Pebble Beach Wins U.S. Open

Pebble Beach came to Open Sunday like your average American youth or recent winners of the Tour de France: paranoid, angry, and full of resentment. For two consecutive days the course took it in the teeth from Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Tiger Woods, who each lit up the Monterey coast the first two days of the weekend like it was in Louisiana, not California. Winged Foot and Bethpage might have been sniggering somewhere about “Torrey-Way-North.” But the course came back on the last day, delivering roundhouse after roundhouse, and the U.S. Open ended up being more notable for the dogs that didn’t bark.

Johnson, who had looked like the favorite after Saturday, got it first. He went six-over through the fourth hole after a triple, a double, and a bogey on holes two through four. Mickelson quietly snuck out of the picture after a birdie on the first hole—which he never duplicated the rest of the way. And Tiger bogey half the front nine to take himself out of contention shortly after the turn. This isn’t even to talk about Ernie Els or Davis Love or any of the others close to the lead—none of whom jumped out to claim the title when the leaders stumbled.

Part of Pebble’s mystique has been the name players who have won its Opens: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods (Tom Kite, who won in ‘92, tends to get left out of the discussion). Certainly one way to judge golf courses is by the players that win there. But for every Ben Hogan there is a Jack Fleck, and there needs to be some independent means of judging. History cannot be everything.

That brings me around to something I’ve been promising for a while now: a report on Medinah’s grand re-opening of Course #3 in preparation for the next Ryder Cup in America, coming in 2012. I’m going to leave out all the nonsense that surrounded the opening itself and get right to the golf course. And if there is a word that describes the new-look #3, it is this: “Florida.”

Mostly this is due to the brand-new 15th hole, which actually looks a bit like it could be a hole on that other course I have been describing this spring, Chicago Highlands. It’s very open, unlike Medinah’s usual tree-induced claustrophobia. Water runs up the right side, just as it does on Chicago Highland’s hole 11, which is a specimen of “Cape” hole. Unlike a Cape hole, however, the water on Medinah’s 15th is there not so much to disturb the tee shot—though it will—as to guard the reverse-Redan style green.

The idea is to require a player rolling the ball along the ground to hit a left-to-right shot, while the better player attacking from the air comes into the green right-to-left. This is all well and good and according to contemporary golf architecture manuals. It even fits in with many of Medinah’s other holes, which often require a tee shot with one shape and an approach shot with the opposite shape. Nonetheless, there’s something off about this hole.

Geoff Shackelford, the golf writer and architect, noted in a post about Medinah’s re-do that he’s “having a hard time envisioning a lake looking natural up there.” “Hopefully,” he goes on to say, “it’ll have a fountain.” Well, it doesn’t—yet—but it does make the golf course look like every course the tour plays in January, February and March. The only thing missing, besides the fountain, is a car from the title sponsor sitting in the middle of the pond.

There is one concession to tradition about the hole: there aren’t any yardage markers as yet. I presume that will shortly be rectified, but there is something charming about simply eyeballing your approach. Also, unlike virtually every other hole at Medinah, it is possible to run a shot up to the hole rather than requiring a high-flying long iron. It is possible that it will turn out to be a great addition to the golf course: it does seem to have potential for drama, particularly given the match-play format of the Ryder Cup. The sort of drama that didn’t happen at this year’s U.S. Open.

Thunderstorms and Neon Greens

There’s big black clouds blowin in from the west
I’ve been drivin all day lord I sure could use some rest
There’s a motel up ahead where I can unwind
Cause I sure love thunderstorms and neon signs

I grew up on the rough from town to town
My daddy’s line of work kept us movin’ around
I got fond memories of the what things were back then
The warmth of the neon when a bad storm was movin’ in

[So] whenever I hear the wheels begin to whine
It takes me back to another time.

—“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”

Wayne Hancock.

“He hit it too hard” was the first thing I thought when the ball left the face of the putter. We were on the 17th hole of Chicago Highlands a week or so ago, in the middle of a match between a member (whom I will refer to as Mr. B) and his partner and two guests. A moment earlier I had asked Mr. B to play his birdie putt well above the hole, a line that even he thought might be too high, though we’d been having success all day on the lines I chose for him. Now the match was on the line—a win on this hole would close out the bets—and he, though doubting, went with my read anyway. And now it looked like the ball was going to go by the cup without so much as saying hello.

Making putts is a matter of two different factors: speed and line. It’s always possible to hit every putt directly at the hole, provided you hit it hard enough, but too hard and it’s unlikely that the ball will be traveling slowly enough to fall into the cup—instead it will, as the noted pro Isaac Newton predicted, just keep traveling over it. Making putts is a matter of choosing the right direction to aim (line) and the right amount of force to apply to the ball (speed).

I came across a good metaphor for the process listening to NPR last week about the benefits of free range beef herding, where I learned that grass seeks “bilateral symmetry at the soil horizon.” What that means that roots tend to go as deep as the shoots above the surface, and vice versa—roots must balance the shoots, in other words, just as speed has to balance line. But the slogan is also useful for golf in a literal way, because of what it teaches about grass itself.

That I was listening to the program at all was because it rained all day in Chicago, a good steady and soaking rain that sunk in deep. That’s good for the golf courses because the water drives so far that it takes the roots of the grass down with it as those roots—seeking that symmetry—chase after the water. Deep roots means that the greenkeepers will be able to cut the greens shorter, or in other words faster.

