By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; D02
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- The most famous, most memorable shot ever played at Pebble Beach Golf Links came off the wedge of Tom Watson 28 years ago this weekend. He was battling Jack Nicklaus in the final round of the U.S. Open. His ball was down in some rough behind a green. He sized it up, got the face of the club on the ball, pitched it onto the green, and it rolled in the cup.
How enduring is the image of Watson running after that ball, celebrating? He can walk these grounds now, refer to it -- as he did earlier this week -- as "the lucky chip at 17," and everyone knows what he means.
Yet that memory, as cherished as it is, obscures the reality the 17th hole brings to this version of the Open. The seventh hole, a tiny par 3, is among the most picturesque in all of golf, and Saturday it played at under 100 yards -- the first such hole in Open history. The seaside stretch of 8, 9 and 10 is among the best trio of par 4s in the game. The par-5 14th provides a nauseating approach to a green that holds almost nothing. But as Watson said, "17 is the critical shot on this golf course," and it could go a long way toward deciding the 110th U.S. Open over the weekend.
"It's extremely difficult," said Graeme McDowell, who led the tournament at the midway point, but felt fortunate to play the 17th bogey-par. "The golf course is very fair; 17 is borderline unfair, perhaps. It's one of the greatest holes in world golf, but I don't really know how I can hit that back left portion of the green. It's nearly impossible."
The setting: 208 yards on the scorecard to an oceanside green that is 32 yards deep from front to back, but essentially has two putting surfaces. If the pin is in the back left, as it was the first two rounds, leaving the tee shot on the more accessible front right is ill-advised, because the green pinches in -- it looks something like a snowman lying diagonally -- and it's possible to be left with a long putt that has no direct line to the hole.
That means players must play at that back left flag -- despite that portion of the green being only 18 yards deep, and it is protected in the front by a deep bunker. The wind typically blows from right to left, but it often can't be felt at the tee box, which is tucked inland. Factor in the terrain on the green -- essentially a bowl, with a downslope in the front portion propelling shots that land there over the back edge into Watson's rough -- and the hole becomes stomach-turning.
"That's the smallest green to hit that length of shot that we play in -- well, I have to say in [all of] golf," Watson said. "I mean, that green is much smaller than the 'Postage Stamp' [the famed eighth hole] at Troon, much smaller than that green. It's a tiny, tiny little bowl thing. You land it short, you hit it on the downslope, and it goes right on over the bowl. It's as tough a shot as you want. Just to get it on the surface there is a major achievement."
The only way to do it: Hit the ball to the moon and land it soft. But because the hole plays longer than 200 yards, and the wind often doesn't help, players must somehow hit 3- and 4-irons that high. Others have chosen hybrids. McDowell hit 3-iron through the green in the first round, 4-iron through the green in the second round.
What to do? It's baffling.
"I don't think I've got that shot," said two-time Open champ Ernie Els, who entered weekend play two shots behind McDowell, yet had made a double bogey and a bogey at 17. "I've tried twice. Just over the bunker, you've got five yards where you can actually land the ball in the rough. If you get it within five yards of 220, you're doing well. That's the only way I can see you can hold the green."
Through two rounds of the Open, no hole had played more difficult, averaging more than a half a stroke over par (3.516 strokes, to be exact). But the more pertinent statistic might be the number of players who held the green. Through two rounds, the hole had been played 312 times. Tee shots held the green 61 times -- or fewer than once in every five players. The next toughest green to hold at Pebble was the 502-yard par-4 second, which more than one in three players reached in regulation.
"Sometimes, you might have to play to that front bunker," Fairfax native Steve Marino said after a practice round earlier in the week. "That might be the best place to miss, because you have a chance to get up-and-down from there."
Marino's first two results: bogey-bogey. Other players, too, have suggested that playing toward the front bunker might be prudent. Indeed, nearly half of the players who found the sand -- 61 of 123 -- have saved their par. But asking the best golfers in the world to stand on the tee of a par 3 and aim toward a bunker is counterintuitive.
"Talking to my caddie, front bunker is the leave," McDowell said. "But you go down there and hit a golf shot, you're not going to lay it up in the front bunker."
Saturday, the United States Golf Association offered the field a different pin, this one in the front right portion of the green. It was far more accessible. That almost certainly won't be the case during Sunday's final round. Expect the hole to be tucked back in the left. Expect the field to struggle with it. And expect the tournament to turn, right there.
"It's a bit unfair," McDowell said. "But it's a pretty spectacular hole."