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All New Pebble Beach

Dermot Gilleece takes a look at the changes made to the famous course to make it even more formidable for the US Open

Posted Jun 14, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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Abiding memories of the US Open at Pebble Beach are of David Feherty, needing a par finish to make the halfway cut and sending his tee-shot on the 18th into the Pacific Ocean to miss out by a stroke in 1992, and Tiger Woods capturing the title by the staggering margin of 15 strokes in millennium year.  That, incidentally, was when Woods also found the Pacific off the 18th tee, to the accompaniment of an infamous blast of expletives at the end of his second round.

Over the years, changes to this celebrated stretch on the Monterey Peninsula, offer compelling proof that even great courses can be improved upon.  And the improvements are quite significant.

Back in 1915, Samuel Morse, nephew of the inventor of the Morse Code, bought 7,000 acres of prime land there, including seven miles of Pacific Ocean front, for $1.3 million.  And when Pebble Beach golf course was officially opened in 1918, the construction cost was a relatively modest $66,000.

Amid all this dealing, however, one piece of land eluded Morse. It was the strip which would have allowed the short fifth hole to follow the fourth, along the sea shore. So the fifth became an undistinguished, inland par three. When the land eventually became available in 1995, it cost the Pebble Beach company a whopping $8 million.  But after splitting it into three lots, retaining the seaside one for a new fifth, they sold the other two lots for $3 million each. All good business, you might say.

The new hole, designed by Jack Nicklaus who captured the US Open here in 1972, settled perfectly into tune with the rest of the seaside holes.  Meanwhile, the second was transformed from a relatively easy par-five into a formidable, par-four, so reducing the overall par of the course to 71. The main reason for this change was that a large tree guarding the left side of the green was lost to disease, so making the target readily accessible in two.

"From a mental standpoint, players would like it to be a par five, so they would have a good chance of birdie," Tom Meeks of the USGA remarked at the time.  "Now if they make a four, they will be making a good par instead of a birdie." 

Other, more recent changes have brought the Pacific more into play on the ocean holes.  Yet in this context, the focus of attention remains the dramatic, long 18th, which lost a major battle with El Nino, when that obstreperous youngster visited these shores early in 1997.  As a result of elaborate reconstruction work, its future was secured as one of the finest finishing holes in the game.

It involved a six-month, multi-million dollar fortification process whereby the local, Granite Construction Company, rebuilt a five-foot wide base along with a new sea wall, before placing four huge rocks along the shoreline.  These rocks were fashioned and sculpted to match the rock formations which confront the incoming tides and were then painted to match the existing landscape.

In addition to strengthening the shoreline, the 18th teeing area where Feherty and Woods most notably came to grief, was rebuilt and extended by 30 feet into Carmel Bay.  One architectural oddity of the tee is a concrete floor built nine feet below the grass surface, which helped solidify the structure.  

As part of this extensive work, it is remarkable to consider that the green was also enlarged by 83 square yards, mainly to the back left and close to the water, so creating a new pin placement.  The extent to which this change succeeded in making players think twice before aiming their third shots at the pin, especially if poor approach play has left them with anything more than a short iron, could be seen in the 2000 championship and in the annual AT&T tournament since then.

Those who would seek to draw comparisons between the two events, however, should note one very salient point: the greens this week will be about two feet faster on the Stimpmeter - about 11.0 - than they were last February, for instance, and very much firmer.  And the fairways will be appreciably tighter than when celebrity amateurs would normally be doing battle there.

In short, there is Pebble Beach as a charming tournament venue and there's Pebble as a US Open test.  It would be foolhardy, even to the point of being potentially suicidal, for a challenger this week not to take the difference fully on board.

- Dermot Gilleece

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