Faster greens means that it takes less force to hit a ball to the hole, which is to say that speed becomes discounted relative to line. I can’t hit the ball for my golfers, but I can tell them where to play it: for me, line is more important than speed, because that’s what I can control. So if line is at a premium in relation to speed, then it’s likely I can be more helpful. So despite being a day off for me, rain days are important because they help promote line as opposed to speed.

Rain days can also be fun though too: it’s a tradition both on tour and in caddie yards across the country to spend a rain day at the movies. Movie houses near tournaments might get a dozen tour players and their caddies during a good soak, as during the recent Memorial tournament, and I can relate a few times when the entire Medinah yard has popped up at the nearest theater.

There was, for instance, the one time in the late 90s when a friend and I went to see Something About Mary—and then, after it was over and we were in the parking lot, went back and saw it again. We weren’t exactly discerning critics then, not that much has changed since.

Such moments might appear the antithesis of golf, but they aren’t really. Rain days, inactive as they are, actually affirm golf’s connection, however tenuous it might be in these days of SubAir drainage systems and computer-directed irrigation systems, to the natural world. Rain days are reminders of what might seem like the past, a world subsumed by modernity: which believes, as the Englishman L.P. Hartley put it in The Go-Between long ago, “The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

But as William Faulkner wrote nearly sixty years ago, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Part of the mental furniture of our lives of cell phones and televisions, cars and airplanes, is the belief that there is some fundamental difference between now and then. It’s possible to argue that the former requires the latter, but it’s likely that such is an unanswerable question—which makes it, at least according to the modern world, uninteresting.

If our everyday lives, in other words, are lived according to the rule of speed, where we simply charge headlong at our goals as fast as we are able, rain days remind us of the importance of line: that it isn’t always so important that we are making progress as that we are aiming at the right targets. It’s hard to tell which should be more important in our own lives, of course, which is one reason why I enormously enjoy juxtaposing Hartley and Faulkner—Hartley, the European, in a way advocates for the importance of speed, while Faulkner, the American, does the same for line, which nicely scrambles our traditional association of Europe with the past and America with the future. If only deciphering the world, or the 17th green at Chicago Highlands, were so simple: according to the social scientists there is more social mobility in Europe now than America.

As it so happens, on Mr. B.’s putt the slope of the green was so severe that traveling up it caused the ball to lose more speed than I thought it would; it reached the apex of its arc and traveled slowly, but then more quickly as gravity took over, toward the hole. Somehow, the ball knew the balance between speed and line better than either of us: the cup, with complete indifference, accepted the ball directly in its center.

Three-Week Comas and 200-Yard Wedges

“No, I like the wedge. Seriously.” I was looping for my first Medinah member to make the trip to Chicago Highlands, and trying to talk him into hitting a wedge from 192 yards. He was a short hitter, and had probably never hit a wedge more than 140 yards in his life, so he was having trouble buying it.

Looping the Highlands has been fascinating from day-to-day, not only because of how much the wind can affect shots, but also, and perhaps predominantly, because of the hard bounces that come from the turf. I’m told that the hardness will soften with time, but as of now playing there is like playing on the Streif at Kitzbuhel—the hardest downhill skiing racecourse in the world. But it’s hard to get that idea across to men used to playing the typically soft courses of the American Midwest, where overwatering is a way of life.

There’s something to be learned from the Streif however. It begins with the infamous Mausefalle (“Mousetrap”) and proceeds through the Karusell to end after the Zielschuss, and speeds can break 90 mph. It’s been the site of several of the most serious crashes in ski racing history, most recently Daniel Albrecht’s crash in 2009 that resulted in a three-week coma. But it isn’t the speed that makes the Streif so dangerous. The Mausefalle, for instance, can be deadly not because of the speed, at least not entirely. It’s called the Mousetrap because it’s a high-speed jump followed by an extreme left turn—and not everyone can make the transition. It isn’t the jump, in other words, but where you land that can mean life and death in the Alps.

Chicago Highlands certainly does not risk life and limb in quite that way, but the course forces you to pay attention to the ground. This is something that I think most (American) golfers don’t really understand, although at the highest levels it’s been known for some time. A recent article in the Financial Times makes the point for me: “the short-game expert Dave Pelz once conducted some research for the PGA Tour, and found that it was not the pros with the best driving or iron play or even putting statistics who were winning the most money, but those had the best chipping and pitching.” And when it comes to chipping and pitching, “the first thing to decide before you play a chip shot is not what club you’re going to use—it’s where to land the ball.” This is something extremely useful for every player, I’ve found: my usual first question around the green has for years been “where do you want to land it?”

From that question flows all else. It determines what sort of shot the golfer is going to play: high or low, spinning or rolling. And that then determines what club to hit. Thinking about chipping in this way, I think, not only will help your game but also make it a lot more fun than mindlessly grabbing for your sand wedge every time you are within 20 yards of the green—you’ll start to imagine the sorts of shots that are possible, and with time begin to hit them too. And really that’s the fun of the game: figuring out an answer to the problem the course throws at you. Otherwise you might as well be at the range.

In the case of my Medinah member, we were—although he might not have realized it at the time—essentially playing a shot from 192 as if it were a chip from just off the green, because the course is so fast that it can effectively expand the area around each green. Although almost 200 yards, in other words, the way I thought about it was the same way I’d think about a chip from 2 yards off the green: where to land it? In this case, downwind and downhill, the place to land it was well in front of the green, where it would get a pretty good kick to the left which would then be exaggerated by the green itself. That is what happened, and he ended up with about a ten-footer for birdie.

Which, of course, he missed—since he wouldn’t shut up about hitting a “200-yard wedge.”