PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — I know that sharing is caring. I know that there are countless other outstanding tracks across the nation. But as I walked around the finest course west of Augusta National on Sunday, I couldn’t stop asking: “Why does the U.S. Open only come to Pebble Beach Golf Links once every decade or so?”
Because this course is everything that the U.S. Open is supposed to be.
It was ruthless but fair; beautiful, but treacherous. You could score, but you’d really have to earn it. And you didn’t stand a chance of competing if you weren’t proficient in every area of the game.
“Yeah, it’s perfect. It’s a perfect, hard test,” said Phil Mickelson, who shot plus-4 for the tournament.
Golf needs more tests like it. And until they show up — until other courses start teaching the same kind of lessons — the U.S. Open should be played at Pebble Beach every five years.
The game of golf is under attack from within. Exponential improvement in equipment has fundamentally changed the sport at the highest levels, and instead of counterpunching, courses around the country are instead doing everything they can to increase their yardage in an effort to challenge a group of players that drive it an average of 295 yards (and increasing).
But not Pebble Beach. Since the last U.S. Open it hosted, in 2010, it’s added only added 35 yards. It’s added only 229 yards since 1972.
Pebble is standing strong. And yet the field’s scoring average this week was 1.58 strokes above par, and, despite favorable weather, only 31 of the 79 golfers who made it to the weekend shot under.
Why? Because the course forced everyone who teed off to play real golf. Plenty of guys on the tour have no idea how to do that anymore.
Pebble, despite its relatively puny yardage, is a track that cannot be beaten by merely bombing it with the driver. Its thick rough and vexing sloping demands accuracy, not length, off the tee. Its small greens and their impressive fortification demands deft iron play, a fierce putter, and a steely resolve. On some courses we’ve seen in major championships, there’s no such thing as a mishit, so long as it goes far. On this course, one errant swing could easily bring about two, three, even four more shots.
It demanded near-perfection from its champion. Sure enough, Gary Woodland brought his A-game across the board. Yes, he averaged 310 yards per drive in the tournament, but it was the other clubs in his bag that won him his first major. He was No. 2 in greens in regulation, No. 2 in strokes gained putting, No. 6 in strokes gained on approach shots, and No. 22 in fairways hit. He put it all together over four rounds.
Add in an unflappability that rivaled that of his top challenger —and borderline doppelganger — Brooks Koepka, and a willingness to go big — like he did with his second shot on the par-5 14th Sunday, a 263-yard shot he was able to land over a greenside bunker and on the green, 13 feet from the hole — and you had a near-perfect performance to win at an impressive, but in no way gaudy minus-13.
Woodland needed to put it all together to win. He did just that, and it was spectacular to watch.
Koepka was outstanding on the weekend, too, but he couldn’t get his putter to cooperate on Sunday. It denied him a third-straight U.S. Open title, a feat that would have been one of the greatest in golf history.
And yet despite that clear test of all-around ability, the golf media — that wonderful, insular bunch — openly questioned this week if Pebble Beach was a “real U.S. Open course.”
They wanted more carnage. I guess they expected more wind.
But perhaps the problem is not with the course, but that ridiculous, arbitrary standard.
“It’s Pebble Beach, it’s the U.S. Open setup. The course is fantastic. It’s just been really fun to play,” Jim Furyk said.
Yes, you’re allowed to be challenged and have fun. Heaven forbid someone plays well and deserves to go under par.
Rory McIlroy was asked, “What would you say to golf fans that say the course is playing too easy?”
(The golf fans, of course, were actually just the golf media. Straw men are fun.)
“Come play it yourself,” McIlroy responded.
I shudder to think what I would shoot. I like to think I’m halfway decent, but there would be more than a few snowmen on that scorecard.
But that’s the other great part of Pebble Beach — I could actually play it. And that’s not media favoritism, either. You can’t play pickup at Oracle Arena or play a game of beer league baseball at the Coliseum, but you can play Pebble Beach. And that’s one of golf’s best selling points.
Yes, it’s difficult to get a tee time. Yes, it’s hella expensive. But it’s a public course.
And if you ask me, all U.S. Opens should be played on public courses.
The United States Golf Association, despite their mandate to grow the game, don’t seem to understand that they’re missing out on an opportunity to connect with the people, even in a token way. Between now and 2027 —the next time the U.S. Open is at Pebble — only one other truly public course will host the tournament.
Instead, we’ll get some of the most exclusive (dare I say exclusionary?) and expensive country clubs in the nation — Shinnecock Hills, Los Angeles CC, Oakmont, Winged Foot — over the next few years.
And here I thought the U.S. Open was supposed to be the “People’s Open.”
Hey, USGA: Leave the private courses to the PGA, and while you’re at it, make Pebble Beach a true flagship course for your flagship tournament.
What more could you want in a track? It’s a course with unparalleled beauty that challenges all-around game, not just driving distance. It’s a public course that can be played the average golfer (after a payday, of course)? Oh, and it also provides prime-time golf for all those East Coasters the FOX broadcast decided needed to be catered to all weekend.
Yes, Pebble Beach was — and will continue to be — the perfect U.S. Open venue.
And it’s a shame we need to wait eight years until we can experience again.