As it did at previous Opens, a treacherous three-hole stretch known as the Cliffs of Doom lived up to its billing, dashing the dreams of inexperienced players and major winners alike
This is an article from the June 28, 2010 issue
As Jean Swafford approached the 18th green last Thursday during the first round of the U.S. Open, she pulled out a tiny camera that she had sneaked onto the grounds. The name hudson swafford—her son, not a freight company or something—was on the greenside leader board. Hudson, the last man off in the final group on the back nine, was two under par and threatening to become the annual Unknown First-Round Open Leader. "That's too hard to pass up for a mom," said Jean as she snapped a photo of the board.
The Cinderella story continued until the sun dropped low in a glorious evening sky over the Monterey Peninsula. Young Swafford, who will be a senior at Georgia this fall, was still one under par when he teed it up on the 8th hole, the start of a spectacular coastline stretch known as the Cliffs of Doom. The holes dazzled the Swaffords, from Tallahassee, Fla. This was their first trip to Pebble Beach.
"They are the most amazing visual images I've seen on a golf course," Jean said. "We don't have anything like this in Florida."
Added David Swafford, Hudson's wizened father, "Toughest holes I've ever seen."
Then the metaphorical clock struck midnight. Hudson's approach shot across the gaping chasm that makes number 8 the most spectacular view in championship golf got caught in a crosswind and dropped into the hazard. Double bogey.
At the 9th, Swafford launched a drive that landed in the fairway, kicked right and kept running down the slope—right over the edge of the cliff, thanks to a new USGA mowing pattern designed to add an element of danger to the hole. Only a six-foot sliver of modestly deeper grass stood between the fairway and cliff's edge. ("Just enough so the mowers don't go over the edge," USGA course setup man Mike Davis said.)
Swafford took a drop and hit an iron shot into thick rough and fescue near a gaping greenside bunker. Caddies, players and Swafford's parents joined the ensuing search. The marshals assigned to the hole, however, did not join the search. It was nearing eight o'clock, and they had deserted their post even though play was not over. "We tromped around all over in there," David said. "We never found it."
Hudson replayed the shot and ended up making an 8. The double-quadruple finish dropped him from the stuff of dreams to just another 76. He absorbed the unlucky finish with his usual stoicism. The next day, Jean revealed, "He was joking later that night with his caddie, Cory Guzzo, because he had made a birdie on the 17th and said, 'We both did this great fist pump there, and they showed it on ESPN!' That's when I knew he had forgotten about the last two holes."
Despite making birdie on the final hole of the second round, Swafford missed the cut by a stroke. The Cliffs of Doom had struck again.
Pebble Beach has a surplus of scenery and famous holes, notably the par-5 18th and the par-3 7th, but, pardon the bias, the 8th, 9th and 10th holes are the finest as well as the strongest holes at the Beach. Last week the 10th was the fourth most difficult (4.41 stroke average), while the 9th was fifth (4.39) and the 8th was eighth (4.30). Only the 2nd hole, a converted par-5, was tougher among the par-4s (4.46). On Sunday the final three twosomes played the three holes in a combined 10 over par.
"My father always said Pebble Beach has the three best par-4s in a row in the world, the three toughest," said 60-year-old Tom Watson.
The 428-yard 8th, which Jack Nicklaus ordained as demanding the best second shot in golf, runs uphill to a high cliff, from which a player must hit an approach shot across a chasm to a tiny green wedged between a bunker and a cliff. The 505-yard 9th plays downhill with a left-to-right tilting, serpentine fairway and a green on cliff's edge guarded on the other side by a large bunker. The 495-yard 10th is similar to the 9th but slightly flatter with different bunkering.
The three-hole stretch has everything but a great nickname. Years ago SI's Dan Jenkins dubbed the holes Abalone Corner, but that name never caught on. Last week ESPN called the stretch Cannery Row. That's not likely to stick, either, so Cliffs of Doom wins by default. COD originated in a 1992 GOLF MAGAZINE story by renowned course architect Tom Doak. The moniker appeared only in the headline, which was written by staffer David Barrett, who says the nickname seems to have finally reached the tipping point.
"Now people are starting to understand how good these holes are," Doak says. "I can't imagine anyone who played Pebble not being overwhelmed by that stretch. That's what you remember after playing the course the first time, not 17 and 18. If 8, 9 and 10 were the closing holes, it would be the most famous finish in golf."
Gil Morgan was perhaps the Cliffs' most famous victim. He was the first person in U.S. Open history to reach double digits under par during the windswept '92 Open at Pebble Beach, then on Saturday turned into Icarus meets the Titanic. He went double bogey, bogey, double bogey over the Cliffs and dropped, he later admitted, "like I had a hole in my parachute."
The 9th and its sloping fairway ranked as the toughest scoring hole (4.56 strokes) during the 2000 Open. The 8th (4.53) was second and the 10th (4.38) was the fifth most difficult. The USGA gave them even more teeth this year, moving the 8th fairway to the right, bringing the water more into play. The tees at 9 and 10 were each extended by almost 50 yards to make them an even thousand yards of back-to-back, all-you-can-handle par-4s. Last week they mercifully played mostly downwind, but still caused plenty of misadventures.
During the opening round Blaine Peffley, a mini-tour pro from Lebanon, Pa., deposited his second shot into the famous chasm at number 8. His next attempt also found the hazard near the green, but he played from it. Or tried to. His escape attempt popped straight up. He was looking at a Bo Derek (a 10) until he holed out for an 8 from off the green. "It drives me crazy to play golf like that," Peffley said after missing the cut by 16 strokes.
Bobby Gates, who won a Nationwide tour event in New Zealand earlier this year, was introduced to the 8th-hole cliff during a practice round with defending Open champion Lucas Glover. "Lucas asked me, if I was leading the Open and my ball was right by the edge, would I go ahead and hit it or take a drop and try to make par the hard way?" Gates said. "I said, Man, I'd take a drop. I'm too big to stumble around near that edge. I don't want to be famous for the wrong reason."
Phil Mickelson nearly faced that scenario last Friday when his tee shot ran through the fairway and stopped about five feet from the edge. A helping wind had surprised him on his tee shot. "I hit a five-iron, for crying out loud," Mickelson said. "I had to have the marshal run up there to see if it was O.K."
The drop at the end of the fairway is almost 200 feet, a fall nobody wants to take. Mickelson then hit a wedge shot to 18 feet and holed the putt for his fifth birdie.
Mickelson was dealt a blow by the 9th hole on Saturday, however, when he made a double bogey that began with a drive into the left fairway bunker and eventually featured him chipping from the edge of the beachside cliff righthanded with his clubhead turned upside down.
The 10th hole's close-up came when Andrew Putnam's club snagged in the left rough and his second shot sailed way right, down onto the beach. Putnam, who just finished his junior year at Pepperdine, had only 70 yards to the green, so he decided to play it. "I was already hanging right there on the cut line so I didn't have much to lose," Putnam says. Unfortunately, he went beach-to-beach, depositing his next shot in the back bunker, where it plugged. He made double bogey but did garner some TV time for playing off the beach. "It was a nightmare," says Putnam, who missed the cut.
At last, some recognition for the Cliffs of Doom. The official painting of the 2010 Open by famed artist Linda Hartough is a view of the 9th and 10th holes. She did number 8 for the 2000 Open. "I've wanted to paint this for a long time," says Hartough, who was autographing prints in the Pebble Beach Lodge last week. "This one sums up the whole feeling of being at Pebble Beach. It's the greatest view—the 9th and 10th holes, Carmel, the sea, the beach and the people on it. The scope of it is fabulous."
Photographer JoAnn Dost was at the Open too. An area resident, she has shot Pebble hundreds of times. "I never get tired of that view on number 8," says Dost. "You really get the feeling of what you're up against when you look down that precipice. That's one of the scariest shots in golf."
Her photographs of that hole are her biggest sellers, Dost says. Why? "Well," she says matter-of-factly, "water always sells."
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The USGA rolled out several brilliant innovations, but the setup of the green at the par-5 14th wasn't one of them
The new most dangerous hole at Pebble Beach isn't on the Cliffs of Doom, isn't one of the hard-to-hold par-3s, such as 12 or 17, or even the famous finishing hole. The most exacting hole at Pebble is the par-5 14th. It doesn't rank as the most difficult hole, just the most likely to yield a garish number. No hole gave up more double bogeys (36) or others (14)—that's triple bogey or worse—than the 14th.
The problem with the 14th is the volcanolike green. It is the worst designed putting surface on the course. While the USGA drew justifiable praise for its other innovative ideas, like shifting fairways nearer to the ocean and moving the tee up on the 4th to make it a drivable par-4, the setup of the 14th is the one thing the association got wrong. The severe slope of the right side of the green was trouble enough, but shaving the steep backside banks so that even not-so-errant shots rolled way off the green was a punishment that didn't fit the crime.
All you had to do was watch Ernie Els, with the U.S. Open on the line, hit an acceptable wedge shot into 14 in the final round and watch the ball roll off the front and back down into the fairway, from where he had a devilish pitch. He made a bogey. Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champ, made a nine in the second round from the middle of the fairway. He went over the green with his approach, chipped too hard to the upper level where the pin has to be located, and watched his ball roll off the front of the green and back into the fairway—twice. Here's how he made nine: "I hit seven really good shots and two putts," Johnson said.
The 14th needs a more user-friendly green. The pin barely moves in four rounds because there's no place else to put it. "It's probably the hardest third shot in golf now," Tiger Woods said early in the week.
The 14th, once a demanding par-5, is now a gimmicky hole with miniature golf overtones. "The last 120 yards are right out of a Stephen King novel," said Paul Goydos.
The USGA should get smart and fix the 14th before the Open returns in 2019.