stands out from that week because so many shots were right where he was aiming. How else to explain a six-shot lead after 36 holes, a 10-shot lead going into the final round and a 15-shot victory that stands among the great feats in 150 years of the majors?
“I didn’t do anything special that week,” Woods said. “Everything was just on.”
Everything is up in the air going into the 110th U.S. Open, and the fifth at Pebble Beach, which starts next Thursday.
Woods is No. 1 in the world, as he was 10 years ago coming into the U.S. Open on the Monterey Peninsula, but the similarities stop there. His image was shattered during the offseason when he was caught in a web of infidelity, and Woods has not looked the same since returning from a five-month layoff at the Masters and tying for fourth.
For the first time in his career, he failed to finish consecutive tournaments – he missed the cut at Quail Hollow, then walked out in the final round of The Players Championship with a sore neck. The next day, he and swing coach Hank Haney ended six years together.
The real measure of Woods might start at Pebble.
It is a course where Woods feels comfortable, even though he last saw it eight years ago. It is where he became the first player in U.S. Open history to finish at double digits below par (12 under).
“Places like Memorial, Pebble Beach, the Old Course … his history is pretty good at those golf courses,” Paul Goydos said. “If he goes through all those uncompetitive, then you can ask that question.”
In the bigger picture, Woods is four majors behind the record 18 won by Nicklaus. This is an important year with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews on the major rotation. Nicklaus still believes Woods will break his record, although he is curious about these next two months.
“He basically won on those fairly easily through the years,” Nicklaus said. “If he has problems with those golf courses, sure, they won’t come around for a while. Maybe it might be tougher.”
For now, the more tangible rival is Phil Mickelson, who brings as much hope as he does scar tissue to the U.S. Open.
Mickelson is a three-time winner at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and it was at Pebble Beach in the 1992 U.S. Open that he turned pro. He opened with a 68 that year, only to follow with an 81 to miss the cut.
It’s about like his career, filled with ups and downs, the changes sometimes swift and with little notice. Mickelson is trending upward at the moment, and he comes to Pebble Beach as the only player capable of the Grand Slam this year.
His inspirational victory at the Masters, where wife Amy showed up for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, allowed him to break out of the pack behind Woods with his fourth major, the most of active players next to Woods.
Mickelson might trade them all for a U.S. Open, the major that is haunting him. He was runner-up a year ago for a record fifth time. From Pinehurst to Shinnecock to Winged Foot, all he has to show for the U.S. Open is a silver medal.
“It’s my national open,” Mickelson said. “Growing up here, that’s a special event for me. I really want to give myself the best opportunity in the U.S. Open. I had a good chance last year – a couple of years I’ve had great chances and haven’t really come through – and it’s the one event that I’d love to win.
“With this tournament being at Pebble … I feel like there’s a good opportunity there.”
He typically plays the week before a U.S. Open to get into the flow of competition. This year, Mickelson took the week off and is spending time at Pebble developing a strategy.
Depending on how Woods fares, Mickelson could go to No. 1 in the world for the first time by finishing as high as second. A victory would allow him to join some elite company – Woods, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer – as the only players in the last 50 years to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam.
This is the 50-year anniversary of what some consider one of the best U.S. Opens ever, a convergence of three great golfers when Palmer held off aging Ben Hogan and Nicklaus, a 20-year-old amateur, in 1960 at Cherry Hills.
Such a scenario is possible at Pebble Beach.
Watson is 60 and was given a special exemption, making him the only player to compete in every U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It was only 11 months ago that he came within an 8-foot putt of winning the British Open at Turnberry, and no one is ruling him out.
Woods and Mickelson represent the present.
The future? It’s loaded.
Already this year 10 players in their 20s have won on the PGA Tour, though not all of them qualified. Among the threats are Rory McIlroy, who shot a course record 62 to win at tough Quail Hollow two days before his 21st birthday. That was the same day that 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 to win on the Japan Tour.
Anything is possible at Pebble Beach, a course that has been magical when the U.S. Open comes to town.
The course is nearly 200 yards longer than it was 10 years ago, most of that length coming on the ninth and 10th that run along the ocean, and on the 13th hole. At 7,040 yards, it is the shortest U.S. Open course since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.
Length isn’t usually the problem. It’s the wind off the ocean.
“It’s one you can play in many different conditions,” said Nicklaus, who has often said that Pebble Beach was where he would go if he could play only one more round of golf. “It requires not only golfing skills, but discipline. You’ve got to be in control. You never know what’s going to happen.”