Dustin Johnson defended his Pro-Am title, but all the buzz was about Pebble Beach and the return of a spectacular venue
Forget the Oscar nominees, glamour-boy quarterbacks and multiple major championship winners. The real stars at last week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am were the golf courses. Spyglass Hill happens to be one of the best tracks on Tour, but it was completely overshadowed by the other courses that make up the tournament's new heavenly trinity: Pebble Beach Golf Links, which showed off some fancy tweaks for the upcoming U.S. Open, and the revamped Shore course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, which made a smashing return to the rota after a 33-year absence. Throughout the week all three courses were bathed in glorious sunshine and framed by the pounding surf of an angry Pacific, and players were content to be rendered supporting actors on the grandest stages.
"There's no better place in the world to play golf," said Brad Faxon. "There's something magical here." Added Paul Goydos, "What they've got here is God's gift to golf."
The good news is that we get to do it all over again in four months when Pebble hosts the Open for a fifth time. Each previous national championship there produced a victor, and a victory, that defined an era: Jack Nicklaus ('72), Tom Watson ('82), Tom Kite ('92) and Tiger Woods (2000). Time will tell if Dustin Johnson can develop into a player for the ages. On Sunday the 25-year-old bomber won his second straight Pro-Am with a gritty 72nd-hole birdie, holding off J.B. Holmes and a resurgent David Duval by a stroke. Afterward, the new boy king of Pebble Beach resisted the urge to declare himself the Open favorite, saying, "It's going to be a totally different golf course then."
Still, it was the chance to prep for the Open that attracted Sergio García to the Pro-Am for the first time since 2001 and Adam Scott for the first time ever. To be sure, the Beach played much softer and significantly shorter than it will in June, but among the revelations were new bunker complexes and recontoured greens. (The fiendish Open tee boxes that stretch many par-4s up to an additional 50 yards were not in use but still attracted a lot of looky-loos.) For the Pro-Am the rough was barely a 5 o'clock shadow, but, importantly, the fairway shapes and widths will not change between now and the Open. The sexiest change the USGA has made for the Open is to push Pebble's 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th fairways to the precipice of the Pacific while eliminating flora that might prevent errant balls from tumbling into the abyss. Pebble has always been a quintessential second-shot course, its tiny greens surrounded by so much trouble; now off the tee "it's a little more dramatic, a little more dangerous," says Faxon.
For all the buzz about the Open, Pebble Beach wasn't even the most-talked-about track last week. That was the Shore course, which wowed the pros with its graceful routing, artful bunkering, imaginative greens, superb conditioning and endless ocean views. Phil Mickelson declared it "one of my favorite courses on Tour." Stuart Appleby went so far as to offer this sacrilegious tweet: "Monterey is a great course, better then PB."
The Shore dates to 1959, but it was redone around the turn of the century, a final labor of love for architect Mike Strantz, who died of oral cancer in 2005. Thanks to the remodel it is the only course on the Monterey Peninsula that is sand-capped, which turned out to be crucial because in the weeks before the tournament the area was deluged with rain. While drives were plugging at Spyglass, balls skittered nicely across the Shore's closely cropped fairways, and the greens were the firmest and purest of the bunch.
The upgraded conditions were of a piece with a reinvigorated tournament. The Pro-Am field was reduced by 24 teams, resulting in a much better pace of play and less wear and tear on the greens, two long-standing gripes among persnickety pros. But it is the replacement of Poppy Hills—with its quirky holes and often mushy conditions—that is such a "huge deal" for the future of the tournament, according to Joe Ogilvie. "When it comes to attracting players, people think it's the date that's the most important thing, but really it's the course," he says.
Monterey Peninsula made only a one-year commitment to the Pro-Am, and in the coming weeks member sentiment will be assessed before any decisions about the future are made. Unlike many private clubs Monterey Peninsula is a functioning democracy, and the Tour was invited back only after the full membership gave its approval in a vote. The rapturous reception by the pros should help stroke the members' collective ego, and the Tour players also made a good impression with an unheard-of act of subservience: To ensure that the Monterey Peninsula members could park on-site, the players took shuttles to the club.
Various members in the know said last week that they expect the club to make a long-term commitment. But even then the Shore course may be seen only every other year. In an absolute embarrassment of riches, Monterey Peninsula boasts another terrific 18 holes, the Dunes course, a 1926 collaboration between Seth Raynor and Robert Hunter. In the mid-'90s Rees Jones performed a makeover, and in the last couple of years he has redone bunkers and added some macho new tees. The Dunes is the longer and tougher of the two courses, and while it does not have the start-to-finish elegance of the Shore or quite as many ocean vistas, it does boast one of the world's most spectacular par-3s, the 175-yard 14th hole, which demands a full-blooded carry over the churning Pacific.
Having yet another great new course to offer up may only double the buzz. "Bringing in Monterey Peninsula is going to help this tournament as much as losing Cypress hurt it," says Faxon.
Ah, yes, Cypress Point—no Pro-Am week would be complete without some pining for the fabled Alister MacKenzie masterpiece, which last hosted the tournament 20 years ago. Aggressively private, Cypress dropped out of sight in the wake of the Shoal Creek controversy, which brought a Tour mandate that its host clubs have diverse memberships. As one Cypress member recounted last week, "At the time we tried to explain that we have a process here for membership, and that there was a seven-year waiting list. We were not going to subvert all of that and shove someone in just to appease the Tour. The media really clobbered Cypress, and it was a very unattractive period in the club's history. The great irony, of course, is that the club has always been a very egalitarian place." With a laugh, he added, "Irrespective of income."
Cypress Point was cofounded by Marion Hollins, a decorated women's amateur champion who captained the inaugural U.S. Curtis Cup team in 1932. The club enjoys a long tradition of female members and currently has about a dozen. There is also a mix of African-American and Asian-American members. It is a measure of Cypress's relatively progressive outlook that Condoleezza Rice was recently nominated for membership.
With its membership demographics now a nonissue, there have been rumblings that Cypress may consider reopening its doors to the wider golf world. Last year a USGA committee member played in Cypress Point's member-guest and afterward sought out Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. Recalls Davis, "They said to me, 'Would the USGA ever be interested in hosting something at Cypress?' There had clearly been some talk about it out there. I chuckled and said, 'In a Minnesota minute.'"
While Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach have made numerous changes to continue to challenge the game's best players, Cypress has steadfastly—some would say heroically—refused to touch its timeless 6,509-yard layout. There is a feeling among much of the membership that by not supersizing MacKenzie's original design, Cypress has become a living, breathing monument to how much modern equipment has affected the game. On the subject of retrofitting Cypress, Tom Fazio, who has overseen the lengthening of Pine Valley and Merion, says, "There have been some discussions, but nothing official. Defiance is too strong a word, but Cypress is a unique place, and change is not a priority."
There is another hurdle to trying to host a large-scale tournament at Cypress. The club spent the late-'90s restoring the gorgeous dunes that frame so many holes, leading Davis to wonder, "How do you rope and stake it? You don't want the gallery walking across the dunes. You'd do the least amount of damage to the property having the gallery walk down the fairway, like they do at the Curtis Cup."
Come to think of it, Cypress is the perfect length to test the top women's amateurs. And hosting a Curtis Cup would be a nice tip of the cap to Hollins as well as a pointed display of Cypress Point's open-mindedness.
The next available date for the Curtis Cup is 2014, when the biennial match is due to be played in the U.S. A long shot? Maybe. But when the sun is shining in Pebble Beach, as it was for last week's Pro-Am, it's easy to dream. The courses are so good and so pretty, they don't serve merely as tournament backdrops. They elevate the entire sport.
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