A U.S. Open at Pebble Beach has a habit of defining its era. Jack Nicklaus’ win in 1972 was the centerpiece of his two decades of dominance. Tom Watson’s victory in ’82 cemented his standing as the game’s best player and preeminent Bear-slayer. Gritty grinder Tom Kite prevailed in ’92, emblematic of a post-superstar epoch of parity. Tiger Woods’ win in 2000 was the beginning of the most dominant stretch of golf in history, which ended on a messy night in November 2009. Graeme McDowell’s surprise victory seven months later at Pebble Beach was indicative of how wide-open the golf world had suddenly become with Woods felled by scandal.
As Pebble Beach turns 100, the possibilities are legion for another defining storyline. Woods has reinvented himself yet again and will be chasing the leg of the Grand Slam; was his recent Masters win one last hurrah or can he become a consistent contender? Phil Mickelson, destiny’s orphan, will continue his Sisyphean quest to win the one tournament that has always eluded him; at 49, this will be Phil the Thrill’s last best chance, coming just a few months after having won his fifth Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach.
Big, bad Brooks Ko-epka will be attempting to become only the second player to win three straight U.S. Opens, joining the tweedy Scottish legend Willie Anderson (1903-05). Dustin Johnson, a prolific winner except in the tournaments that really matter, will be seeking redemption from his 2010 debacle at Pebble, when he took a three-stroke lead into Sunday but shot a woebegone 82, setting off a decade of heartbreak in the major championships. Rory McIlroy, the boy king who was the 2011 U.S. Open champ, needs another big victory to return to the front ranks of the game. World number one Justin Rose is desperate for an elusive second major championship, six years after his U.S. Open breakthrough at Merion.
And then there are the dreamers, long-shot qualifiers, fan favorites, aging warriors and sundry other players who could pull a McDowell and come out of nowhere to produce an upset. But even with so many players in the mix, McDowell himself has it exactly right when he says, “No matter who wins, Pebble Beach is always the star.”
The course has undergone a series of subtle improvements since the last Open, notably the rebuilding of the 9th, 13th, 14th and 17th greens. Slopes were softened and edges expanded to offer more diverse pin placements and spread out the wear and tear on larger putting surfaces. The most visible change came on 17, as the face of the front bunker was lowered to offer better visibility to the traditional back-left Sunday pin.
“I like all the little tweaks,” says McDowell. “Seventeen looks really cool now. It’s such an iconic hole, it’s nice to now get a little better peek at it.”
Pebble Beach will play 35 yards longer than it did for the last Open, thanks to new back tees at 9 and 13. But at only 7,075 yards, it’s very, very short for the modern game. The USGA has fortified the challenge by dramatically narrowing the fairways and cultivating thick, juicy rough.
“Man, I can’t believe how skinny some of those fairways are going to be,” 2015 U.S. Open champ Jordan Spieth said at this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, when the new rough lines were already visible. “Driving the ball well is going to be crucial.”
So, too, will be iron-play, as Pebble Beach’s greens are among the tiniest in championship golf, and wayward shots come with a heavy penalty.
Other significant changes for this Open include a reshaping of the 11th hole. In 2010, the fairway played down the right side, leaving an awkward angle to a shallow, sloping green. The USGA has wisely shifted the fairway to the left, making for a more aesthetically pleasing approach shot. Another new wrinkle is a small tee box crammed between the 9th green and Carmel Beach. Depending on the wind, it could turn the 10th hole into a thrillingly drivable par-4. But the USGA is concerned about on-course congestion and has not committed to using the new tee box during the tournament.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” says USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, trying to suppress a smile. “It could be great fun.”
All courses evolve over time, but Pebble Beach remains largely the same test since it was when it enjoyed its national debut with the 1929 U.S. Amateur. (Bobby Jones, a year before he won the Grand Slam, famously lost in the first round and, with time to kill, had a meeting of the minds down the road at Cypress Point with Alister MacKenzie, which led to their collaboration at Augusta National.)
For its first Open, in 1972, the USGA was so concerned about protecting Pebble’s reputation it trucked in sand from Del Monte Beach in Monterey to make the bunkers deeper and fluffier and harder to solve. Before the final round, the already wind-baked greens were rolled and triple-cut, leading Jack Nicklaus to ask USGA executive P.J. Boatwright, “What’d you do with all the grass?”
Even so, the dean of golf writers, Dan Jenkins, pronounced that Open to be “the most glamorous thing that’s happened to golf since beltless slacks.”
Thankfully, fashion has moved on since then, but Pebble retains its timeless allure. Can Woods or Mickelson turn back the clock? Will a younger star usher in a new era? There are so many delicious scenarios heading into this U.S. Open, but only one thing is certain: Pebble Beach will deliver the right champion, as it always does.
The 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach takes place June 10-16. For more information, go to www.pebblebeach.com.