Thursday 20 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Solid irons and nerves of steel key to Pebble profit'

Rory McIlroy faces tough test in US Open on a lay-out which calls for course management over power

Rory McIlroy. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

In the moment of triumph, the calming waters of Stillwater Cove did little to dispel the sense of unreality at one of golf's most iconic venues. Even the following morning, confusion reigned in the surreal surroundings of the lounge of the Monterey Plaza hotel.

There was Graeme McDowell, the newly-crowned US Open champion, hugging the precious trophy while dressed in a cap, t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. And in this most extreme corner of a nation obsessed by celebrity, bystanders were strangely bemused as to what these Irish people were so animated about.

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Though the terrain is parkland by the sea, Pebble's challenge is not unlike classic links in its vulnerability to winds off the Pacific. Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Though the terrain is parkland by the sea, Pebble's challenge is not unlike classic links in its vulnerability to winds off the Pacific. Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Wonderful memories of Pebble Beach 2010 are revived by the prospect of a return there later this week for the 119th US Open Championship. And McDowell is going back, along with his successor as champion, Rory McIlroy, and Shane Lowry, who wasn't quite ready for such a challenge in 2010.

As it happens, McIlroy and McDowell join a select 12 in the field who have captured this, the blue riband of American golf. Remarkably, the 2003 champion Jim Furyk is among them, but none is more highly rated right now than Brooks Koepka, champion for the last two years and also a back-to-back winner of the PGA Championship, through his recent triumph at Bethpage Black.

McDowell's place in the pantheon of Ireland's Major winners is especially notable because of where he scaled the heights, allied to the significance of his home place, which is set to move centre-stage for next month's Open Championship. "There's a picture in Rathmore Golf Club of Fred Daly with the British Open trophy and I must have walked by it thousands of times as a kid," he remarked. "Later on, I thought it surreal that he came from a small town like Portrush."

Pebble Beach happens to be celebrating its centenary with this, the sixth staging of the US Open since 1972. That period has been marked by memorable victories from Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson; the professional debut of Phil Mickelson and the extraordinary triumph of Tiger Woods by 15 strokes in 2000.

By finishing two strokes further back on that occasion, Pádraig Harrington claimed his own piece of history. His fifth-place finish meant he surpassed the best US Open performance by an Irishman which had stood since 1924, when Peter O'Hare from Greenore was tied seventh behind Cyril Walker at Oakland Hills.

Millennium year was also notable for the absence of the defending champion, Payne Stewart, who was killed in a freak air accident the previous October. In a poignant tribute during US Open week, The Monterey County Herald printed an extract from 'To An Athlete Dying Young', by the 19th century English poet, A E Housman.

It read: "The time you won your town the race/We chaired you through the market-place/Man and boy stood cheering by/And home we brought you shoulder-high/Today, the road all runners come/Shoulder-high we bring you home/And set you at your threshold down/Townsman of a stiller town." Words which would have been echoed, no doubt, by the good people of Springfield, Missouri, Stewart's home town.

Earlier that week, under a cloudless sky, the sun was rising over the San Lucia Hills as golfers, relatives and friends of Stewart's gathered around Pebble's 18th green. It was 7.0am on the eve of the 100th US Open and they had come to pay tribute to a fallen hero.

The ceremony was brief yet movingly dignified and there could hardly have been more appropriate words to the player's memory than those from his close friend, Paul Azinger, who said: "If golf was about art, then Payne was the colour."

A notable absentee was Woods, prompting considerable flak from the attending media. "I won't react to the criticism," responded the aspiring champion. "I loved the guy and I've handled it in my own way."

Situated on the Monterey Peninsula, 120 miles south of San Francisco, Pebble Beach was thought to be the most spectacular course in the world when it was launched in 1919 on land owned by Samuel Morse, whose uncle invented Morse Code. It gained considerable prominence through the Bing Crosby Pro-Am some time before the US Open went there in 1972 for its first staging on a public course.

Though significant changes have been made over the years, including sea defences on the iconic par-five 18th, its familiar look has remained largely the same. This is equally true of the nature of the challenge, certainly from the time it was reduced to a par 71 for the 2000 staging.

On that occasion, it had an overall length of 6,846 yards, which was extended to 7,040 for 2010 and is only marginally longer at 7,075 for this week. Having dug quite a few holes for himself in terms of extreme course preparation in recent years, Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA, has been noticeably silent on this occasion.

But there have been subtle recent adjustments aimed largely at providing new pin placements. "We renovated the ninth hole, the ninth green, 13th green, 14th green and 17th green, using pictures, restoring them back to what they looked like originally," said Bill Perocchi of the Pebble Beach Company. "They were rebuilt to USGA specs and with SubAir systems to help with moisture control."

Though the terrain is parkland by the sea, Pebble's challenge is not unlike classic links in its vulnerability to winds off the Pacific. Meanwhile, the unusual smallness of the greens places a premium on precise approach play and accurate pitching and chipping.

It's not the sort of challenge you would expect to suit McIlroy at this level. Pebble demands that power be tempered by astute course-management, as Woods, Nicklaus and Watson displayed so effectively in their respective triumphs.

For pure short-game skills, however, it was meat and drink to Mickelson when he turned his back on a glittering amateur career to play the 1992 US Open as his professional debut. And he must have felt really comfortable when an opening 68 left him two strokes off the lead.

On the Friday, however, with scores generally soaring, he bogeyed the first and then three-putted from five feet for a triple-bogey on the third. Even with a birdie on the 18th, he ran up an 81 and missed the cut by two strokes.

Entering the final round in 2010, Dustin Johnson was out in front on 207, six-under-par and three strokes clear of McDowell with the Frenchman Gregory Havret a stroke further back. Like Mickelson, Johnson was quickly undone as fresh winds swept across firm, fast greens. A triple-bogey on the second was followed by a double on the third and a bogey on the fourth. From there, his challenge became the stuff of nightmares, culminating in a crushing 82.

Moderate scoring reflected the difficult conditions, even by those some way out of contention. In fact, 68 was the best of the day, by sixth-place Matt Kuchar among others. Even Woods struggled to a 75, while McDowell battled with typical grit to par the last for a 74. As the only player to finish on level-par, he beat Havret by a stroke.

The quality of McDowell's achievement was captured by veteran NBC on-course commentator, Roger Maltbie, who journeyed the final 36 holes with this latest Irish golfing hero. "I was especially impressed with Graeme's ability to remain controlled and calm," he told me. "He never looked as if he got nervous, which is a big part of the recipe of winning these. Pebble Beach is all about good iron play. It's a second-shot golf course and Graeme knew how to play it. He managed his game well and showed a lot of heart. He's a very worthy champion."

In the wild dreams that youngsters dream, McDowell pictured himself matching the achievement of his illustrious fellow townsman, Daly, though it would mean "getting the necessary experience to face the toughest courses in the world."

Koepka seems to have amassed such experience in double-quick time. There was even the ability to control last-nine wobbles at Bethpage. The capacity to do the same at Pebble, however, may be his biggest challenge so far.

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