Two shots and one utterly dominating performance define the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. They occurred in different decades, but they will likely remain part of golfing lore for as long as the game is played.
A bit of hyperbole? Well, consider how thoroughly Tiger Woods crushed the field in 2000 on the famed course. He finished at 12 under par, so far ahead of the second place duo of Ernie Els and Miguel Jimenez – who came in 3 over – it seemed he was playing another course.
In often brutal conditions, the rest of the field suffered. With no one else even approaching par, the 15-stroke gap between him and second place broke the record for margin of victory at one of golf’s majors – a mark that had been held by Old Tom Morris, who blitzed the British Open field by 13 strokes in 1862.
No, that’s not a typo. The old record had held up since 1862, the same year as the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War.
The 6-under 65 Woods carded on Thursday set the new mark for lowest score at a Pebble Beach U.S. Open. He set another record for extending the biggest lead after two rounds and three rounds.
In fact, Woods broke or tied nine golfing records that year.
To make the accomplishment even more memorable, it was the 100th U.S. Open ever played, and the organizing body – the United States Golf Association – had selected the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links as the proper venue to celebrate the occasion. The USGA moved Pebble Beach up in the rotation by two years to make it happen.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the course. Over the century, Pebble Beach has played host to 14 of the game’s most important championships, including six U.S. Opens (1972, 1982, 1992, 2000, 2010 and this year), five U.S. Amateurs (1929, 1947, 1961, 1999 and 2018), a PGA in 1977, the U.S. Women’s Amateurs of 1940 and ’48.
So seven majors and seven top amateur titles will have been decided on the course at the conclusion of this year’s event. That’s a lot of history.
The last U.S. Open winner to be crowned at Pebble Beach was Graeme McDowell, who managed an even-par 284, which was enough to claim the title. “To join the list of names – Tom Kite, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus – I can’t believe I’m standing here as a major champion,” he said afterward.
Kite’s win came in 1992. Battered by scowling 40-mile-per-hour gusts, he managed to catch and then pass Colin Montgomerie to finish the tournament at 3-under, two strokes ahead.
But the other three names on that list – Woods, Nicklaus and Watson – are the ones lodged in memory. Woods for his dominance, the other two for remarkable shots that came in the same round on the same hole a decade apart.
The setting is a wicked little par-3, the 17th hole.
In 1972, Nicklaus led all four rounds, but began to struggle as winds swept the course (a recurring theme). Bruce Crampton and Arnold Palmer closed in, cutting the gap to three shots. On 17, Nicklaus selected a 1-iron, a little-used club that Lee Trevino famously quipped “even God cannot hit.”
Nicklaus aimed for the front bunker, but put a little more muscle into his swing to compensate for the wind. The drive carried the bunker and appeared to be heading for trouble – the rough on the green’s far side. Instead, the miracle shot thwacked against the flagstick, dropping just a few inches from the hole. It was something he told Golf decades later, “I don’t think I could ever do again.”
A tap-in birdie secured Nicklaus’ fourth U.S. Open title and 11th win in a major.
But it almost never happened. The Monterey Peninsula was not always held in such high esteem by the USGA. The 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship at the golf links did not draw well. And the ’72 event did not sell out.
According to Golf World’s John Strege, USGA executives considered the course to be “at the end of the world.” In other words, it would be a difficult trip for fans. They finally settled on Pebble Beach after Del Monte Properties gave a guarantee of $250,000, ensuring a profit for the event.
But Nicklaus’ shot and win started a love affair with the golf links that only grew when the Open returned a decade later, with The Golden Bear again positioned for a win. That he would not claim another U.S. Open crown had a lot to do with Tom Watson’s shot on 17.
Nicklaus was already in the clubhouse, having completed the tournament at 4-under with a 284. Watson came to the tee on 17 with a tenuous lead and overshot the green, lodging the ball in a tangled bit of rough.
The mistake appeared to give Nicklaus a chance for at least a tie. The details of what followed have been told and retold. Watson’s caddie examined the lie and warned him not to do anything foolish, just put the ball close. “I’m going to sink it,” Watson responded, grabbing a wedge.
His shot bounced toward the pin, hit the stick and dropped in for a birdie. Watson took his first U.S. Open title and Pebble Beach once again made history.
Someone will have another chance at a legendary shot or dominating round in 2019.