6 Holes to Watch as the U.S. Open Returns to Pebble Beach
By David Gould
Fans of championship golf have long heard the U.S. Open described as a merciless, monotonous grind. “There is no enjoyment,” moaned Seve Ballesteros. “It’s all defensive golf.” In the words of Jerry McGee, “playing a U.S. Open is like tip-toeing through hell.” Tom Weiskopf concurred, saying, “trust me, the U.S. Open is not fun.”
The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, however, is a different story.
Those players were all in their prime years when Pebble Beach held its first U.S. Open in 1972, but none of them were uttering their grim, survivalist comments while surrounded by the dazzling beauty of this golf pilgrimage site.
Yes, extreme challenge and difficulty are built into the bones of this 100-year-old layout. But the venue’s salt air, crashing waves, and overall resort magnificence stand in stark contrast to the tight corridors of many other inland venues that have hosted the championship. In a collection of dark-feathered, fierce-eyed hawks, Pebble Beach is the U.S. Open’s great blue heron.
In a collection of dark-feathered, fierce-eyed hawks, Pebble Beach is the U.S. Open’s great blue heron.
Celebrating its centennial year, the storied course along Carmel Bay returns to the major championship spotlight at an exhilarating time. Tiger Woods, who won the 2019 Masters to break an agonizing 12-year major-victory drought, will be attempting to recreate the magic of his iconic U.S. Open victory here in 2000. Brooks Koepka will attempt to become the first golfer since 1905 to win three U.S. Opens in a row. Having just won the 2019 PGA Championship—making that two straight PGA titles on his record—a win would likely cement Koepka as the finest major-championship player of his generation.
Phil Mickelson, who won the AT&T-sponsored PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach in February, will summon that energy as he attempts to complete his pursuit of all four majors with a U.S. Open title (during the week of his 49th birthday, no less). Fan favorites like Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar are all in fine form these days and poised to contend as well.
If you’re flying XOJET into Monterey with your spectator badge secured, you’ll arrive to discover the golf course in perfect condition for tournament play. That’s the report passed along by John Sawin, Vice President and Director of Golf for the Pebble Beach Company. A top-ranked amateur player in his own right, Sawin came onboard in 2018 to oversee the company’s golf operations—a total of four golf courses, including Spyglass Hill and The Links at Spanish Bay. He signed on just about a year after Pebble Beach Resorts struck a multi-year agreement to have XOJET as its Official Private Aviation Partner.
Sawin’s status as a competitive amateur, a devoted golf fan, and now the ultimate Pebble insider makes him the perfect expert to offer XOJET members the guidance they’ll need to fine-tune their viewing experience. In honor of the sixth U.S. Open hosted by Pebble Beach, these are the six holes he’d suggest fans pay special attention to during this year’s event.
Par 5, 523 yards
“It took real audacity,” in Sawin’s view, to rout this three-shot hole up the mountainous incline that leads from its drive zone to the layup area. The triumphant result is a hole that players rave about, despite the blind second shot. The most famous shot ever played here came off the face of Tiger’s 7-iron in 2000, the year he won by an astounding 15 strokes. The shot had to escape dense rough and climb 205 yards to reach the green and hold, which it did. Today, that stretch of rough is mowed to fairway height, meaning balls drifting to the right will roll over the edge and into the penalty area. Park yourself in the massive grandstand along No. 6, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by luxe concession stands and other viewer facilities.
Par 3, 109 yards
Modern golf is about iron-pumping players with high-tech drivers bombing it 300 yards down the fairway, which makes an afternoon watching this pocket-sized par-3 all the more amazing. Snugged up to Carmel Bay, it can require a controlled pitch, or it can throw a five-club wind at you. Everyone remembers the final-round chip-in on No. 7 by Tom Kite that sparked his run to victory in 1992, under trouser-flapping conditions that had prompted Kite to hit 6-iron off the tee. Find a seat here on Sunday, and you could well see history made once more.
Par 4, 428 yards
Walking upslope from the tee, players prepare themselves for the sensory overload that comes with Pebble’s 8th fairway. Their next shot has to cross a chasm that is nothing short of mythical, both aesthetically and strategically. “There’s a case to be made for positioning the tee shot toward the left and also for keeping it to the right,” says Sawin. “It depends on which line appeals to you visually and is more likely to make the green receptive to your shot.”
Par 4, 495 yards
With a fairway that tilts left-to-right toward the sea, this 505-yard par-4 checks all the boxes for beauty—but you’re likely to see many players scramble here for par. Alongside the hole (and new for this U.S. Open) is Harper’s, a spectator complex with a classy food menu and an upscale merchandise tent. Enter the grounds through the Carmel Gate and you’ll come right upon it.
Par 3, 208 yards
Settle into a grandstand seat alongside the hourglass-shaped 17th green and let the echoes of history enhance the real-time U.S. Open excitement. Jack Nicklaus’ 1-iron “leaner” that helped seal his victory in 1972 and Tom Watson’s chip-in that carried him to glory in 1982 are carved in Open lore. Sawin advises course-design connoisseurs to compare the look and contours of this green site today with what they may recall from Opens past. “Since 2010, No. 17 green has been expanded by about 1,000 square feet and the lip on the front bunker has been lowered,” says Sawin. “From the tee, players now get a better view of the target, which is what the original design intended.”
Par 5, 543 yards
Sawin attended the 2010 U.S. Open as a fan and ended up 20 yards away from Woods on Saturday as Tiger played his second shot on this classic risk-reward finishing hole. “I wanted to see Tiger finish his round,” John recalls, “but you don’t ever expect to witness one of those shots for the ages. To carve around the first cypress tree and carry onto the green, he needed to hit an enormous power fade up over the waves, and he pulled it off. I’ll never forget it.”
An additional viewing suggestion from Sawin involves yet another amenity that’s new here, the ultra-modern practice complex adjacent to the resort’s par-3 Peter Hay Golf Course. It’s roughly twice the size of the old complex, with a 350-yard double-ended driving range. Its features include 85 hitting bays and multiple target greens, a 4,500-square-foot putting green, plus an expanded short-game practice area that includes multiple bunkers and chipping greens.
“It’s your one chance to see a whole group of great players in one place at the same time,” says Sawin. “The atmosphere is just tremendous over there.” Of course, this is in line with the event overall—the atmosphere is tremendous everywhere, all through tournament week.
It’s intense, because this is the U.S. Open. But it’s also great fun, because this is the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
All photos courtesy of Pebble Beach