For me, it always comes back to Pebble Beach, that stretch of coastline God earmarked for poets, but, when push came to shove, sold to bond kings and internet czars. If 17 Mile Drive hadn’t been there already, Alfred Hitchcock would have built it and stuck a blonde in a convertible on it. The guy who gets the early credit for praising it, Robert Louis Stevenson, passed through less like the marine layer creeping like a cat burglar through the cypress trees and more like a rutting elk.
Stevenson sailed into New York Harbor in August of 1879 and crossed the country by rail in desperate pursuit of Fanny Osbourne, a married woman. When he finally caught up with her in Monterey, a town with three streets, she was alone, unimpressed and, as yet, undivorced, though the dissipated Mr. Osbourne was of little concern either to Fanny or to the man obsessed with her. Rejected but not dissuaded, the lovelorn and sickly—from boyhood, Stevenson gave the impression of someone who should travel with his own casket, just in case—author of Treasure Island took to wandering the hills above Carmel on horseback, where he became delirious and nearly died, rescued at the last moment by a couple of goat ranchers. By October, Fanny was off to Oakland, and in December, Stevenson, who had taken a post at the Monterey Californian, resumed the chase. So, the quote of all quotes, the introduction to every blimp shot and drone video about “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea,” was written by a libidinous, hallucinating Scotsman.
What is not a hallucination is that there is no place the United States Golf Association takes its oldest, most prestigious national open championship that can compare to Pebble Beach. And while it will no doubt continue to go there for as long as seals bark and otters roll over, after attending my fourth Open there last summer, I suspect I’ve been to my last. When Justin Rose shot 65 in the opening round last June, he said, “You can’t help but look around over your shoulder and, ‘Damn, this is Pebble Beach. Shot 65 and you’re in the U.S. Open.’…Whatever transpires the rest of the week, it was a cool moment.” He shot an uncool 74 on Sunday, but the sentiment survived. It was what his teacher, Sean Foley, referred to before the final round as “an EpiPen of perspective.”
The first tournament I covered on the Monterey Peninsula was the 1981 Walker Cup. The late Frank “Sandy” Tatum Jr., a San Francisco lawyer, NCAA champion while at Stanford University and a president of the USGA, had strong-armed his club, Cypress Point, into hosting it. I remember that week for two things in particular. Since I had a rental car—a rarity in those days—I served as the chauffeur for Pat Ward-Thomas, the legendary writer at The Guardian who, as an RAF pilot, was shot down over Holland in 1940 and spent the remainder of World War II in Stalag Luft III in Poland. Ward-Thomas was a small, bony man with a heavyweight punch when throwing words around and I was too green to know precisely whom I was seated beside. What I couldn’t fail to see on our trips from the hotel in Carmel to Cypress Point was the coastline we traveled. Having grown up in Indiana, wandering in the wind-sculpted dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, it was magical beyond my comprehension. A year later, I was back for my first U.S. Open.
Put aside for the moment that Nicklaus vs. Watson in 1982—the third time Tom would snatch a major championship from Jack—was one of the most thrilling U.S. Opens ever played; from that week on, whenever I return to Pebble Beach, I do two things before I have my first sip of coffee. (I have since added a third, but more on that later.) I first go to the spot where I was kneeling beside the 17th green when Watson famously chipped in and then had the human decency to run through the field of focus of the long lens on my camera, a piece of equipment so old, dark and blurry that I’m convinced Mathew Brady shot Ulysses S. Grant with it. After wrapping myself in the ghostly roar that still hovers in the air above 17, I walk around Stillwater Cove to the spot where I struck up my first real conversation with Herbert Warren Wind. I’d met Wind before, of course, in the odd encounter under the trees at Augusta National, but had never actually met him. I was sitting on the embankment above the seventh green and he squeezed in next to me. I don’t remember which day of the week it was, or who was putting down below. Wind was dressed as he always dressed. His epidermis was made of Scottish tweed and I’ve always believed that the raincoat he favored should the temperature dip below, oh, 90 must have been the one that gave Peter Falk the idea for his “Columbo” outfit. We chatted about players and the work of writing. At one point Herb laughed and said golfers would “knock him down” to get to the “guy from Sports Illustrated.” After a while, staring down at the green and the waves on the rocks behind it, he looked over at me and said, “Aren’t we fortunate to be here?”
