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Was Pebble Beach Unfair or Did It Reveal the Open Champion?

By: Blaine Newnham


I thought the U.S. Open was wonderful theater. Ryan Moore didn't. I watched; he played.

"They want a spectacle," said Moore, the 27-year-old former U.S. Amateur and Public Links champion playing in his fifth Open. "And to make everyone look stupid, I guess."

Graeme McDowell didn't look stupid, winning the U.S. Open with a precise performance, the first European to claim the championship in 40 years.

Perhaps television sets on the East Coast checked out of the Open as first Dustin Johnson and then Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods did, but the Open was a treacherous test that saw only one player equal par, McDowell, who grew up on Northern Ireland's links monster, Royal Portrush, and didn't seemed fazed by anything going on here.

Like Dustin Johnson, the third-round leader, shooting 82. Or Mickelson 73 and Woods 75.

Long ago, the USGA's Sandy Tatum said, "We're not trying to embarrass the best players in the game at the U.S. Open. We're trying to identify them."

Embarrass or identify?

If you've been following the evolution of the U.S. Open you've witnessed the hand of Mike Davis make the setup easier in some ways, more difficult in others. You've also seen the U.S. Open look a little more like the British Open, from the firm fairways and fescue-edged bunkers at Pebble Beach to the choices of future events: Chambers Bay in 2015, Erin Hills in 2017 and Pebble again in 2019.

Davis, the USGA's head of competitions, separated himself and the Open from the old knee-deep rough of the tournaments past in 2006, graduating cuts of rough away from the fairways and at the same time making the players make decisions.

He changed tees, sometimes dramatically, each day, ushering in the drive-able par-4, making success dependent not on where a ball landed, but on where it ended up. At Pebble, he brought the ocean into play. Imagine that.

There is no question that Pebble this week was more competitive, more electric than the setup in 2000. But was that more about what Davis did or Tiger Woods didn't?

Moore, whose last year as an amateur was the most decorated since Bobby Jones 80 years ago, was exasperated even though he'd made a cut and shot rounds of 75-73-75-73. He wasn't pleased with playing conditions or playing strategies.

"It isn't about hitting good putts because they'll roll off line. All you can do is have an uphill putt, hit it hard and stick it," said Moore.

But there was more to Moore's concerns than just lightning-fast poa annua greens. He didn't like the general attitude of the USGA as manifested in the Davis setup. "When you can't keep a ball on the green, something is wrong," continued Moore. "They could do something about it, but they refuse to."

Moore cited example after example of his hitting the ball where he wanted to only to have it end up somewhere else. "The 17th is a horrible hole," said Moore, sure to enrage the USGA hierarchy in criticizing one of the sport's great holes. "I honestly couldn't have stopped a 7-iron on that green today. I hit the highest, softest 4-iron I could today and it bounced off the green.

"Where is the skill in that?"

In Moore's defense, there was only one birdie on 17 all day. Perhaps the USGA is caught somewhere between Oakmont and St. Andrews. The rough is still there, but so is the random nature of links golf where often luck is more important than skill. The worst of both worlds?

"The course," said Tom Watson, who won five British Opens and the U.S. Open here, "is playing fast and fiery, but it is not playing unfair. The key shots in playing this course are the approach to 14 and the tee shot to 17."

Moore was asked about a fair setup for a major. "Augusta," he said. "You know what you have to do, and you step up and do it."

As for the splotchy Pebble Beach greens, Moore talked about balls that hit green spots on the green staying on the green, and balls that hit brown spots bouncing into very difficult rough. "On 12," he said, "I hit the ball as high and soft as I could, and exactly where I wanted it to land, and it bounded over the green. They are asking me to hit shots I can't physically do."

Indeed, Ernie Els birdied 12 but only after his tee shot dropped into the rough and dribbled out near the hole.

One day at No. 9, Moore hit what he though was a perfect shot and the ball ran away from the green into gnarly rough. On another round he hit a poor approach into the cabbage. "The rough killed it and the ball ran to the cup," said Moore. So as Moore would say, where's the skill?

Sure, it was Davis's design to scalp the edges of the fairway on the ocean holes to make the Pacific a real hazard, but he didn't hit it in as Woods did on No. 6 and Els did twice on No. 10.

The setup was difficult, but I'm not sure it caused Els to lose four shots in three holes, and Johnson six in three. Or make Woods go 3-over in the first six holes, holes Mickelson said were set up to birdie.

Davis invited Woods to go near the green on No. 3 by pushing up the tee, but he didn't hit the shot into the woods. Woods did. Davis made No. 2 a par-4, but he didn't muff a couple of shots that Johnson did en route to a triple-bogey.

"When Dustin made a triple," said Mickelson, "it brought a lot of guys into contention and the chance to make it an exciting tournament. All I had to do was go even-par on the back nine to be in a playoff. But I didn't do it."

Woods said later that Davis's setup of firm and fast gave more players a chance to win.

So the Open ended in the hands of an Irishman who grew up on the "Auld Sod" but went to college in Alabama. Who knew how to win under any circumstances. Who didn't hit it far, but hit it fair.

"It was torture,'' finished Moore. "But the U.S. Open is the U.S. Open."

And a better test every year.

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.