Date: June 12, 2019
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Is Pebble really a links course?

To describe famed Pebble Beach as a links course is something of a misnomer.

The true links – the game’s original courses – line the fringes of the British and Irish coasts, play over perfect, springy fescue turf and across the uniquely crumpled ground by the sea that is so ideal for golf.  

Inevitably, the game migrated both inland and overseas and the most spectacular results of that migration were the remarkable Pebble Beach and Cypress Point courses high on the cliffs above the beaches of the Monterey Peninsula.

The ground, however, is softer in California, the grasses different (television viewers will be well tired of all the references to poa-annua greens by the time this week’s champion is crowned) and the fairways offer up more predictable bounces, stances and lies.

Australia has a few real links – technically courses built on the narrow coastal strips of land separating the beach from the farmland beyond.

Many are familiar with the two courses at Barnbougle in northern Tasmania or Port Fairy, just down the road from Marc Leishman’s home course at Warrnambool. Equally, they will understand how the golf land is literally only a few metres from flat, low, wet farmland. That may be ideal for growing potatoes, but totally unsuitable to interesting golf.

The New South Wales Golf Club is Australia’s version of Pebble Beach. Like the site of this week’s US Open, the La Perouse course has cliff-side holes that earn all the attention and praise. The less spectacular holes away from the edges of the property play a secondary, but still important role.

In this age, Pebble Beach is a short course with only Merion, near Philadelphia, a shorter Open venue. Pebble’s defence against low scores includes calling the par-five second hole a par four, the smallest set of greens on any of the game’s best courses, high grass surrounding them, narrow fairways and, of course, the wind.

The USGA officials have a lot to redeem this week after “losing the golf course” on Saturday last year at Shinnecock Hills and serving up terrible putting surfaces at Chambers Bay back in 2015.

They also endured criticism from those infatuated with the brutality of a “traditional” US Open when Brooks Koepka won with 16 under par at a windless Erin Hills in 2017, a new course built to accommodate high winds that never came.

Trying to please everyone is a thankless task, but setting up a course with the aim of a pre-determined winning score around par – something organisers unsurprisingly deny – is fraught with danger because inevitably it involves distorting the ideal dimensions of the course.

And Pebble Beach without all the long grass would be an even better golf course.

Koepka is hoping to win three in a row and, after Rafael Nadal’s feat in Paris of winning his 12th claycourt crown, three doesn’t sound too onerous, especially when the Spaniard has now won at least three in a row three separate times.

Golf championships, though, are more subject to chance than their tennis equivalents.

Still, Koepka is the best player in the world and in 1972, 1982 and 2000, Pebble Beach gave us Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, each the best player in the world at the time.

Leishman, Jason Day and Adam Scott – as they have been for almost a decade – are Australia’s best hopes and all have some reason for optimism. 

Day has enticed Steve Williams out of New Zealand to carry his bag and if a player is to rely on a caddie’s advice, it might as well be coming from someone as forceful as Williams who caddied for Woods that remarkable week in 2000 when the next best was 15 shots behind.

Scott was second at Muirfield Village a couple of weeks ago and both his swing and his game are never far off.

We first played almost 20 years ago and if someone had said then – after he’d just shot 64 – he’d have “only” won one major championship by now, I’d have been more than surprised.

Scott’s not running out of time and he’s had a brilliant career to this point, but as each one of these goes by it’s one less chance to add something really significant.

Leishman is just, well, Leishman. Understated, underrated and largely unnoticed by the average American gallery, he plays really sensible, powerful golf with a little of Ashleigh Barty’s “no fuss” style, about him.

Or perhaps Barty has a lot of Leishman about her game? 

Either way it’s serving them both well.