“Do you have any tips for playing Pebble Beach?”
Who better to ask than pros who have been playing Pebble Beach competitively for the last 30 years?
With the PGA TOUR Champions in town for the PURE Insurance Championship Impacting The First Tee, we polled a handful of veterans with that simple question.
Three-time PGA TOUR winner Jerry Kelly playfully summed up what you need to know:
“Keep it out of the ocean, balls break toward the ocean, bring a sweater because it’s cold by the ocean,” said Kelly, who has won twice in the last month on the PGA TOUR Champions.
Kelly then paused and gave a more reflective answer,
“I haven’t really learned how to play this course as well as I think after 20 years,” Kelly added. “It’s unbelievable.
“If you’ve got an experienced caddie, listen to him. That I can tell you.”
Here are five tips the field suggested:
1. KEEP THE BALL UNDER THE HOLE.
Pebble’s primary defense is its small, sloping greens. Essentially every green tilts from back-to-front. If you play the ball short of the flag, you will have an uphill putt.
“Keep the ball underneath the hole at all times,” said three-time PURE Insurance winner Jeff Sluman. “That should be Nos. 1, 2 and 3 tip.
“As a pro, you learn pretty quick. But it would be nice to hear those words if it’s your first time out here, and you’re never going to get to play again. Always play up to the hole. Don’t try to be too aggressive and hit it over the green, or you’re going to shoot a million.”
Defending champion Paul Broadhurst learned that the hard way, hitting his approach shot past the hole on No. 11 in both rounds, resulting in two bogeys.
“The greens don’t look that quick, but from top to bottom, they really are quick,” Broadhurst said. “You get wrong-side, you’re going to three-putt. Try to keep it below the flag. I hit it past the pin on No. 11 both times last year, and it cost me bogey. You think you learn pretty quickly, but I did it the last day as well. I end up making two bogeys on a relatively straightforward hole.”
2. EVERYTHING GOES TO THE OCEAN.
You’ll hear people mention “grain” when they talk about the greens at Pebble Beach, but what they are really referring to is the gradual slope of the land toward the ocean. The slope can be a a bit imperceptible and deceiving when you are standing on the green, but it’s much more evident when checking out the lay of the land from the tee box and fairway.
“The obvious tip for me is Pebble is on a little bit on a slope, toward the ocean, so the greens tend to break that way,” said 1987 U.S. Open Champion Scott Simpson.
On the front nine, the ocean will be on your right. Coming back in, the ocean will be on your left.
3. THE GREENS ARE REALLY SMALL, SO KNOW WHERE YOU CAN MISS.
Pebble Beach is actually the shortest course on the PGA TOUR, but it also has the smallest greens. The average green is just 3,500 square feet, and 26 paces deep. Even the pros realize they aren’t going to hit every green, so sometimes leaving yourself a manageable up-and-down opportunity is the smart play.
“These are small greens,” Simpson says. “It’s important to learn where to miss it to give yourself some room to chip. There are some greens you just can’t go over.”
Extending that philosophy back to the tee, you can miss left all day until you reach Nos. 17 and 18.
4. BE AWARE OF THE ELEMENTS.
Anyone who has watched the old Crosbys — and even this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am — has seen the course transform because of the weather.
“You never really learn this place,” says six-time PGA TOUR winner Rocco Mediate. “The course can change so much with the weather on any day.”
But even when the wind is down, the marine air typically knocks yards off your drives and approaches. At the 2016 AT&T, the average driving distance at Pebble Beach was just 271.5 yards, a far cry from the PGA TOUR season average of 290 yards.
Of course, that presents a paradox: you need to add yardage for you approach shots, but you can’t miss long.
“Some guys take to this place the moment they get here,” Kelly says. “But for me, the heavy air, the coolness, the type of grass, it’s still too difficult. It’s right there in front of you, but I don’t know the ins and outs of it. I just keep working hard every single year.”
5. HAVE FUN!
Perspective is key. Even 2015 Pure Insurance champion Esteban Toledo makes this his top priority:
“I really think the No. 1 thing is to have fun,” says Toledo. “Nothing gets better than Pebble Beach. This is the best golf course that I will ever play.”