There are a number of storylines ready to be played out at this week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, chief among them:
- Can Brooks Koepka become the first player in the modern era (and just the second player overall, joining Willie Anderson) to capture three consecutive U.S. Open titles?
- Will it be sweet No. 16 for Tiger Woods, who would not only move one step closer to tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, but would also match Sam Snead’s mark of 82 career PGA Tour wins with a victory at Pebble Beach?
- Can perennial U.S. Open bridesmaid Phil Mickelson break through on a course he’s won at five times, including as recently as February, in what figures to be his best remaining chance to win a U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam?
Who better to answer these questions and preview the 119th U.S. Open Championship than GOLF Academy lead coach Bobby Clampett, a Monterey Peninsula native who attended high school in Pebble Beach and also won two California State Amateurs on the storied links course. Clampett also competed in two U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach (1982 and 2000), finishing T-3rd in ’82, just four shots back of Tom Watson.
Clampett, who still owns a home today in neighboring Carmel and is an expert on how to play Pebble Beach, will be on site this week and took some time out to address these topics, some of the key holes that could decide this year’s championship and more, including whom he thinks will be hoisting the U.S. Open Championship Trophy come Sunday.
Q: This will be the sixth time Pebble Beach Golf Links is hosting the U.S. Open. How special is it for you to have it back at this iconic venue?
A: First of all, I was 12 years old when the U.S. Open was held at Pebble in 1972. I was out there a lot and it was really the turning point for me as far as wanting to be a professional Tour player. That was a really special week—everything from shagging balls for David Graham to getting a ride with Arnold Palmer.
Q: How did you manage to get a lift with The King?
A: After watching him play his round on Thursday, we were up above the pro shop and my mom had called to tell me she couldn’t come pick me up because the traffic was too bad. So I told her I’d figure out a way to get home. I was looking around and I spotted Arnold with [IMG founder and chairman] Mark McCormack in a chauffeured black limousine. Being that I was a little kid I just walked up to Arnold and said, “Mr. Palmer, are you heading up to Quail Lodge by chance?” And he said, “Why yes?” And I said, “Any chance I can catch a ride?” And he looked at me, then he looked at Mark, and Mark shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know what to tell you to do on this one Arnold.” Arnold put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Sure kid, let’s go.”
Q: Ten years later you were back at Pebble Beach playing in your first U.S. Open and you darn near won the thing. What’s your biggest recollection of that championship?
A: I had my chances. The course wasn’t in as good a condition as it is now. The rough was real spotty and all of us were missing short putts. I remember three-putting 18 on Saturday, which dropped me another shot back [of Watson and Nicklaus]. I birdied No. 11 in the final round to get to 2 under and Nicklaus and Watson were both at 3 under, but they were about to play a tough stretch of holes in 8, 9 and 10 and I thought if I can make a couple more birdies coming in, I could win the thing. I got to No. 12 and there was a ruling up front, so there was this long delay of 25 minutes. Then [former President] Gerald Ford walked up to the tee and we started up a conversation. Mentally, I just wasn’t ready to hit that tee shot and I pulled it left and made double [bogey]. That’s the one place you can’t hit it on that hole—anything long and left is dead. I regained my focus and played the next five holes in 2 under. I absolutely pured a driver off the deck on No. 18 [from 247 yards to the front], hit it right up the gap just short of the green and then almost holed my pitch for eagle.
“Before I knew it I was 4 under after 10 holes and leading the U.S. Open! I had Tiger by two after 10 holes, but then he nipped me by 28 after that!”
Q: In 2000 you were working as an analyst for CBS Sports and were two years removed from your last competitive tournament, but you still managed to qualify as an alternate in your Sectional Qualifier. What was it like to be in the “rest of the field” for Tiger’s virtuoso performance [Woods won by a record 15 shots]?
A: I didn’t get out to Pebble until Sunday afternoon, worked on my swing and game for three days and teed it up. I remember hitting a 7-iron to 5 feet on No. 1 and making birdie, then hitting a nice drive and iron on the green on No. 2 and two-putting for par. Before I knew it I was 4 under after 10 holes and leading the U.S. Open! I had Tiger by two after 10 holes, but then he nipped me by 28 after that! [Laughs.] What he did was remarkable. He had a 10-shot lead going into the last round and still wound up winning by 15! And he triple-bogeyed No. 3 in the third round.
Q: Do you think Tiger has a good chance this week to close the gap on Nicklaus and win major No. 16?
A: He played poorly at the PGA. Sometimes he gets so focused on [his] technique that he forgets to play. I think that’s where he was at the PGA. I don’t know where he is this week, but I know he’s been in town for several days and he was out there practicing on Sunday.
Q: Phil Mickelson won his fifth AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as recently as February, and obviously loves the course. Can he carry that momentum over to this week or does the course play entirely different from what it did 4-1/2 months ago?
A: It’s more of a wipe-the-slate-clean scenario. The course is really fast. This is our dry season here in Carmel. We haven’t had any rain at all in two-and-a-half, three weeks and it’s going to stay completely dry until November. And because the greens are firmer and faster they’re going to play a lot smaller. You’ve got a lot of precision shots that you have to play and that’s why the scores are so high here in the U.S. Open. You have to land the ball between 2 and 4 yards to get it to stay on the green. That’s your landing zone. If you come up short of that it’ll end up short, and if you land it beyond that it’ll go over the green. You have so little margin for error whereas during the AT&T you’ve got soft greens. It’s a different level at the U.S. Open. Plus, they have all of these U.S. Open tees where they play it way back, such as on holes 9, 10 and 13.
Q: The U.S. Open always puts a premium on driving accuracy. Is that the case again this week?
A: Well, if you hit it in the rough on the long par 4s you have virtually no chance to get the ball on the green. So there will be some key driving holes, like 2, 3, 6, 9, 10 and 13, where if you don’t drive it in the fairway it’s like costing you a shot.
Q: Who does the course favor this week—someone who is straight off of the tee or someone who can hit lasers into the small greens at Pebble? Any particular style of player?
A: Clearly a good driver of the ball has an advantage, which is why I like Rory McIlroy. Somebody who can flight it and hit it high and soft into the greens has an advantage, too. Typically, U.S. Open winners are great ball-strikers or have a great ball-striking week. You don’t have a mediocre ball-striking week and win a U.S. Open. It just doesn’t happen. Who are the guys that can do that? Clearly DJ, Brooks Koepka, Rory. I wouldn’t discount some of the medium-length hitters that can flight it like Jordan Spieth, too. It’s going to be super-tough setup and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Q: So you’re picking another Northern Irishman to win at Pebble, following Graeme McDowell in 2010?
A: I like Rory to win this year’s U.S. Open, based on his confidence level right now. He’s prime to dominate and take over No. 1. What a final-round 61 that was on Sunday [in the Canadian Open]! He seems to be back on his iron game again. My darkhorse is Spieth. He’s on the comeback trail.