Pebble’s Opens stormed ashore in ’72. I was still in college, an English major and Division III (unless you can go lower) baseball catcher who couldn’t hit a fastball, curve, slider or change-up and didn’t even play golf, though my coach might have preferred it if I did. The Open coming to Pebble Beach was such an anticipated event that Dan Jenkins—that guy from Sports Illustrated—wrote a preview story about it. Dan had his own table in the course’s fabled Tap Room, or so it seemed, earned the old-fashioned way, one February at a time, when the pro-am was referred to simply as the Crosby. He said the ’72 Open would be “the most glamorous thing that’s happened to golf since beltless slacks.” Well, styles change. Pebble doesn’t. In November of 2011, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Yale University Library, a Gothic tower where Herb Wind’s papers are archived. The boxes contained letters from Bobby Jones, including one dated five months before Jones’ death. There’s a collection of handwritten letters from Gene Sarazen, the son of Sicilian immigrants, dotted with grammatical errors and misspellings and dripping in charm. Byron Nelson sent him a two-sentence note to let him know his wife, Louise, had passed away. Jack Nicklaus told him he was looking forward to seeing him at the Memorial. Ben Crenshaw gushed about an empty piece of property in the middle of America that would become Sand Hills: “Here are the pictures from Nebraska. You can imagine my excitement at seeing this land for the first time!” George Plimpton offered to sort out an issue at their racquet club in New York: “I spend the latter part of this month and into the next with the Detroit Lions—a sixth-string quarterback, and since survival is questionable, I’ll get your request before the Pres. and the House Committee before I take off.” P.G. Wodehouse replied to Herb’s letter of congratulations on his knighthood with a poorly typed letter signed “Plum”: “The knighthood has given me a dizzy feeling, which the eccentricity of my typewriter has done nothing to allay. I don’t know what’s wrong with it. Why it should print your name Erbh I can’t imagine. It also howls at intervals like a banshee.” John Updike told Herb how much he enjoyed his New Yorker profile of Bing Crosby. Harry Vardon, in endearingly awkward English, thanked him for the job he did on his book. Tom Watson was looking forward to seeing him at the Belfry for the Ryder Cup. And, from Bing Crosby before the ’72 Open, this: “Hope to see you at the Open Championship. I think it’s going to be really one of the greatest of our Opens.…But of course, the big factor is going to be the rough, which has been allowed to grow in to conform to the demands of the USGA. Most knowledgeable people think that the score of par will win it.”
Nicklaus won at 2 over, beating Bruce Crampton by three, Arnold Palmer by four and Lee Trevino by five. “On the last day, Sunday, when a ripping wind produced the ultimate horrors, only Nicklaus could summon the patience and the game to cope with the place,” wrote Jenkins, risen from the Tap Room and typing better than—and often as humorously as—Wodehouse. Jack relied for his knowledge of the greens on the information he gleaned from his caddie in the 1961 U.S. Amateur at Pebble, Dede Gonsalves, who had also caddied for Harrison Johnston, the man who won the ’29 amateur when Bobby Jones got knocked out early and spent his idle time with Alister MacKenzie—dominoes that fell all the way to the creation of Augusta National.
If you ever want to know why “they” are different than the rest of us, simply Google Jack’s explanation of his 1-iron into the howling wind that hit the pin on the 17th—how he felt the club just slightly across the line at the top and adjusted on the way down. Who does that? On Sunday? On the 71st hole? In a U.S. Open? They do. It was the first of the championship shots that hang off Pebble’s tunic like shiny medals.
Ten years later, the Open returned. I didn’t walk every step with Watson on Sunday in ’82, but I was at the seventh when he missed a 2-footer. And when he flared his approach right on the 10th, I ran down a small, sandy path that once existed behind the green to get to the beach to photograph him. He got up and down from the seaside ledge for par, the first of what Bill Rogers, who played with Watson that day, called Watson’s “three miracles.” The long putt he holed for birdie on the 14th came straight at me—miracle two. On the 16th, when he drove it into the bunker at the corner of the dogleg, I crossed the fairway walking beside Tatum, Watson’s good friend. It was Tatum who signed off on deepening the bunkers for the Open and it was Watson who had found one of them. We looked at one another. Could it cost his man the Open? “I hope not,” Tatum said. Watson made a wonderful two-putt bogey, but fell into a tie with Nicklaus. There’s a plaque on the 17th commemorating Watson’s chip shot, but the actual place he played from is long gone. In the winter of ’83, a massive storm collapsed that portion of the cliff above Stillwater Cove. It was backfilled and recreated, but the truth is, no one will ever make exactly that shot again. Ever. Watson and God retired it. “That shot at 17,” Watson said, “meant more to me than any golf shot I ever made.” Still does. Miracle three.
After two immortals win, how could Pebble not become the indispensable go-to venue? In a rather magnanimous gesture, Nicklaus and Watson agreed to pose for photos wearing ’92 U.S. Open shirts—gratis, mind you—to promote Pebble’s third Open. I was taking the picture early in the week of the AT&T. Tom and Jack were to meet at the 18th at, let’s say, one o’clock; the exact time is lost in the marine layer of years. At one o’clock, Tom was there, but Jack wasn’t. He’d struck the ball poorly in his practice round and decided to stop at the range to hit a few balls. Watson had an additional commitment with a colleague of mine, a separate photo shoot. It wouldn’t take long, so they slipped away to get it done. Of course, no sooner had they disappeared over the horizon than Nicklaus showed up. Where’s Watson? I explained. Jack wasn’t happy, but he waited. When Watson returned, they went into a tent by the 18th to change into the ’92 U.S. Open shirts. Stripped to the waist, the conversation went something like this:
Jack: “Where were you, Watson?”
Tom: “What was the problem with one o’clock, Jack?”
I promise you, there was no dominant dog in that fight. By the time they emerged from the tent, tucking their shirts in, they had assigned blame elsewhere and everyone was happy again.
When the 10-year rotation did reconvene in ’92, the wind blew so hard on Sunday it could pluck a seagull. It was 35 miles an hour, pushing 40. At the little downhill seventh, players were punching 5- and 6-irons. A few took 7-irons, bumped the ball onto the cart path, let it roll to the bottom of the hill and played on from there. I was there when Tom Kite pitched in with his lob wedge after hitting 6-iron left of the green. It was a stunning shot, but the conditions were so brutal, and there were so many holes to play, that Kite’s joy was limited to bending over at the waist as though a sudden wave of nausea had passed. Twenty players shot in the 80s that day.
That Open marked Phil Mickelson’s professional debut. Perhaps it was an omen when he shot 81 in the second round and missed the cut. Since then, he’s accumulated six seconds in the major championship that has eluded him even more stubbornly than it did Sam Snead. On the Pebble practice ground last June, the day Phil turned 49, his former college coach at Arizona State University and longtime agent, Steve Loy, had custody of the silver dollar Phil uses to mark his ball whenever he plays at Pebble. The 1900 Morgan dollar (named after the engraver who designed it) was given to Phil by his grandfather, Al Santos, who caddied there as a boy. The Open dashed his hopes yet again, but it always comes back to Pebble.
