Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pebble Beach-Golf and Nature

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Every year at this time, the familiar coastline comes into view. Beamed into millions of living rooms and dens are the scenic assortment of aerials, ground-level looks from worm cams, slo-mo and super-slo-mo beauty shots of players and celebrities great and small strolling the golf course on the cliffs at Pebble Beach. To see it all unfold each February is a ritual as familiar as opening the family photo album.

And for nearly all the spectators of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, there is only one tiny drawback. The closest they will get to the most lovingly photographed hole in golf is the front of their TV.

As captivating as the CBS pictures are from the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, stepping on the 18th tee is necessary to grasp the magnitude of this “most felicitous meeting of land and sea,” as Robert Louis Stevenson called it.

There, you can taste salt air and hear waves hiss like a thousand cottonmouths across the rocks below. You can stand and peer down the fairway where golfers from Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Watson to Woods all looked for the precise line to hit their drives. Look left 45 degrees at another world, out beyond an outcropping of sharply jutting rocks, to the surf spot called Ghost Tree by locals. There, at times, the sea swells and boils into waves over 60 feet that tumble and froth like clotted cream.

“Just for sheer beauty, there is absolutely no place like this in the world,” said Bob Welsh, the CBS cameraman who has captured the pictures for 32 years. “Any weather, any direction, I can swing the camera and there it is.”

Southeast, back toward the placidity of Carmel and the softly curving hogback hills in the distance, a light mist hangs over the shoreline from waves pounding the beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue. Gray whales fluke and spout out in Carmel Bay. In the foreground, just below the tee, sea otters dart in and out of kelp beds, feeding on abalone while their ponderous sea lion cousins loll, bark and sleep on the rocks amid flocks of cormorants.

Suspended above all this is the 18th tee, the square platform of grass where amateurs and professionals alike will hit their final tee shots of the day. There are more intimidating holes in golf, certainly. There are holes that require more skill, that have what golf aficionados call more shot values. There are more historic holes. Some may even argue there are more beautiful holes.

But none combine all those aspects to become as memorable as this 543-yard, crescent-shaped hole. Its unique features combine to raise the heart rate and moisten the palms of golfers from Phil Mickelson to the rankest amateur.

“The 18th hole at Pebble makes me nervous, because as a left-handed player, when I look up and tilt my head, it’s staring right at the water,” Mickelson said. “It’s a very nerve-racking shot.”

Seared into the memory of any who have played it and many who have not: the meeting of Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean on the left, pounding the rocks that line the shore; the array of bunkers and out-of-bounds stakes on the right; the two cypress trees in the middle of the fairway at 250 and 265 yards; the now-familiar new cypress tree to the right of the 18th green — transplanted in 2001 to replace the original that was struck by lightning and invaded by bark beetles and pitch canker.

And the sea wall. When a 1998 El Niño storm system chewed off another piece of fairway, engineers and Pebble Beach agronomists collaborated to construct the wall that runs from more than 100 yards short of the green around its back, protecting the shoreline from more erosion.

Triumphs and humiliations, good fortune and misfortune at the 18th stand out and blur together through the more than six decades of the tournament that Bing Crosby brought here in 1947, and from six United States Open Championships. During his record-setting United States Open march in 2000, Tiger Woods came to the tee after a fog delay and hooked his drive into the bay, a shot that was the only real flaw on his 15-stroke victory.

The same year, John Daly disappeared into the mists, carding a 14 on the hole. The details are gruesome. He walked out in the fog to find that his first tee shot went out of bounds, returned to the tee and hit his next two shots into the bay. Hitting seven, he found the fairway, laid up to about 115 yards, then hit his wedge shot into bay. Dropping in the bunker, impeded by the sea wall, Daly tried a left-handed shot, which he left in the hazard. On in 12, two putts for 14, Daly then withdrew.

Hale Irwin’s great good fortune at 18 in 1984 may never be surpassed. Trailing by a stroke, he hooked his drive toward the bay. As he and millions of TV spectators watched in disbelief, his ball caromed off a boulder and bounced back into the fairway. He hit 3-wood and sand wedge to the green and made the 5-footer for birdie. Naturally, he won the playoff over Jim Nelford.

Capturing it all was the CBS cameraman David Finch, who was on the ground with a hand-held camera, tethered to 800 feet of cable in the days before radio frequency cameras.

“He followed that ball from the time it left the club, all the way until it bounced back into the fairway,” Welsh said. “That’s why he’s the No. 1 hand-held camera guy.”

Shots like that are part of the lore that makes the 18th at Pebble. There will be more, in any weather, from any direction.