As a longtime observer of the golfing scene, I would like to take the contrarian position that the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, that much-heralded, oft-photographed par-5, is vastly overrated. Last week, as it does every year during the AT&T, television treated us to breathtaking aerial views of the 18th's manicured 548 yards and its handsome surroundings, Carmel Bay to the left, the Lodge to the right and those lonesome Monterey pines in the middle of the fairway about 220 yards off the tee.
My quarrel with Number 18 is that nothing exciting ever happens there, certainly nothing to match the annual triumphs and disasters that occur at Augusta's back-nine par-5s, the 13th and the 15th. I have been observing Crosbys, AT&Ts and U.S. Opens at Pebble for nearly 30 years, and the only truly remarkable thing I can recall happening on 18 occurred in 1984 when Hale Irwin's drive landed on the rocks of Carmel Bay and caromed some 20 yards up onto the fairway. From there Irwin went on to make a one-putt birdie and eventually win the Crosby in a playoff.
A recent made-for-TV match between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson illustrates my point. The old rivals arrived at 18 with Nicklaus a stroke ahead. The situation begged for drama: Watson reaching the green with two heroic shots, Nicklaus forced to counter, even if it meant courting disaster. Instead, both players played conservative three-wood shots off the tee, four-irons from the fairway and wedges to the green. Each took two putts, and Nicklaus had won.
So what to do about it? One suggestion: Move the tee perhaps 20 yards forward and, if possible, a bit toward the water, even if it means tampering with Mother Nature. Make it so that a gambler who dares to carry his drive 260 yards over Carmel Bay can reach the green in two. A player two strokes back would have a shot at eagle. If someone one stroke behind cut the corner, the leader might feel compelled to match him.
It seemed only proper to test my supposition. Mark O'Meara, who has won the AT&T a record four times, heard me out with a bemused look. "You're crazy," he said. "First of all, it's aesthetically pleasing." Granted. "It's a true three-shot par-5, and it presents challenges—the ocean off the tee, out of bounds on the right. And it can be reached in two. Tom Kite did it in the third round when he won the Open." Have you ever reached it in two? "No."
Lee Janzen cut me off at the word overrated. "You're wrong," he said. "It's a risk-reward hole." Risk-reward? "If you cut off enough ocean, you can get there in two." You ever do it? "Once," he said.
Shaken, I sought out the man whose feelings about Pebble Beach, his favorite course, carry more weight than anyone else's—Nicklaus. "I couldn't agree with you more," he said. "Put the hole on Spyglass and it would be ordinary. Lots of negatives happen there and few positives. Moving the tee forward wouldn't work because there's no land to put it on. However, you could move the green closer and eliminate the bunker."
But to soften the blow, he added, "When you rate the 18th, you must consider its historical importance, its natural beauty and the fact that it is the final hole of a great course."
O.K., Jack. I'll buy that. But I would still like to see something exciting happen there.