The US Open returns to its most picturesque venue. But what makes Pebble Beach so special?

Pebble Beach is the course I see in my dreams. More precisely, it’s that glorious stretch of the layout that hugs the Monterey Peninsula coast – a collection of holes among the most photographed in the world. 

There are certainly few places on earth that can match California’s 17-Mile Drive for beauty, drama and the hypnotic combination of cliffs, crags and waves at Pebble Beach that have kept golfers coming back in pilgrimage for the last century.

We will never play Augusta National or Cypress Point, out of reach for all but the select few.

But come to Pebble with your imagination, and a willingness to shell out $500, and you too can take on the short, but deadly, 7th.

Or you can feel the exhilaration of finding the green on 8 – an approach that requires you to carry a chasm – or sweep your drive around the ocean at the last.

“If I had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach,” said Jack Nicklaus. “I’ve loved this course from the first time I saw it.”

If it’s good enough for the Golden Bear, it’s good enough for the rest of us. But what is it that makes Pebble such a memorable venue?

Pebble Beach is a course of contrasts

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It’s been called the greatest meeting of land and sea in American golf and, while there are some notable neighbours that might take issue with that, the stretch that wraps tightly around the Pacific Ocean is tough to resist. The trick at Pebble Beach is to understand that while the first few holes may not have the splendour of those to come, they are where the best scoring opportunities lie.

The course will bear little resemblance, in terms of conditions, to the fan-friendly fest seen at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am back in February, and it’s imperative to get off to a good start.

Tame the gentle opener, get into red figures on the par-5 2nd, try to pick up another shot on the 5th, and approach the back end of the front nine with something to protect.

From here, it gets tricky. The breeze focuses attention at the 7th, which can play from anything from a lob wedge to a mid-iron depending on where the wind is coming from.

The heavily sloping fairway on the 9th, and the difficult drive off the 10th, can turn a promising round into a full-on salvage operation.

The drama fades a little after the turn but ramps up again towards the end with a potentially painful par 3 as the penultimate hole – played to a very tight green against buffeting winds that can send a ball oceanward.

Pebble Beach closes with one of golf’s most famous finishing holes. Do you dare take on the rocks to make your approach easier, or risk meeting the two trees and fairway bunker waiting for those who are a bit too conservative?

Its difficulty depends on the situation. Need a par? No problem. Need a birdie? Then that green suddenly seems very tight against the sea wall.

The one hole you have to play at Pebble Beach

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This course is so heavenly, even the Christian Science Monitor produced a hole-by-hole guide.

It’s hard to pick just one that stands out and, in any case, most people opt for the tiny 7th with its green perched on the edge of the cliff and the Pacific Ocean menacing in the background. 

But it’s the 8th, pictured above, that is close to the perfect par 4. At 413 yards, you don’t need to be the longest hitter off the tee but you have to find the fairway.

That’s more difficult than it looks – as only a thin silver of the short stuff appears from the markers – but if you do you can take on what has to be one of the most jaw-dropping shots in the sport.

It’s usually a mid-iron over the waves and that massive cleft between cliff and cove. If that shot doesn’t excite you, then you have no soul.

History is made at Pebble Beach

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Remember Tiger Woods’ 15-shot demolition job in 2000 – the first step in the so-called Tiger Slam?

We can also reminisce about Graeme McDowell’s magic moment in 2010 as DJ collapsed to a Sunday 82.

Pebble Beach celebrates its 100th birthday this year, so there’s plenty of glory upon which to look back.

But if we had to squeeze a century into just one shot, then it would have to be Tom Watson’s impossible chip-in at 17 to beat Jack Nicklaus in 1982.

His 2-iron at the short hole had settled in thick rough in a downhill lie behind the green. It seemed impossible but Watson’s sand wedge popped out, bumped onto the green and hit the pin full before dropping for a two.

It brought a lap of honour from Watson and set the seal on his only US Open title. Nearly 40 years later, the shot is still replayed every time Pebble Beach appears on our television sets.

It’s an iconic memory, and so is the course. We’re in for quite a week.

Pebble Beach nuggets

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*Pebble Beach celebrates its 100th birthday this year – the course is designed by Jack Neville and Douglas Grant but Dr Alister MacKenzie, among others, loaned a helping hand.

*The first major at Pebble Beach was held in 1929 – the US Amateur – and Bobby Jones was the medallist. The matchplay event was won by Jimmy Johnston.

*Pebble Beach became famous for the Bing Crosby Clambake, which was first staged on the Monterey Peninsula in 1947. It’s known today as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am.

*This is the sixth time Pebble Beach has held the US Open. The first came in 1972, when Jack Nicklaus lifted the trophy. The most recent was 2010 when Graeme McDowell triumphed.

*A municipal course, more than 62,000 rounds are played at Pebble Beach every year. A round costs $550.