The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am that begins Thursday is the sixth tournament of this year’s PGA Tour, but somehow it seems as if the season is starting only now. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and it’s not as if I’m ignorant of the last two exciting tournaments.
First, two Sundays ago, Brandt Snedeker won the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego after Kyle Stanley triple-bogied the last hole; Snedeker beat him in a playoff. And then Stanley came from eight shots behind third-round leader Spencer Levin to win the Waste Management Open in Scottsdale, Ariz. He shot 65 while Levin, who took a six-shot lead into the last round, shot 75. Exciting tournament? For sure.
So what it is, then, about the AT&T that makes it feel like the start of the season? Is it that Tiger Woods is making his PGA Tour debut? Is it that there’s heightened interest, among Canadians anyway, because Mike Weir is returning to the PGA Tour after a seven-month absence? Sure, their participation has something to do with the added interest, but there’s something else. Has to be.
Here’s what it is, in one word: Pebble. It’s the golf course, its beauty, and its history. I don’t even fall into the camp that thinks Pebble – nobody refers to it by its full name of Pebble Beach, just as Augusta, is, well, Augusta and not Augusta National – is one of the two or three best courses in the world. Yes, the course is full of eye-popping holes, especially those along the ocean. And it’s hard to beat the 18th, a par-five that hugs Carmel Bay. The course is sooooo beautiful, but some of its inner holes, such as the first, second, 12th and 13th, aren’t so special. Still, this is Pebble, and you’ll hear the adjective “spectacular” a million times during the tournament.
The tournament isn’t even held at Pebble all four days. It’s a pro-am, and the pros and amateurs also play the Monterey Peninsula Country Club and Spyglass Hill. Two rounds are at Pebble, including, needless to say, the final day.
Ah, that final day. I’m already looking forward to it. That’s where my mind goes when I think of the tournament. It goes there because of the 1972 U.S. Open, when Jack Nicklaus slammed a one-iron off the flagstick on the par-three 17th hole en route to winning the championship. Pow! Take that.
Next up in my Pebble memory bank is the pitch shot that Tom Watson holed on that same hole in the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open. Watson and Nicklaus were tied for the lead. Nicklaus was finished his round. Watson holed the shot from the left rough just off the back of the green.
A year and a half later I was watching the AT&T, then called the Bing Crosby Pro-Am while at home in Toronto. Jim Nelford, the 1975 and 1976 Canadian Amateur champion for whom I’d caddied a few tournaments each year after he turned pro, was in the clubhouse with a one-shot lead. Only Hale Irwin could catch him. Irwin drove into the rocks below the fairway on the last hole; his ball was heading for Carmel Bay, but it ricocheted back to the fairway. Irwin birdied the hole and beat Nelford in the playoff. I’ve never seen a worse break at the ultimate moment or one golfer, or a better one for another.
There’s no end to the memorable moments that thinking of Pebble conjures for me. I was at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands when Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Did that really happen? It’s still hard to believe. And 10 years later I followed Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell as he hit pinpoint shot after pinpoint shot the last round to win the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble. I noticed his father out there on the eighth hole as McDowell made his way to the green. What a moment for him, on Father’s Day. What a moment for his son.
The U.S. Open will return to Pebble for the sixth time in 2019, in the year of the course’s 100th anniversary. That’s seven years away. But we have this week’s AT&T and all the AT&T tournaments at Pebble before that next U.S. Open.
The golf course is the star this week. The golf course is Pebble. Enough said.
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein