Back to Historic Pebble Beach
By Jim Dover
The player that hoists the trophy at this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach will join an elite group of past champions that include Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tom Watson (1982), Tom Kite (1992) and Tiger Woods (2000). Hosting the 110th U.S. Open Championship for the fifth time, the Pebble Beach Golf Links has seen some remarkable finishes, most notably Tom Watson’s birdie chip on the 17th hole to beat Jack Nicklaus, as well as the record setting 15-shot victory in 2000 by a then 24 year-old Tiger Woods. While we wait for the 2010 story to unfold, one thing is for certain: the game’s greatest players will forever link the fifth champion at Pebble Beach to four remarkable performances.
1972: The First U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
Ask any golf fan what course epitomizes Jack Nicklaus and you’ll probably get Augusta National or perhaps the Old Course at St. Andrews. However, if anyone was speculating what course was Jack’s favorite in 1972, Pebble Beach golf links was surely on the short list. Already a winner at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach earlier in that same year, Nicklaus entered the U.S. Open, as he did most championships, as the man to beat. Combine that dominant play with a history at Pebble Beach that also included a 1961 U.S. Amateur title, courtesy of an 8 and 6 thrashing of Dudley Wysong, and a pre-tournament practice schedule that landed the Golden Bear eight days of practice at Pebble Beach, and you had the makings of a man who couldn’t lose.
But Pebble Beach has a way of evening the playing field with the winds sweeping off the rocky coastline and a USGA-prepared course for the Open that tested even the great Nicklaus. Entering the final round, everything seemed to be going right for Nicklaus. Playing in the final group with the defending U.S. Open Champion Lee Trevino, who bested Nicklaus in a playoff at Merion Golf Club, Nicklaus was leading by one stroke. One of the more entertaining side stories was Nicklaus’ “What, no snake?” comment at the start of the final round in reference to Trevino pulling out a rubber snake on the first playoff hole at the previous year’s championship. The casual mood helped Nicklaus claim a 3-shot lead going into the turn until a disastrous double bogey on the 10th and another bogey on the par-3 12th brought the field back into contention.
His lead back up to three when he arrived at the famous par-3 17th. Playing dead into the wind, Nicklaus chose a 1-iron into the wind and hit what would soon become one of the most famous in U.S. Open history. Hitting the flag and coming to rest two inches from the hole for a tap-in birdie allowed Nicklaus to walk the eighteenth knowing he had just captured his 13th major championship. The victory made Nicklaus the first player to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same course, which has yet to be repeated.
1982: Watson and the shot of a lifetime
Without question, the shot most remembered at any of the four previous U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach was Watson’s birdie chip-in at the par-3 17th that led to a two-shot victory over Jack Nicklaus. Responding to his caddy, the late Bruce Edwards who instructed him to “Get it close,” Watson pronounced “I’m not going to get it close; I’m going to make it.”
Watching the shot even today, you have to wonder how Watson was so confident. A downhill chip tangled in the thick rough that required a gouging stroke to lift the ball clear is hardly a shot-calling moment. But Watson, who even though was the four-time PGA Tour Player of the Year, was admittedly in poor form entering the championship. So disgusted with his swing, Watson spent his entire practice sessions working on chips and pitch shots around the greens, and when he arrived at his 17-hole predicament he was unusually confident.
Practice sessions aside, Watson was also playing the final holes extraordinarily well for the championship. On Thursday, Watson was three-over par through 14 before birdies on 3 of the final 4 holes landed him at even par. Then again on Friday, Watson was three-over after 15 before 3 consecutive birdies kept him within striking distance. Realizing that his scrambling technique was a doomed plan, Watson hit the range after Friday’s round and sorted out his erratic swing. His Saturday 4-under 68 landed him in the final pairing with Bill Rogers and on a collision course with destiny.
Nicklaus, who was playing a few groups ahead of Watson, made a determined effort for his fifth U.S. Open title and had to like his chances upon seeing Watson’s 2-iron bury in the greenside rough. But the 17th at Pebble Beach that was so kind to Nicklaus 10 years earlier was equally giving to Watson as it struck the flagstick and plopped in the hole for a birdie. Watson’s mini victory lap carried over to the 18th, which he also birdied, winning his first and only U.S. Open by two shots. Later, playing partner Bill Rogers claimed Watson couldn’t get that shot close with hundred attempts, which Nicklaus famously corrected “a thousand times.”
