Monday 19 August 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Staying the course is crucial'

Pebble Beach proving to be the perfect stage as stars and journeymen battle for US Open glory

Rory McIlroy on the 14th tee at Pebble Beach. Photo: Ezra Shaw
Rory McIlroy on the 14th tee at Pebble Beach. Photo: Ezra Shaw

Dermot Gilleece

At a time when the US Golf Association desperately need to save face, a great golf course appears to be coming to their rescue. And Pebble Beach is managing to do so, while drawing challengers for the 119th US Open from right across the spectrum of tournament play, from Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy among the game's elite, to American journeyman Chesson Hadley.

It all seems so simple. "We just mow the greens and let the rough grow," a member of Pebble's back-room team once told me. "When it gets so that only a couple of guys on our staff can break 80, it's ready."

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Especially intriguing are the mind games this celebrated stretch has been generating. Will cloud cover dissipate sufficiently to ensure firm, fast greens for today's final round? And will such a test be accompanied by fresh winds off the Pacific?

"They've got the golf course right where they want it," said Tiger Woods, who knows quite a bit about such matters at this location. While Rose insisted: "This golf course has plenty of teeth in it."

Yet the impression was that even these experienced campaigners weren't quite sure what to expect. Having presented conditions that allowed Gary Woodland to compile an all-time 36-hole record score of 133 (68-65) for Pebble, will their benevolence extend right through to this evening, by way of compensating for sins of the recent past.

McIlroy's prominence there brings to mind a very different scene from 2010. With fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell challenging for the title, the 21-year-old missed the cut by three strokes only a month after a thrilling victory at Quail Hollow.

When he departed Pebble early on the Friday afternoon for a flight home that evening, not even a cheery smile and a nod of his curly mop could hide his deep disappointment. Now, nine years on and after adding a 69 to an earlier 68, he remarked that he'd take his chances "with another couple of rounds in the 60s."

Given how easy it is to criticise short-iron slips from the TV screen, McIlroy offered a fascinating insight into the challenge these shots present at Pebble, especially on the treacherous, long 14th. "When you're standing there with a wedge in your hand and the ball is above your feet on the fairway, you don't really want it going left," he explained. "It's very easy to tug it just slightly off the hill and go into that heavy rough on the left just off the green. So I was sort of guarding against landing it probably four or five yards right of where I needed to be." Which led to an improbable double-bogey.

The presence of Hadley on the leaderboard was remarkable, given that he headed for the Monterey Peninsula having missed 11 out of 16 cuts. In the event, his appearance there struck a chord, against the background of a meeting I had with him at Dun Laoghaire GC in the wake of last year's Open Championship.

He mentioned how his parents had given him the gift of an Irish golfing holiday on his college graduation involving visits to Lahinch and Ballybunion. And the North Carolinian also talked of the lasting impact of Carnoustie, where rounds of 73 and 74 meant missing the cut. "Though Pebble Beach is my favourite golf course, Carnoustie is probably the best course I've ever played," he said.

Now facing his first weekend in a US Open there, Hadley enthused about Pebble. "I love this place. I think there's something magical about this peninsula. It's pretty amazing. And the weather is just outstanding this week."

Whatever about the weather, Brooks Koepka is "not focusing on the views" in his objective of matching the achievement of Scotland's Willie Anderson back in 1905 by winning this title for a third successive year. "Don't get me wrong," he added. "I don't think there's a better place to win the US Open. That finishing hole is the greatest hole in golf. But things could happen on that hole and if you don't mind what you're doing, you could make a big number."

Still, Hadley insisted that familiarity with Pebble heightened one's appreciation of the place. It's the sort of familiarity that makes regular competitors in the Masters life-long admirers of Augusta National. In fact, as tournament venues, the two courses are probably unmatched on either side of the Atlantic for the sheer beauty of their golfing challenge.

How else, one wondered, could McDowell gain the inspiration to revive his challenge when wayward play on the opening three holes on Friday caused him to start par, bogey, bogey? Instead of drifting back into the pack, he somewhere found the skill and application to reel off four successive birdies, from the fourth to the wonderful short seventh.

"You don't feel you should do that at a US Open," he said afterwards. "This place is starting to firm up a little bit. Balls were definitely reacting two to three paces firmer than they did in the opening round.

"I think we're going to see some firm and fiery surfaces at the weekend. But I don't think they can get the fairways any firmer, which is a little disappointing to me, because I feel like the course is playing quite long. It's all going to be about the greens and the pin positions."

Which will mean further chatter from behind the TV cameras about poa annua, as if it were some agronomical rarity, exclusive to certain courses in the US, rather than virtually every parkland stretch here in Ireland, where we call it plain, common-or-garden meadow grass.

Explaining the great mystery as to why such greens putt differently, depending on the time of day, Woods said: "What happens is that when they roll them in the morning, they smash down the poa. Then, in the afternoon, the poa comes back up and you get some sun and then it starts popping. You can see it germinating. It starts turning white; the white heads start coming up and it gets a little bit more bumpy."

Meanwhile, rounds of 70 and 72 brought Woods into the weekend on level par, nine strokes off the lead. At which stage he seemed to be waiting around for some magic to happen, though he is too much of a realist to imagine a repeat of the extraordinary happenings of 2000, when he crushed his closest challengers by 15 strokes.

"If I could put a label on Tiger, it would be hanging around," said McDowell. "No one does it better than him. Which is probably why he likes this golf course so much. It's a little bit of a sleeping giant, where you have to keep the ball in play and keep it under these pins. Which is the essence of hanging around. That's what I've been trying to do."

A real-estate agent by the name of Jack Neville had the modest credentials of California Amateur champion when he designed Pebble Beach 100 years ago. Against the backdrop of architects ancient and modern, ranging from Alister MacKenzie to Tom Fazio, wouldn't it be remarkable if such an inexperienced first attempt were to deliver redemption to the USGA later today?

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