Pray for Pebble Beach. America's greatest course--as much a
shrine as Wrigley Field or Carnegie Hall--is in the path of a
hurricane. No, we're not talking about Crosby Weather; the
forecast for this week's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is clear
skies and moderate temperatures. For the last two seasons there
has been a gathering storm on the PGA Tour as longer, stronger
players have threatened to destroy every course in their path.
Now, just a month into the new year, the apocalypse is upon us.
SI has crunched the numbers, and they are startling. In the first
four events of this year, average driving distance is up an
unprecedented nine yards (from 280.2 to 289.0) compared with the
same opening quartet in 2002. More mind-blowing is the average
drive of the four winners--311.2 yards, compared with 288.3 last
year. The winners' scoring average is 65.65 a round, down more
than a stroke from 2002. Mostly perfect weather and dry, fast
tracks have been a factor, but so too have hot new drivers and
the second generation of solid-core balls, which are bordering on
Clearly we have come to expect low scores at the Sony Open, the
Phoenix Open and the Bob Hope Classic, where last week three 61s
were shot, along with a quartet of 62s. But if the pros tear up
venerable Pebble Beach and its once fearsome neighbor, Spyglass
Hill, a trend will have become an epidemic.
Despite the churning Pacific that makes so many holes visually
intimidating, Pebble is extremely vulnerable without the kind of
stiff breeze that slowed the scoring during the final round of
the Hope. (Mike Weir, a precise plodder, matched the low score of
the day, a 67, to prevail at 30 under in the 90-hole event.) At
6,816 yards Pebble is one of the shortest courses in championship
golf and, with its generous fairways, has always rewarded a power
game. The great equalizer has been Pebble's tiny greens, which
are surrounded by peril. Even this defense falls away if players
are hitting wedges into every famous par-4. The two short par5s on
the front nine have always been tantalizing scoring
opportunities, but if eagle putts become commonplace on the
573-yard 14th and the once formidable 543-yard 18th, then expect
the course record of 62 to fall this week, as well as the
tournament scoring record of 20 under. (Poppy Hills, the third
host course, has five par5s and will be an eagle bonanza.)
As pro golf storms into this new era, it has found an unlikely
poster boy in Jay Haas, 49, one of the players who rang up a 61
at the Hope last week. For the first time in his career Haas
reached in two the 543-yard 11th hole at La Quinta Country Club.
"Years ago the mind-set was, Make the cut first and then try to
make a little move," Haas says. "Now it's, Hair on fire, let's
rip it up."
This week Pebble Beach will be in the eye of the storm. How the
course fares will go a long way toward determining if the game
has changed irrevocably or if a month of wild scoring is merely a
tempest in a teapot.
Melissa Lehman has good news: "There's a little bun in this
oven," she tells SI. She and husband Tom are expecting their
fourth child on March 30. The news is all the sweeter because
Melissa, 40, suffered a miscarriage in July 2001. Says Tom,
"Melissa's feeling great, the baby is healthy and looking strong,
so we're expecting nothing but good things." All three of the
Lehmans' children--Rachael, 12, Holly, 10, and Thomas, 7--were
born earlier than scheduled, with Rachael and Holly coming so
prematurely that Tom missed their births. He's planning to skip
the Florida swing, which begins March 6 at Doral, just in case.
Mike Weir's Sunday surge at the Bob Hope Classic--he birdied the
final three holes to trump Jay Haas by two strokes--was even more
remarkable given how his wearying week began. Weir attended the
funeral of his 88-year-old maternal grandmother, Esther Knott, in
Niagara Falls, Ont., on Jan. 28, then flew straight to Palm
Springs, arriving about six hours before his 8:39 tee time in the
Phil Mickelson broke from tradition at the Hope by requesting
that he be removed from the celebrity pairings, where the
defending champ is expected to suffer through the endless
distractions. Because of an administrative snafu, Mickelson's
tee times weren't revised until the day before the first round,
which created some hard feelings with the jilted pseudo-celebs.
(Low-wattage Joey Sindelar was drafted as a replacement.) Singer
Michael Bolton was so miffed about losing his tee time with the
No. 3 player in the world that he made a point of signing
autographs on top of Mickelson's face in the program.
Al Degen, 79, was at Yankee Stadium when Don Larsen pitched his
perfect game in the 1956 World Series, but, he says, "that was
boring" compared with watching Pat Perez, his pro-am partner,
birdie 10 of his first 11 holes during the second round of the
Hope. Since the amateurs benefit when their Tour player does
well, Degen and his partners have a tradition of paying their
pro's caddie $10 a man for each birdie the pro makes, which
meant that Perez's looper, Mike Hartford, collected a $330 bonus
for his man's 61.
The Tour's resident brother act, David and Kevin Sutherland,
were paired on Sunday at the Hope. Tied for 49th at the start of
the round, Kevin shot a 70 to surge to 28th place, while David's
76 dropped him to 57th. The difference a day makes? $21,240.
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COLOR PHOTO [INSIDE COVER] PEBBLE IN PERIL Will the Famed Links Stand Up To Torrid-Scoring Pros? G11
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS Unprecedented driving distances will test the defenses of Pebble Beach, which is a mere 6,816 yards.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES TURNAROUND Weir got to the Hope with only hours to spare.
Ernie Els is going to do the previously unthinkable--challenge
Tiger Woods's 3 1/2-year reign atop the World Ranking. With his
victory last week in Australia, Els has closed the gap by nearly
25% in one month's time. A win at the Masters would give Els the
momentum to reach No. 1.