PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — If you ever climb to the top of the grandstand alongside the signature 7th hole at Pebble Beach, take look all around and soak it all in.
This is why Jack Nicklaus famously said, “If I had only one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach. I’ve loved this course from the first time I saw it. It’s possibly the best in the world.”
From that one spot, in front of you is the shortest — and perhaps most photographed — hole on the PGA Tour (106 yards) with the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop. Boats dot the harbor and the rocky coastline borders the 4th, 5th, 17th and 18th holes to the north. Behind you the 6th and 8th fairways stretch back into the peninsula, and to the south the sandy shore of Carmel Beach sits below the cliffs and the 9th and 10th holes.
“How can you not like the views? It’s a cool place just to play golf and just to be here,” said Brooks Koepka. “It really is special.”
The U.S. Open returns to the Monterey Peninsula and the most picturesque course in the country on Thursday for the first time since 2010. At any other course, it would be easy to say all eyes would be on Koepka — chasing his fifth major championship in two years — who is looking to become the second golfer to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles and the first in 114 years.
That’s any other course. At this course, it’s safe to say many of those eyes will be on the majestic coastline and stunning views, assuming the fog that rolled in Wednesday is not a permanent guest for the weekend.
“It’s the toughest test in golf, it’s our national championship,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Open champion that was played at Chambers Bay. “And this one should provide a really cool challenge just given where it is with the setting and the history of this tournament here.”
But within that beauty of Pebble Beach can lie a beast, including at that cozy 7th hole. While the wind can play havoc on several holes, it’s never more noticeable than the seventh. That’s because an easy wedge can turn into a 6-iron, as it did for 1992 U.S. Open champion Tom Kite. Sam Snead once famously used a putter from the tee, sending the ball down a dirt cart path, rather than hit the ball into the wind.
“There’s a few holes depending on the wind that could play very long,” said Dustin Johnson, who won the 2016 Open at Oakmont.
Koepka’s two U.S. Open wins have come at Erin Hills and Shinnecock Hills with widely different results. He won with a 16-under par in 2017 at Erin Hills and a 1-over last summer at Shinnecock.
The winning scores for the U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach have been all over the course, ranging from Nicklaus’ 2-over in 1972 to Tiger Woods’ 12-under in 2000 in where no one else shot better than 3-over.
Graeme McDowell is the most recent winner of the Open at Pebble, shooting even par in 2010.
“This is a very, very different golf course, especially at a U.S. Open venue,” Jason Day said. “I’m excited to see how the scores go. I don’t think it’s going to be too low.”
Woods, seeking his 16th major, followed his historic victory at the Masters in April by missing the cut at the PGA Championship last month. His 2000 victory, one of his three U.S. Open titles, is legendary because of its dominance and came on a course that he first played more than 30 years ago, when he was 9 or 10, and his father, Earl, decided the price was right to show his budding phenom of a son where the pros play.
“My dad made a vow that he would never, ever play a round of golf where you had to pay a hundred bucks or more,” Woods said. “So luckily it was still under a hundred bucks then. And we got a chance to play Pebble Beach.”
The price to play Pebble today: $550.
The challenge for this course is not its length but its narrow fairways that lead to postage stamp greens. Some look at that as an advantage for the long hitters, who could have shorter, easier second shots. Other could see it neutralizing the strength of long hitters like Koepka, Johnson and Rory McIlroy.
“If you’re playing out of the fairway, yeah, it definitely gives you an advantage,” Johnson said. “But you’ve got to get it in the fairway. A lot of holes ... you can challenge and get it closer to the green in some places, but in most instances here you’re just trying to get it in the fairway.”
Koepka describes the rough as “thick” and “juicy.” And with small greens, keeping it out of that that stuff becomes even more of an emphasis.
“These greens are so small, you can almost put it in the center of every green and have 20 feet, no matter where the flag stick is,” Koepka said. “It really comes down to who’s going to make putts.”
There is another reason why Koepka is not concerned about more players being drawn into the competition this week because of playing on a shorter course.
It’s called the pressure of playing in a major, something he has become immune to during his extraordinary two-year run.
“There’s so much pressure,” he said. “There’s so many guys that shoot themselves out of it just because it’s a major. They change their game plan from a normal week to this week, added pressure of I’ve got to play well this week.”