1992: Strong winds lift Kite to the Championship
While headline writers around the world relished the chance to pen the words that would describe Tom Kite’s windy victory at the third U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the most fitting would probably be “Survival.” The final round conditions at the 1992 U.S. Open produced winds in excess of 40 miles an hour and had the leaders in a constant nosedive. So fierce were the winds during the final round that Jack Nicklaus, who was working as a TV announcer for the tournament, congratulated a young Colin Montgomerie who shot the low round of the day (2-under 70) and was the leader in the clubhouse when the heavy winds began coming off the coast. Montgomerie would end up in third, when Jeff Sluman, playing in the fierce winds, recorded a 1-under 71 and also looked likely to win the tournament.
Nobody gave the steady Kite much of a chance considering the type of closing scores the top players were recording. Consider Gil Morgan, who led after each of the first three rounds, shooting a disastrous 81 to finish in 13th place. Ray Floyd, the 1986 Open champion also recorded a closing round 81, while Mark Brooks, who briefly held the lead in the final round, fired an 84. part of Kite to maneuver through the windy condition, but inspired by a Father’s Day Sunday and a scrambling mindset that had the Texan exhausted at the finish where he pronounced, “That was one tough day.”
The shot that started Kite’s fateful final round came on the shortest hole on the course. Hitting a 6-iron into the 107-yard 7th hole, the fierce winds lifted his ball into the rough near the eighth hole and by all appearances it was the start of another high score for the leaders. He then hit what he calls the shot of his life, a perfect pitch shot that banged the flagstick anddropped into the hole for a birdie two. Reminiscent of Nicklaus and Watson on the 17th, the final round flagsticks were once again kind to the eventual champion Kite. But with conditions that bad, Kite still had to execute several more remarkable shots before hoisting the trophy. A 25-foot par putt at the 11th combined with a 30-foot birdie at the par-3 12th was indicative of the even par 72 round that Kite
In the end, the 1992 U.S. Open was the only major championship that Kite would win in a 19 PGA tour victory career.
2000: Woods buries the field by a record 15 shots
Expectations have always been a part of Tiger Woods’ career, but after a 1999 season with eight victories and a major win at the PGA Championship, the Tiger faithful had grown accustomed to winning. He did not disappoint. The millennium craze of 2000 moved Pebble Beach up in the rotation to host the 100th U.S. Open and was also notable due to Jack Nickluas’ final U.S. Open appearance.
One change to the course that Nicklaus did not agree with was the USGA’s decision to change the number two hole from a par 5 to a par 4, making the course a par 71 for the U.S. Open. Also marking thistournament was the defending U.S. Open Champion Payne Stewart, who died tragically in a plane crash and was commemorated at the startof the tournament with a group of players teeing off simultaneously into the rocky Pacific. A fortuitous start for Tiger came on the opening day when his early tee time allowed him to finish his round before thick fog moved in for the afternoon groups. His 6-under 65 placed him in the lead over Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez by one shot and two shots ahead of John Huston – a lead he would never relinquish.
Weather conditions also played a factor for the players on day two, which only helped Tiger, who seemed impervious to the elements, shooting a two-under 69 for an 8-under two-day total that was six shots clear of his nearest competitor, Thomas Bjorn. Day three conditions were the worst yet and even Tiger, who had a triple bogey on the par 4 third hole, could only manage an even-par 71 to stay at and was commemorated at the start of the tournament with a group of players teeing off simultaneously would need to win the tournament. It would take a heroic effort on the 8-under for the tournament. He still gained on the field and now had a 10-shot margin from second-place Ernie Els.
Entering the final day it was a foregone conclusion that Tiger would earn his third major title of his young career, but by what margin of victory and how many records would fall in the process was still to be determined. In the end, a barrage of birdies on the back nine landed Tiger with a record-setting double-digit 12-under finish along with a major record-setting 15-shot margin of victory over Ernie Els and Miguel Angle Jimenez. Tiger would go on and win the next three major championships in a row and hold all four trophies at the same time for what is now referred to as the Tiger Slam.