6/12/19

Sidehill Lies and Small Targets: Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach's championship DNA

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For 100 years, Pebble Beach Golf Links has been a stern test of golfing ability. Compared to fellow championship hosts, however, the course has changed little in the past half century. At the 1972 U.S. Open, it played at 6,815 yards. This weekend, it will stretch to 7,075—as much yardage as the course can muster without putting tees on the roofs of the surrounding mansions. Augusta National, by contrast, has swelled from 6,980 to 7,475 yards over the same period.

For today’s pros, Pebble Beach is a small ballpark, but somehow it has remained a formidable championship test. The 2000 and 2010 U.S. Opens, in which harsh USGA setups met foul weather, were memorably brutal. But even during the annual AT&T Pro-Am, when the course plays at a wide, soft 6,816 yards, it’s hardly a pushover. Typically it yields a scoring average of 71.5 to 72, and when the wind picks up, as it did in 2014, Pebble Beach becomes one of the toughest courses on tour.

So how has it stood the test of time? One reason is the clever way the design uses the immense slope of the property. The land tilts toward the sea, and most of the holes are set across this hillside rather than up or down it. As a result, even when you find fairways, you often hit your next shot with the ball significantly below or above your feet.

The heavily sloped 9th hole at Pebble Beach. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

In itself, this fact would be of no particular interest. There are plenty of banal courses on the sides of hills. But what makes the slope of Pebble Beach’s fairways compelling is its connection to the size and orientation of the greens.

First, the obvious: the greens are small. To approach a small green from a sidehill lie is a technical and mental challenge, even for the world’s best golfers.

But it’s not just the size of Pebble’s greens that makes them difficult to approach; it’s also their orientation relative to the slope of the fairways. On several holes, the shot shape encouraged by the lie in the fairway is opposite to the shot shape most kindly received by the green.

For instance, on the 3rd hole, the fairway tilts right to left, leaving right-handers with the ball above their feet, a lie that promotes a draw. (From this point on, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to “fade lies” and “draw lies” in reference to right-handed players. Apologies, lefties.) The green, however, sits at a left-to-right diagonal that appears more receptive to a fade. Also, a drawing approach must carry the front-right bunker and avoid reaching to the back-left section of the green, which runs away. In other words, the orientation of the 3rd green rewards those who can control their ball flight from a lie that promotes the wrong shape and the wrong miss.

The 3rd fairway and green at Pebble Beach. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

The same is true on other holes, especially Nos. 4, 9, and 10 (fade lies, draw greens), and Nos. 11, 13, and 18 (draw lies, fade greens). Nos. 4, 9, 10, and 18 introduce the additional intrigue of the shoreline. Into each of those greens, the preferred angle of approach is from close to cliff’s edge. Consider the 10th hole: if your drive finds the promontory above the beach 280-320 yards from the tournament tees, your second shot will be fairly simple. You can hit a draw, a fade, a straight ball, whatever. The more you hedge away from the danger off the tee, however, the more you will be asked to shape your approach right to left, and the more the land will pull against you.

Looking down the 10th hole at Pebble Beach, with Carmel Beach to the right. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

(To be clear, playing away from the cliffs may be the best tactical decision for you, depending on your skills and tendencies—but it comes with consequences.)

Other approaches at Pebble Beach are less about angles and shot shapes and more about placing the most severe hazards where the common misses—the ones encouraged by the slope of the fairway—will end up. On the 1st hole, you have a fade lie and a drop-off to the right of the green; on the 2nd, a fade lie and a road to the right; on the 6th and 8th, fade lies and cliffs to the right. Nos. 4, 9, 10, and 18 follow a similar principle.

The approach to the 1st hole at Pebble Beach. Photo credit: Evan Schiller

Add wind to this equation (especially the prevailing wind, the full force of which players feel only when they reach the summit of the 6th green and see the three exacting par 4s that await them down the coast), and you have a championship test that demands absolute control over your ball.

That’s why great iron players have thrived here, and why Pebble Beach has remained a viable U.S. Open venue. Although elite male pros now hit short irons and wedges into many greens, they still have to contend with sidehill lies and tiny, unaccommodating, sadistically guarded targets.

They face similar challenges at two other time-tested American championship sites. At Augusta National and Shinnecock Hills, the terrain slopes just as dramatically, and the greens, although bigger, call for just as much accuracy and ball-flight command.

This weekend, commentators are likely to speak of the difficulty of Pebble Beach in the context of the USGA’s setup decisions: tight fairways, gnarly rough, rock-hard greens. Those will be key factors, no doubt. But they are not the secret to Pebble’s enduring relevance. In fact, narrower fairways actually blunt the complexity of the challenge I’ve been describing. The USGA has grown rough over what used to be the bail-out areas—the parts of the fairways offering safety from hazards at the cost of uneven lies and bad angles into greens. Now when players find themselves in these awkward spots, instead of attempting, perhaps unwisely, to shape draws against fade lies and fades against draw lies, they will simply have to hack out.

So during this week’s telecast, rather than fixating on the transitory elements of course setup, try to see the real Pebble Beach. Watch a player as he addresses an approach. Is the ball below his feet? Above? In the distance, how is the green situated? And how uncomfortable does the player seem? This is the essence of the examination known as Pebble Beach—as it was in 1919, and as it will be in 2119.