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"My father always said Pebble Beach has the three best par-4s in a row in the world, the three toughest," said 60-year-old Tom Watson.
The 428-yard 8th, which Jack Nicklaus ordained as demanding the best second shot in golf, runs uphill to a high cliff, from which a player must hit an approach shot across a chasm to a tiny green wedged between a bunker and a cliff. The 505-yard 9th plays downhill with a left-to-right tilting, serpentine fairway and a green on cliff's edge guarded on the other side by a large bunker. The 495-yard 10th is similar to the 9th but slightly flatter with different bunkering.
The three-hole stretch has everything but a great nickname. Years ago SI's Dan Jenkins dubbed the holes Abalone Corner, but that name never caught on. Last week ESPN called the stretch Cannery Row. That's not likely to stick, either, so Cliffs of Doom wins by default. COD originated in a 1992 GOLF MAGAZINE story by renowned course architect Tom Doak. The moniker appeared only in the headline, which was written by staffer David Barrett, who says the nickname seems to have finally reached the tipping point.
"Now people are starting to understand how good these holes are," Doak says. "I can't imagine anyone who played Pebble not being overwhelmed by that stretch. That's what you remember after playing the course the first time, not 17 and 18. If 8, 9 and 10 were the closing holes, it would be the most famous finish in golf."
Gil Morgan was perhaps the Cliffs' most famous victim. He was the first person in U.S. Open history to reach double digits under par during the windswept '92 Open at Pebble Beach, then on Saturday turned into Icarus meets the Titanic. He went double bogey, bogey, double bogey over the Cliffs and dropped, he later admitted, "like I had a hole in my parachute."
The 9th and its sloping fairway ranked as the toughest scoring hole (4.56 strokes) during the 2000 Open. The 8th (4.53) was second and the 10th (4.38) was the fifth most difficult. The USGA gave them even more teeth this year, moving the 8th fairway to the right, bringing the water more into play. The tees at 9 and 10 were each extended by almost 50 yards to make them an even thousand yards of back-to-back, all-you-can-handle par-4s. Last week they mercifully played mostly downwind, but still caused plenty of misadventures.
During the opening round Blaine Peffley, a mini-tour pro from Lebanon, Pa., deposited his second shot into the famous chasm at number 8. His next attempt also found the hazard near the green, but he played from it. Or tried to. His escape attempt popped straight up. He was looking at a Bo Derek (a 10) until he holed out for an 8 from off the green. "It drives me crazy to play golf like that," Peffley said after missing the cut by 16 strokes.
Bobby Gates, who won a Nationwide tour event in New Zealand earlier this year, was introduced to the 8th-hole cliff during a practice round with defending Open champion Lucas Glover. "Lucas asked me, if I was leading the Open and my ball was right by the edge, would I go ahead and hit it or take a drop and try to make par the hard way?" Gates said. "I said, Man, I'd take a drop. I'm too big to stumble around near that edge. I don't want to be famous for the wrong reason."
Phil Mickelson nearly faced that scenario last Friday when his tee shot ran through the fairway and stopped about five feet from the edge. A helping wind had surprised him on his tee shot. "I hit a five-iron, for crying out loud," Mickelson said. "I had to have the marshal run up there to see if it was O.K."
The drop at the end of the fairway is almost 200 feet, a fall nobody wants to take. Mickelson then hit a wedge shot to 18 feet and holed the putt for his fifth birdie.