The par 3, 17th hole at Pebble Beach will always have a special place in the history of the US Open. It was there that Tom Watson chipped in for birdie from the thick hay to the left of the green to clinch the ’82 championship. But for every shot at glory on the 17th comes a thousand exasperating ones. Along with being the most difficult hole of the tournament, it was the most controversial, evoking some bewildered responses from worn-out pros — particularly after Sunday’s trying final round.
On the scorecard the distance was listed at 208 yards, but it usually plays into the wind and when the pin is in the back left as it was three of four days, it is practically impossible to hold the ball with a long iron on a small sliver of green. To make par or the rare birdie on 17, it requires more than the perfect shot — you need dumb luck, too. Just ask Watson.
On this particular Sunday, the hole was playing 219 yards with the pin in the tough back left position, close to the spot where Watson chipped in to win in ’82.
When Brandt Snedeker, who fired a solid even-par 71 and placed T8, walked out of the scoring tent, he was disappointed and irked with his bogey-bogey finish, particularly because he felt wrongly punished.
“I hit a great shot on 17 — I guess they’re playing it as a par 4 today,” he said. “I don’t think it stops rolling on that green. I hit a nice, high 4-iron — as high as I could hit it, as spinny as I could hit it, and it landed right on the front of the green right at the pin and then it went all the way through the green. I don’t know what else to do.
“Personally, I feel like that’s kind of goofy golf when you can’t hit a solid shot and keep it on the green for the 71st hole at a major. If you’re talking about the second hole of the day, that would be a little different, but if you’re talking about deciding a championship, it’s a little too firm. All [the USGA] had to do was water the greens [Sunday] and it’d be fine. I mean, the pin position is accessible. I can’t believe you have a par 3 where you either have to be in the front bunker or try to hit it right because if you do hit it at the pin and you go long, you’ve got nothing. At the point I was at [in contention], I had to go right at it.”
These sentiments were echoed by eventual champion Graeme McDowell when he held the 36-hole lead, saying “I don’t know how you can hold the back left of that green, it’s nearly impossible…it’s borderline unfair.”
USGA setup chief Mike Davis admitted the 17th played tough, but noted the longstanding history of it always being a very difficult 71st hole. “If you hit a great shot, you can play 17,” he said. “I agree that it was a brutal hole in ’72, in ’82, every time you play an Open, it’s brutal. A lot of it is just — even if the green were bigger — when you’re back on that teeing ground, you can’t feel the wind. And that’s part of what makes it so hard.”
When asked, a weary Tim Clark, who placed T12, agreed. “You can hit the perfect shot and not hit the green, so, no, it’s not really fair,” he said.
“I hit it in the back bunker and holed it for two. Still, [the hole] isn’t fair.” Clark’s birdie was the only one the 17th yielded on Sunday.
Sean O’Hair, who shot 73 and also placed T12, stopped to chat behind the 18th green. “17 is just a tough hole,” he explained. “I think they should have played it up one day just to let us get to [the pin], but it’s just a tough, tough hole. You have to leave yourself in the bunker [if you miss]. The pin yesterday — I think — was questionable. But if you leave yourself in that front bunker today, it’s a fairly easy up-and-down. That’s really what it is — it’s a 3.5 par 4.”
Interestingly enough, the average score posted at the 17th was 3.49 for the tournament.
Finally, the usually unflappable Ryan Moore, who won the 2004 US Amateur and US Amateur Public Links in both 2002 and 2004, unloaded in an eight-minute rant on the USGA. His harshest comments were targeted at the 17th hole.
“It’s completely unreasonable, it’s just a horrible golf hole, the way they set it up,’’ he said. “I honestly don’t think I could have stopped a 7-iron [on Sunday] if I hit it into that green. I hit the highest, softest 4-iron, tried to turn it in with the slope…no chance of getting it on the green.’’
When asked if he would continue to play in USGA championships despite his strong feelings against their setups, he replied, “I don’t know. I’ll probably keep playing them, just to torture myself.”
Putting aside setup issues — to my understanding — fixing the 17th green is up to the Pebble Beach Company. Petition for the renovation to be completed by 2019 when the US Open returns?
“I’m sure all this is going to get printed and they’re going to hate me, but I’m OK with that,” Moore said. “I’ve won three of their championships.”
Oh, golf claps.