Pebble's June Face -- Lefty's Legacy

Few major championships hosts present such small targets to hit as Pebble Beach.

© Sherman Chu

In garnering his 44th win on the PGA Tour with a solid -19 performance, Phil Mickelson was spot on in stating in the clearest terms his win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am will not be the same stage when the 119th US Open returns for the 6th time in June. Lefty was quite impressive in snaring the win. A bogey-free final round 65 provided a three stroke cushion.

This year’s AT&T event was a spongy wet affair. Even hale interfered with the playing of the final round and the event had to go an extra day to Monday because of the lack of light for the final groups.

The US Open is under the domain of the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Pebble Beach dart board where all shots stopped on impact because of incessant rain will not be same venue when America’s national championship is played in four months.

Mickelson has won the PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach a record tying five times. He will seek to replicate what golf icons Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did in 1972 and 2000 respectively — winning both events in the same year. For Mickelson, a US Open win at the storied California layout — after a record six runner-up finishes — would gain him entrance to golf’s most exclusive club — career grand slam winners. Lefty would join the likes of golf immortals Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods. For Mickelson such an admittance would go a long ways in closing the gap he has always endured with Woods during their simultaneous careers. Never shy to state his case — a US Open win would send a powerful message — that even Phil would not need to amplify.

Pebble's June Face -- Lefty's Legacy
9th hole, Courtesy Pebble Beach Resorts

Pebble Beach in June will likely be firmer and much faster with the USGA ensuring the friendly receptivity displayed at the AT&T is more of a distant memory. Tee shots that routinely plugged on impact during the soggy AT&T will likely be bounding into much deeper and denser rough. Players will also not be playing “clean place” as the USGA has never included such a playing provision for its premier event.

Among all courses that routinely host major championships few present such small targets to hit as Pebble Beach. The average green size is roughly 3,500 square feet and the average green depth is just 26 yards. To give a comparison — you can fit nearly four greens at Pebble into an average one at The Old Course at St. Andrews which averages 13,600. When you factor in the tilt and shape the wherewithal combined with firm targets to hit is no easy task. Standout holes such as the par-4 8th and 9th features greens only 21 and 23 yards deep respectively.

Factor in the real possibility serious wind can also blow. Who can forget the final round in 1993 when gale winds nearly blow the entire field into Carmel Bay before Tom Kite hung on to win. With poa annua greens the consistency of the roll will also be tested. The surfaces holds footprints longer and the grass will grow during the length of the day. True consistent rolls are always an issue and when cut to the height expected for a US Open it’s imperative for players to remain below the hole at all times. Having a sidehill putt on any of these elusive targets will be a major test of nerve.

Pebble's June Face -- Lefty's Legacy
7th hole, Courtesy Pebble Beach Resorts

The USGA will also do internal tinkering with the layout. The AT&T plays the 2nd as a par-5 — the USGA will again play the hole as a par-4. The fairways that align with the water — holes such as the 4th, 6th, 9th and 10th — will have their edges shaved to fairway height so any shots that go just a tad too far will find aqua.

There’s also the possibility the USGA will use the original tee at the 10th — shortening the hole to approximately 340 yards and tempting the players to go for the green with danger lurking down the right side. There will also be more demanding pin locations with recent work having been completed at the 13th and 14th holes. Tee positions will also be used for the US Open that the AT&T chooses not to use. A classic example being the daunting par-3 17th. A rear teeing area can extend the hole a good bit beyond 200 yards and when played into a typical breeze off the water it takes a monumental shot to both hit and hold the smaller left side of the green. Harken back to the 1972 US Open when Nicklaus sealed the victory with a towering 1-iron nearly holed and saddling up a mere few inches from the cup.

When Graeme McDowell won the 2010 US Open — his final tally was 284 — even par. The USGA will clearly be narrowing the fairways and the premium on accuracy will be bolstered in order for players to be in the proper position with their approaches. What one saw with the AT&T will be the same course — but a far, far different presentation.

Pebble's June Face -- Lefty's Legacy
8th hole, Courtesy Pebble Beach Resorts

For Mickelson the opportunity to right the ship with a win at the US Open will go a long ways to pushing back the memories of his embarrassment at last year’s event at Shinnecock Hills. Lefty’s striking a moving ball on the 13th green during the third round was bad enough, however, his lame initial excuse about his actions raised serious questions on his desire to comport himself at the highest of levels. The USGA could easily have disqualified Mickelson but opted for a light tap on the wrists with a two stroke penalty. Mickelson later apologized but his approach to the issue was offputting to many.

After winning an epic Open Championship in ’13 at Muirfield, in an event few ever thought possible, many saw that as his final hurrah. Phil’s next win on the PGA Tour did not come till nearly five years later at last year’s triumph at the WGC event in Mexico City. Mickelson’s masterful play at the AT&T event — his first win on American soil since the ’13 Waste Management event — continues to keep him relevant in championship golf. Hard to imagine this is the same Phil who melted down at the Ryder Cup Matches last Fall when it was his walk-off defeat to Francesco Molinari sealing Europe’s crunching win over the USA. The future upon leaving Paris looked anything but promising.

Interestingly, Mickelson celebrates his 49th birthday with this year’s final round at the US Open. Is there a some sort of miraculous karma in store? A win would elevate Lefty as the oldest winner of a major championship — eclipsing the former record set by Julius Boros when winning the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years of age. There’s also the fact Phil’s grandfather — Alfred Santos and his brother — were two of the original caddies in the caddie yard making 25 cents per bag. To do this on his native California soil would clearly be magical and forever memorable.

Pebble's June Face -- Lefty's Legacy
18th hole, Courtesy Pebble Beach Resorts

Pebble Beach celebrates this year its 100th anniversay of its opening and the stage will certainly be a grandiose one. The pressure will be on the USGA to prepare the course correctly — no small task given recent snafus endured at several of the more recent host sites, including Shinnecock last year.

But, if all does work, one of the world’s most renown venues and one of the game’s most fasicnating players can indeed bring together an epic event rivaling what Woods did with his 15-stroke blowout win in the 2000 event. Just when one thinks the last of Mickelson has been seen he continues to rev his fan base and confound his critics.

And who would enjoy that most of all?

Well, of course, Phil.

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