I came, I saw, I didn't conquer, but I'm OK with that
11 May 2010
by Katie Denbo
Today was an absolutely picture-perfect, turquoise-water, fogless, nearly cloudless, windless and almost-warm day to play one of the world's most sought-after bucket-list locales: Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Too bad I played yesterday, when it was raining, cold and windy before parting clouds released golden rays of sun on the 17th and 18th holes. That's the mystique of The Beach, however, and THAT makes for a better story anyway.
Yes friends, yesterday was the day. The round I was going to make my magical best-round ever, the time I was going to manhandle the elusive course that continues to evade the grasps of so many professionals and highly ranked amateurs. Did I? Among other things I discovered the hard way that Paul Goydos and I have something in common -- we both carded a 9 on the par-4 14th hole at Pebble. More on that later.
Preceding golf was the U.S. Open Media Day, when more than 150 radio, newspaper, television, magazine and website folks convened at The Lodge at Pebble Beach to learn of the latest official happenings on the 2010 playing of the U.S. Open Championship, teeing off June 17-20. Among news reminded is that the great Tom Watson has accepted a special exemption into this year's championship (confirmed in April), and the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, Mike Davis, spoke with passion about the conditions the course would play in, course changes that were made at the hand of Arnold Palmer, and what to expect for the fifth time that that the course would host the U.S. Open. It was a terrific way to get amped up for the preview round ahead, which Pebble Beach's vice president of golf operations RJ Harper prefaced with, "tricky Sunday pin placements out there that were those of the 2000 U.S. Open."
Listening to that little gem naturally freaked me out. "That's it," I concluded. "No way I'm playing well if the pros couldn't even play well." I decided it would be unwise to hit the range before, so I mentally prepped myself for the day ahead sitting in my cart.
I was happily paired with friend and colleague Pete Wlodkowski of amateurgolf.com as a twosome, and our caddie Sticks, a native of Seaside, was along for the ride. At 6-foot-9 and a 10-year veteran of Pebble, Sticks could literally see more of the course than I could dream, and got to know our games and skills almost immediately. "I have to forewarn you," I told him as we waited to tee off, "My iron game's pretty decent, but I'm a 17-handicap because my short game is not pretty." His response? "The average handicap that plays out here is around a 14. There's nothing you can do that I haven't seen before." Reassuring.
And as we teed it up for the first time that day, all I can say is that first tee shot at Pebble Beach is a complete thrill, especially after seeing it go straight down the middle of the fairway. No pressure, especially after no warm-up. And no problem, clearly proven by my stellar drive.
After three lip-out par putts on the first three holes, I felt like I had a chance out there. Hey, I was on the dance floor, at that point it's just a matter of some putts dropping. Holes four and five, especially the great par-3 fifth bordering the water? Spectacular. Sunday pin placements? The heck with it, I could do it. But then "it" hit. The storm. The wind and rain and freezing cold. "Crap," I thought, feeling like that rain scene in Caddyshack. "Please let up."
It didn't let up for a few holes. Pete and I were soaked to the bone, and freezing to boot. Club grips were slipping, pant legs were dripping at the cuff with water. "It'll pass," Sticks yelled to us as he pulled on his rain hat. I ducked behind the windshield of our cart for refuge, as Pete bravely sprinted to his ball. At that moment, Pebble became twice the golf course.
A month out, Pebble's infamous rough was difficult enough as it is. Spray some water in your eyes, a few gusts of wind for fun along with a soggy golf glove and leaking golf shoes, and each hole becomes a shot longer. I began to leak oil at that point. My hands were red and numb. Pete and I would just look at each other and shake our heads in amazement. "We're doing this," we agreed.
Some hot chocolate at the turn and a few less dedicated groups off the course (who could quit a round at Pebble, of all places?), we teed it up on 10 to no showers but bitter cold. Pete began a string of pro-quality pars, while I was having trouble recovering. I had a couple bogeys and a couple doubles. Along comes hole 14, and just like Mr. Goydos, I watch my TaylorMade Penta TP miss the back tier on the small green and roll back into the fairway. It became brutal. It also didn't really bother me, despite my ultracompetitiveness. It wasn't about the score, I realized. It was about the experience of the course, and the memories that were being made. I was having a blast. And besides, the more strokes I had, the more I got to "play" the course. Sound logic, I know.
Sticks had me pull out my 5-wood on the signature 17th hole, a long par-3 into the wind that juts out into the water. "No way," I plead. "I can't hit this. Give me my 5-iron."
"Just tee it up a half-inch and swing," he said. "What's the worst that's going to happen?"
I begrudgingly, yet miraculously, hit the best tee shot with a wood I've ever hit, still short in the front bunker, but a happy bogey as a result. Overall, I'm thrilled with the way I struck the ball out there. Despite the crazy weather, my swing and contact was solid, and made me excited to tee it up again.
One of the best moments on the course, though? Playing the 18th hole at the end of the day, walking up the fairway to see my parents, and all of their new neighbor friends in surrounding rooms, out on their balconies of The Lodge applauding and cheering, and tipping my hat to them after making two stellar shots for a bogey-5. There is no better feeling than waving up to everyone rooting for you, and it's clear to see how the pros can get an adrenaline rush.
So what did I shoot, you may ask? Hey, does it really matter? I scored higher than I have in a while. The weather conditions weren't great, and I missed some key shots. It was one of those rounds where the score didn't reflect the quality of play. I didn't have the round of my life but I'm happy with the way I struck the ball and am looking forward to the day that I can take my revenge on this place. Sooner, hopefully, than later.
My advice now for people playing Pebble for the first time? HAVE FUN. Look around, take in the scenery, and realize how lucky you are to be on a course that so many people can only dream of playing. Take in all of the people watching and cheering and smile and laugh while you're out there. To watch people not having fun out there is painful. If you can't enjoy yourself at Pebble, and if it doesn't truly mean something to you, then don't waste your time, because maybe you're not quite ready for it yet.
As I had dinner with some media friends at The Tap Room that evening and spoke with RJ Harper, he said something that summed up the day for me: "Katie, I've worked here a long time. I've seen the people that come here who have saved every single penny they had to make the journey. I've seen the people who have lost a friend or loved one, and come to play out here because it was their loved one's dream to do so and they never had the opportunity. I've seen people from all over the world use Pebble as a memorial. Pebble Beach truly isn't about the golf for a lot of people, it's about the meaning and the memories. And I feel really lucky to see that."
May your experience at Pebble be as memorable as mine.