Commentary

Pebble's Open champs a select club

Originally Published: June 16, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- You take note of the panoramic views, breathe in the ocean air, feel the breeze blowing off Stillwater Cove, marvel at the holes that hug the ocean.

Then look at the winners Pebble Beach has produced in the U.S. Open: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods.

All of which makes it easy to wonder why visits to a place that is synonymous with American golf are so infrequent.

The 110th U.S. Open begins Thursday, but for only the fifth time at Pebble Beach Golf Links. It has been 10 years since Woods' epic 15-stroke victory and 38 since Nicklaus clanked his 1-iron tee shot off the pin at the 17th.

Throw in Lanny Wadkins' 1977 PGA Championship victory here, and Pebble has produced a quintet of Hall of Fame major title winners.

"Nice of you to put Tiger in there," Kite deadpanned during a recent interview. "He'll get in there some day I'm sure."

True enough, Woods is not yet a Hall of Famer.

But you get the idea.

The four Pebble Beach Open champions have combined for 202 PGA Tour victories and 41 major championship titles. Wadkins, who won the '77 PGA in a playoff over Gene Littler, won 21 times in his career.

Or another way to look at it: the least impressive résumé of those who have won majors at Pebble is Kite's, with 19 wins and one major.

All of which suggests that the venue has a way of producing top-notch players.

"You have to hit the ball well [at Pebble Beach]," Woods said. "If you look at the guys who have been either champions or who have contended, all of them have been ball strikers."

Kite was not as subtle.

"You just don't see kind of the flash-in-the-pans play well on that golf course very often," said Kite, 60, who last week missed qualifying for the Open by a single stroke. "Even when they have the soft conditions in the old Bing Crosby and the AT&T, the golf course still produces a great list of champions."

Why?

"It's a shot-making golf course," said Woods, who also won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am here in 2000. "You have to hit the ball well because the greens are so small. I mean, they rival Hilton Head [Harbour Town Golf Links] in size, and then also they have so much more pitch.

"People don't realize ... some of these putts you have to hit the ball in correct spots. An 8-footer down the hill versus a 20-footer up the hill. A lot of times I'd prefer to have the 20-footer. You don't say that very often, but at [this] golf course you do."

Nicklaus' win in 1972 came after he had won the 1961 Amateur at Pebble Beach as well as the 1967 and 1972 Crosby tournaments. Only four rounds in the 60s were recorded during the entire tournament, and Nicklaus' winning total is the last in the 290s for an Open.

"Pebble Beach is a great golf course, one that is played in many different conditions," said Nicklaus, who many times has commented that if he had one round of golf to play, it would probably be here. "It requires not only golfing skills but it requires discipline. You've got to be in control because you never know what is going to happen."

Watson's victory in 1982 is known best for his chip-in birdie at the par-3 17th that helped him defeat Nicklaus by two strokes. But it was a week when Watson didn't find his game until a swing key clicked after Friday's second round. All the short-game work he did prior to the tournament based on poor ball striking paid off, and ended up denying Nicklaus a fifth Open.

Kite's win in 1992 came at age 42 and gave him the long sought-after major title that capped his career. He, too, had a signature shot, a chip-in for birdie from off the green at the par-3 seventh during the final round that helped him to a two-stroke victory over Jeff Sluman, the only two players to finish under par.

"I think Pebble Beach is one of the premier golf courses in the world," Kite said. "It's one of the toughest. The golf course has so much balance and shots into those greens are so demanding. Those greens are so difficult. They are so small and so hard to hit, you have to really play well to score on that golf course.

"These are the smallest greens by far in major championship competition. Almost every golf course you play is easier into the greens than Pebble Beach. And if you miss the green, you have those high-lipped bunkers on either side. And it's very hard to pitch and chip the ball close to the hole. The course really has all the ingredients of a very difficult golf course, especially when you get some weather conditions."

Woods' victory in 2000 came with no stand-out shot, unlike the others. How could it when he won by 15? Woods led by six strokes through 36 holes and by 10 after 54. If you had to pick one, it would probably be the 7-iron shot he hit from the rough in the second round to the par-5 sixth green, one that left mouths agape. He shot 12-under par, the next closest player finished 3-over.

"Certainly it produces a good quality of players, that's the history of Pebble," said Arnold Palmer, who is a part-owner of the course and who personally oversaw revisions made in recent years. "I think that's the type of course it is."

Palmer, 80, then lamented the fact that he never won here. The '72 Open was played when he was 42, and he did give Nicklaus a run before finishing third. But he never won the tour event here, either.

He recalled the 1963 Bing Crosby at Pebble where he hit his approach to the par-3 17th well over the green and down the hill and seemingly lost. Palmer had hit a second ball, but the first was found floating amid the rocks below, from where Palmer played it onto the green. It was later determined that by playing a second ball, Palmer had, in fact, abandoned the first. Since he never finished playing the second ball, he was disqualified.

After the tournament, a bartender in the Tap Room, located across the putting green, named a drink after Palmer: "Arnie on the Rocks."

"That was a big drink at Pebble," Palmer said. "There was some humor, but there was serious disappointment I didn't win at Pebble."

The reasons are as obvious as the course's beauty.

"When you think of American golf, what golf course do you think about?" Watson said. "That's the first golf course you think about. That's the No. 1 course that you would think about in your mind."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com