Thursday at the U.S. Open: A Blue Bird Pebble Beach

By: Blaine Newnham


Sunscreen and sweaters.

Pebble was perfect.

I've been to Augusta, St. Andrews, Turnberry, Pinehurst and Bethpage for major championships. But I've never seen anything like this, even though I was here for Tiger Woods 15-stroke rampage in 2000.

Despite the fact Pebble Beach Golf Links isn't a links course, the views, the shot values, the history and now a thoughtful and appropriate setup have left it just about as magnificent a major tournament site as there has been.

The USGA is walking a thin line with its championship, proudly regarded as the most difficult of the majors because of the gnarly rough, linoleum greens and, in most cases, hot, humid weather.

I'll always remember the picture of Ben Hogan, knee-high in tall grasses near the green, trying to win at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

It was more about survival than supremacy. Hogan didn't make it. That was in our national championship.

There is no traditional tangle of rough at Pebble Beach. No situations where 6 inches off the fairway is worse than 60 feet, because the rough farther from the hole has been trod upon by spectators.

But there is also no doubt that in almost-perfect weather conditions the course - not the field - was dictating scores, that there is little chance the U.S. Open will lose its mantle as the Toughest Major to Win.

Here we have a course that seems in its own way to have mesmerized technology; course more about precision than power. The greens have always been smaller than most munis, but now with faster, firmer fairways and less rough, the ocean has become a real water hazard and the bunkers magnets for not-so-errant shots.

The course is also more picturesque than ever, the tall, wavy fescue defining most of the bunkers giving it a real links look, even if the ground underneath isn't sand, even if the course doesn't meet the links definition of being reclaimed from the sea.

I spent the day as a fan, doing everything but paying $110 for a ticket. The fog lifted early, but a persistent breeze off the ocean left fans from the East Coast scampering for a sweater in the USGA's merchandise center.

Pebble doesn't have the wide-open spaces that Chambers Bay, for example, will offer spectators and infrastructure. But, except for the Tiger Woods's threesome, it was easy enough to watch play on a wonderful stretch of holes along the Pacific, Nos. 8, No. 9 and No. 10.

Views include the white sands of Carmel beach. Play is much easier to watch than at St. Andrews, where the double greens keep you pushed to the course's flat, distant perimeters.

Tom Watson's dad told him before he played Pebble Beach that the seaside trio was the best three consecutive par-4s in the world. Little has changed from those days, decades ago.

Except for the setup. The rough is gone along the edges of the Pacific Ocean; tees are set up not only to lengthen the holes, but bring the ocean more in play.

On the way to the course, I stopped in at the American Express pavilion. As a card member, I could pick up a free one-channel radio to get ESPN's broadcast of the tournament or get a small television set on loan.

I took the radio. The coverage was perfect. Too perfect.

I finally turned the radio off. I didn't want to be distracted from the beauty and beast of the place.

Maybe on Sunday I'd need to know the details. But watching golf is not about being informed, but about being inspired.

You don't watch a golf tournament like you do an NBA game. You've never dunked a basketball. But you have run in a 20-footer for birdie, or dropped a 100-yard wedge shot a couple of feet from the hole.

Shots and situations become personal.

Phil Mickelson had a tough day, but didn't back away from his initial assessment of the place. "It is the best U.S. Open setup I've seen," he said.

The Luke Donalds and Mike Weirs are still in contention. The best, not necessarily the strongest, might win.

"I swing as hard as I can on every hole at Augusta," said Mickelson, "but distance is not the most important factor here, hitting it in the right spot is."

Nearly 40 players are within a few shots of the lead.

"Scores aren't going anywhere," said Woods. "It is the U.S. Open."

It's Pebble Beach.

Out among the 40,000 spectators, it is obvious many of them know little about golf. They don't know the people or the rules. But they do know they are in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.


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