That the USGA would want to kick off the new millennium at Pebble Beach was as predictable as the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Tiger Woods ushered in the new century with the most dominant performance in 140 years of championship golf. Writers were blowing the dust off the Dead Sea Scrolls searching for its statistical equal. Woods finished at 12-under par, 15 clear of Ernie Els and Miguel Ángel Jiménez. In fact, the last time anyone besides Woods was in red figures that week was when Jiménez walked off the fourth hole on Saturday. I watched it in North Carolina with my butt on the couch and my jaw on the floor. Nicklaus said his farewell to the championship he’d won there 28 years before, and on Wednesday morning 21 golfers drove balls into the ocean as a tribute to the defending champion, Payne Stewart, who had been dead not quite eight months. It always comes back to Pebble.
The fog made a cameo appearance in 2000, but nothing like it did one year back in the old days of Monday qualifying. “Steve Reid, who founded PGA Tour Productions in the ’80s and was a rabbit in the ’60s, recalls trying to qualify one year for the Crosby at Pebble Beach,” I wrote for Golf World in 2003. Reid had been put in a late group by Tour official Steve Shabala:
Going off at 2:30 p.m., the greens on the 14th and 15th holes were illuminated only by car headlights by the time qualifying was halted. Play was set to resume the next day at 7 a.m. but the thick Monterey Peninsula fog had rolled in. The rabbits played on. Reid knew all he needed to do was finish the 16th through the 18th holes with three bogeys.
When he drove off the 16th, no one could find his ball. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he says. “You just about had to step on the ball.” Shabala declared his five minutes up. Reid returned to the tee. Same result. Shabala timed him again. At the end of the second five minutes, Reid began arguing with Shabala, poking him in the chest with his finger. “I will plead guilty to the fact that I became insane at times,” says Reid. The rules official lost his balance, slipping backward, got in his cart and left. Reid returned to the tee, chunked a couple more and picked up. The PGA Tour’s chief official, Jack Tuthill, found him later in the clubhouse. “He said, ‘I’m going to have to fine you $100 for throwing Steve Shabala’s windbreaker on the ground,’” says Reid. “I said, ‘Can I appeal?’ and he said, ‘Sure, but if you do, I’m going to have to tell them that Steve was in it at the time.’”
After 2000, Pebble’s four U.S. Opens had been won by players inducted into the Hall of Fame in ’74 (Nicklaus), ’88 (Watson), ’04 (Kite) and Woods pretty much whenever the hell he feels like it. This is not to say that Graeme McDowell, who won Pebble’s fifth Open, in 2010, was a disappointment. Not to me, anyway. I was back for my third Open on the peninsula and pleased to learn that once all the hoopla was over on Sunday night, the toasting with blue coats and movie stars and whatnot, McDowell—the first European winner of the U.S. Open in 40 years—specifically requested transportation to a proper pub to continue his celebration. He was driven to Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel, where his signature, applied sometime in the wee hours, remained on the wall until a change of ownership saw fit to remove it. Or so I’ve been told. If McDowell never makes the Hall of Fame, he beat it that day: The contenders included Els, Woods and Mickelson. Though he looked confident enough leaving the practice ground with his coach, Butch Harmon, Dustin Johnson ran his hurry-up offense on the second hole, made triple bogey and couldn’t break 80, a learning curve that ended at Oakmont six years later. Any doubts about McDowell should have been removed that fall when, as Europe’s anchorman, he delivered the decisive point to win the Ryder Cup at swampy Celtic Manor in Wales.
Forty years after covering my first U.S. Open—Hale Irwin at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio, in ’79—the championship returned last summer to Pebble Beach to cure what ailed it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the USGA had devolved into something akin to the characters in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who, with all of the best intentions, tried to throw a surprise party for their friend, Doc, and managed only to trash his laboratory in his absence. About the best you could say for the USGA during this wilderness period is that, unlike Steinbeck’s characters, they didn’t use frogs for money. They’d screwed up at Chambers Bay, screwed up at Oakmont and screwed up at Shinnecock Hills. (Again!) General revolt was staved off only by the quality of the winners: Jordan Spieth, Johnson and Brooks Koepka. So, with Koepka trying to win three Opens in a row (something done just once, by Willie Anderson, roughly halfway between the Civil War and World War II) and Woods returning to the scene of his unfathomable 2000 triumph having just won the Masters for major No. 15, the burning question was whether or not the USGA could avoid looking like it drove down from Frisco in a clown car.
But it’s hard to screw up Pebble Beach. Beginning Sunday four shots off the lead, Koepka started turning the screw from the jump, doing a solid Nicklaus imitation when he played the first five holes in 4-under par. (Jack made five birdies in a row on the third through the seventh holes in ’82 to chase down Rogers and Watson.)
The man Koepka was chasing, Gary Woodland, comes as close as anyone to sharing the world No. 1’s athletic physique. As a college freshman, Woodland went from Shawnee High School state basketball championship teams to wearing No. 23 for Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. On Nov. 12, 2002, the Ichabods played the University of Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Heavens to Washington Irving, they lost 101–66. That Kansas team included Nick Collison (15 seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder), Kirk Hinrich (seven seasons with the Chicago Bulls) and Wayne Simien (won an NBA title with the Miami Heat in ’06). It was coach Roy Williams’ last KU team, and they went to the Final Four. Woodland had a moment of sudden clarity. As quick as you could say Space Jam, he was playing golf for KU.
Because I have some family ties in Lawrence, every time I run into Woodland at run-of-the-mill Tour events, we exchange a little Rock Chalk talk. He tolerates these brief encounters, which I find very kind. When I saw his coach, Pete Cowen, on the practice ground at Pebble, I praised the work they’d done together and mentioned that Woodland was a helluva nice guy. “That’s one of his problems,” Cowen said. “He’s too nice.” Cowen proceeded to morph into a golfing variation of the cinematic General George Patton addressing the Third Army: “By God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards. We’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.” He wasn’t quite that savage, but let’s just say Cowen was ready to roll.
In truth, Woodland played bravely. He had the best player in the world circling like a turkey vulture all day, waiting for any sign of weakness. When Koepka started fast, Woodland answered. When Woodland pulled his 3-wood on the par-5 14th, it was as if he’d chosen to make the moment his own. In some (though not all) previous Opens, the bank on the left of the green would have been mowed low. Had that been the case, Woodland’s second shot could have rolled down where it would’ve been more likely to make bogey or double than the birdie that told him everything he needed to know about himself. His pitch on the 17th was sublime, his four on the 18th oh, so reminiscent of Watson’s in ’82. Utterly liberating.
The reaction of the chattering class seemed odd. Pebble Beach was too easy, they said. The severe U.S. Open setup is a thing of the past, a relic of an older time. It had been Shinnecocked into oblivion. But the winning score at Pebble Beach was 13-under par and there were 31 players in red figures in perfect conditions. A month later, at Royal Portrush, the winning score in the Open Championship was 15 under, there were 29 players under par and the wind blew on Sunday. One was deemed too easy, the other a massive success. The truth was, last June the USGA allowed the weather to dictate the scores—the British Open blueprint. To do anything else would have invited disaster, had they taken the course to the edge (what, the USGA?) and the winds of ’72 or ’92 arrived. After years of stumbling, they couldn’t afford another pratfall.
The Open will return to Pebble in 2027, but it’s unlikely I’ll be passing that way again. Though I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked Pebble Beach, I’ve played it only once. It was with a friend whom, I suspect, is no longer alive. The last time I saw Everett, 15 years ago, give or take, he looked scared and unwell. It was a shock when he showed up at my front door. The story he told seemed preposterous. He and his girlfriend were running away from some bad people, he said. I put them up in a hotel for a couple of nights and gave him some money, enough to get by for a few days. I never saw him again, nor has anyone in his extended family. If his story was true, he might be in witness protection. Or maybe the people he was running from found him first. Or maybe it was utter nonsense and he had fallen on hard times and was too embarrassed to simply ask for help. In any event, I fear he’s gone now.
But the day we played Pebble, Everett parred the eighth. Drive right over the aiming rock. Approach short left of the green. Chip and putt. I think it may have been the happiest day of his life. And it gave me one last place to visit. It always comes back to Pebble.