Does Pebble Beach really live up to the hype?
It's made for TV, but what does this year's US Open venue look like when you get up close and personal? Let me be your tour guide
In a world where everyone is a legend, and everything is awesome, it’s easy to become a cynic.
Pebble Beach is golf made for TV. Can you think of a more camera friendly setting – those seaside holes carved into the side of the Pacific Ocean and wrapped around the Monterey Peninsula?
The images bring thousands of players out on a pilgrimage every year. Not even a green fee that bites above $500, and actually runs into thousands when you take the stay in the hotels into account, can put them off.
I once thought only the prospect of playing Augusta National could tempt me into that kind of outlay.
I’ve now performed a U-turn to rival a politician.
And all it took was one view – from a seat in the bleachers looking out across the bay and the 17th green – to make my heart melt.
— Steve Carroll (@SteveCarrollNCG) June 11, 2019
It wasn’t just about the history, remembering this was the place where Nicklaus’ 1-iron hopped the flag in 1972 or where Tom Watson broke Jack’s heart 10 years later by chipping in from the rough.
It was everything else too – that water, those hills, the boats in the bay. It brought back images of childhoods splashing around sand, never mind hacking out of bunkers.
Those beaches, though, never looked like this.
Then I turned my head to look across from the 18th tee to a closing hole I’ve seen so many times, and played so often on simulations and computer games.
It’s such a familiar view but witnessing it with my own eyes took my breath away. The marshal manning the top of the stand actually chuckled as I stood slack jawed fumbling for my camera.
I was ready at that moment to write a blank cheque. And then I saw the 7th, all 109 yards of it, and realised there was a whole other level.
The players hit across you, the grandstand parked laterally alongside the hole, and it all played out gloriously.
Without the drop from the tee that somewhat clouds the eye when viewed through the prism of a lens, the small green, the bunkers surrounding it and the craggy outcrop that threatens anything long or right, seemed even more eye-catching.
“It’s always amazing to play here,” said Graeme McDowell, who should love the property more than most after his 2010 US Open win.
“It’s one of the most amazing pieces of golf real estate in the world. The walk from the 4th tee to the 10th green is pretty hard to beat.”
Having done it now, the stroll from the 16th green to the grandstands at 18 is far from shabby either.
Critics of Pebble Beach can often lament the opening but I was surprised how much the first four holes appealed to my eye.
The approach to the 1st, with a cavernous couple of bunkers waiting to grab anything that leaks a little right, is a decent challenge, while the 2nd is a monstrous 520-yard par 4 where Dustin Johnson’s charge collapsed completely with a treble nine years ago.
OK, you’re not hitting over a chasm – as you do on the 8th – and you’re not thinking about how much of the Pacific you can take on at the closing hole, but they are stout and attractive.
Before this descends completely into an ode to Pebble Beach, it’s easy to find yourself staring out at the ocean to the left when walking the 12th, 13th and 14th.
The 13th especially, with what feels like a semi-blind drive and a fairway that hardly anyone can fail to hit, is part of a collection that do feel ordinary compared with what’s gone before and what’s to come at the end.
So how will the course play? It will probably, to use a footballing cliché, be a game of two halves. On Tuesday, the greens were taking a pitchmark.
They were soft and receptive. The hole location at 17 was peppered. That’s a par 3 that plays 208 yards.
The forecast is for it to stay dry, relatively warm, and for the winds to gust around 20kph throughout most of the week.
That’s going to dry those greens out pretty quickly and make everything much more bouncy. There’s little chance of hitting anything hole high and expecting it to stick come Saturday and Sunday.
US Opens are defined by their difficulty and, in particular, the height of the rough.
To my hacker’s eye, some of the stuff you’ll find off the side of the second cut seems pretty tough – although those in the know reckon it’s less than we’ve seen in previous Pebble Beach US Opens.
That said the players will be pretty disappointed if they find it with any regularity from off the tee. A number of the fairways are – to put it mildly – massive. I reckon even I could find the short stuff on a few of them.
Pebble is a second shot course. It gives you a chance to put it in position but narrows considerably the closer you get to the putting surface.
Every green, except the 9th, has at least two bunkers in close attention but it’s not the sand where the main hazard lies.
The fescue grows up high around the face and it’s just as club tangling if you manage to bounce it a couple of yards further on.
Trying to get control from here, to find the right pace and then get it to stop as the speed quickens at the weekend, could be tournament defining.
But if those in contention can bomb it, find those generous fairways, and have only a short iron in, they could make some scores if the breeze is manageable. The likes of Koepka, DJ and Rory could be licking their chops.
What’s it like for spectators? I’m a big fan of courses that offer simultaneous viewing options – where you can watch an approach or a putt at one hole and then swivel and grab a glimpse of another group without having to expend too much energy.
There’s a number of such holes at Pebble Beach. The 9th and 13th, the 17th and 18th from the bleachers, and the tees at the 4th and 17th are the most obvious options.
The true test will come when tens of thousands of extra spectators descend on Thursday but the early signs look promising.
The only let down for me, and it’s forced by the layout, is that a number of the drives are set back away from spectators. Fans can still get a view but they’ll not be able to line up behind the tee at that closing hole, for instance, or at a number of others on the property.
But the overall feeling I get, strolling round Pebble Beach, is one of huge joy. It feels like an epic stretch of land, a layout that gives you opportunities but could hammer those who get it wrong.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I was ever given the chance, I’d be getting my wallet out. Being a Yorkshireman, that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay.