For the next few days, you will see dozens of stories documenting the drama at Pebble Beach. Is this the week that Tiger Woods finally roars back? Will Phil Mickelson finally break through at the U.S. Open? Will someone like Ernie Els rediscover his major magic, or will a young star like Rory McIlroy turn himself into a superstar?
What you won’t see are many articles about the U.S. Open experience itself, from a spectator’s perspective. But you will get one here at PutterZone.com. Editor Sean Weir had the privilege of attending Wednesday’s practice round, and here is his dispatch:
A refreshing breeze is blowing off the Pacific, and the morning skies are bright blue. Across the shimmering bay, the silhouette of Pt. Lobos commands the far horizon. And the near horizon is draped in velvety green fairways.
Welcome to Pebble Beach—one of those rare places where it’s not an overstatement to say, “What a beautiful day in paradise.”
This is a sort of homecoming for me. Once upon a time, I lived in Pebble Beach, literally a stone’s throw from where the tour equipment vans are parked for the tournament. No, I wasn’t a business mogul, nor was I a trust-fund hippie. I was a caretaker for rent while I launched my writing career. I spent nearly three years living here. Lucky me.
Naturally, I initially gravitate toward the practice putting green adjacent to The Lodge. Rory McIlroy is talking on his cell phone while sinking eight-foot putts with one hand. At one point McIlroy and Tiger Woods practice their putting together (pictured above), enjoying some chuckles while they’re at it. Camilo Villegas is doing a circular drill. Rory Sabbatini is roaming around, looking mischievous.
Aside from the remarkable talent on display, two things really stand out on this practice green compared to the average recreational practice green. First, the wrists of the players are almost universally quiet. You see none of the “handsy” strokes that plague us mortals. Second, the lie angles on the putters are almost always correct. You don’t see the toes or heels of the putters sticking up in the air. Let that be a lesson, folks.
At the same time, there is tremendous variety here, too. The players are wielding hulking mallets, slim blades and everything in between. The grip styles vary, too. McIlroy’s thumbs are parallel down the shaft, while Woods’ right thumb pad is on top of his left thumb. I am surprised by how many players are putting with a “left hand low” grip. It seems as though every third of fourth golfer is employing this method. Some players are upright in their setup, others more bent toward the ball.
In other words, here we have the world’s greatest collection of golfing talent, and they can’t even come close to agreeing on what’s the best way to putt. This is why I love putting.
At the practice green, I meet Jim Sorenson of Momentus Golf, who is working with several pros with his Down The Line putting track, which promotes an “inside and down the line” stroke. Sorenson says that this is the stroke used by Tiger Woods and most other touring professionals. They take the putter back with a natural arc, but release the putter straight down the line. I talk to Jim about interviewing him on PutterZone.com, and he says he’s game. Stay tuned.
Another early stop is the driving range. The grandstand at the driving range is almost right on top of the players, giving you memorable proximity to some of the most impressive ball strikers on the planet. Padraig Harrington—who is smaller in stature than I had imagined—is just ripping ball after ball with his driver in an awesome display of pure ability.
Between the driving range and the course is a massive gateway superstructure that includes a food court and a merchandise tent the size of an airplane hanger. The tent is jammed with people snatching up souvenirs. I buy few things, but resist others—such as the $50 ball cap and $100 putter cover (with a velcro closure, no less).
What the USGA and the Pebble Beach Company have done here is nothing short of remarkable. It would be easy to take their efforts for granted. But if you step back and consider the enormity of orchestrating this event amid the highly nuanced terrain of the Del Monte Forest—from transportation to support structures to crowd management—it’s hard not to be impressed. On top of that, nearly everyone working here is unfailingly polite, if not truly eager to help. Who knows, they might be burned out by Sunday afternoon, but right now, they are happy campers.
The atmosphere is already supercharged. I can only imagine what Sunday will be like, particularly if a dramatic finish is in the works. But I’m not sure I would trade it for today. There’s something to be said for the casual nature of the practice round, and the opportunity to see awesome talent up close, in the absence of big crowds. At one point, I watch McIlroy and Ian Poulter send balls into the stratosphere on the par three 17th hole with the most beautiful pure “thwack” off the club face. But they’re not done—they tee it up again, just for fun. Such are the joys of the practice round.
At times, you must cross the fairways to get from one place to the next, a passage that is closely regulated and timed by the volunteers. While crossing, you get a brief sense of what it might be like to play the course with U.S. Open conditions. I’ve never seen Pebble Beach so shaggy on the perimeters. The bunkers are rimmed with nasty native grasses that rise up to knee level (pictured above, with Zach Johnson putting in the background). The fairways are unimaginably crisp and tight, and the distant greens look like tiny islands surrounded by hostile territory.
Sadly, the day must end, but the memory of it will never fade. If you’ve never been to a U.S. Open, I encourage you to find a way, if only for a day, if only for a practice round. For now, turn on the television, and let the drama begin.
P.S. Stay tuned for a dispatch from the tour vans of TaylorMade and Nike at the U.S. Open.