PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Ernie Els was tempted.
He also had a few concerns about how he would recover from his recovery shot.
The two-time U.S. Open winner bashed a shot onto the sand at Pebble Beach during practice this week, and was told that the ball was playable if he wanted to give it a shot. Then he eyeballed the goat trail that passes for a path down the steep cliff, which was perched roughly 40 feet above the shoreline below.
|Arjun Atwal seems to be taking dead aim at the Pacific as he plays a practice round. (AP)|
Not without an escalator, helicopter or Sherpa, anyway.
"I think you might need a rope," he said.
Depending on how things play out with a new experiment taking place along the panoramic cliff-side holes this week at the 110th U.S. Open, a few guys might be reaching for nooses.
For the first time in decades, the fairways on several of the seaside holes have been repositioned and the grass mowed all the way to the edge of the precipice, where there used to be a wide buffer of rough to stop wayward balls from toppling into the drink. Which in this case happens to be the most beautiful water hazard in the game.
"The Pacific Ocean," Els said.
Imagine this mental image from the blimp overhead: On Sunday, especially if the wind is right, we could see players hitting shots from down where the seals bark, trying to blindly belt the ball up the cliffs and back onto green grass.
With a geographic nod to our English cousins, the sandy hillsides this week could be dubbed the White Cliffs of Over. Somewhere, hapless amateur celebrities like Jack Lemmon or Ray Romano, who played in the regular PGA Tour pro-am event at Pebble and have had first-hand experience with slashing balls out of the sand and rock piles below, will be laughing their own hindquarters off.
Truly, the Open could be a true cliff-hanger this time around.
"It could get very interesting out there," Els said.
We're already there, mate. The U.S. Golf Association grounds crew was tip-toeing along the cliff on the right side of the par-5 sixth hole Monday afternoon with string trimmers, knocking down the growth on the steep hillside so wayward tee balls will drop straight off the precipice to an almost certain demise. Like fictional hitman Luca Brasi, certain shots that get out of line will sleep with the fishes. Plus a few hermit crabs.
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Without fail, whenever the calendar pages flip to June and the U.S. Open, the golf course is a bigger part of the story than anybody or anything not nicknamed Tiger. While Pebble Beach has hosted a PGA Tour stop for parts of eight different decades and is a known quantity, and has hosted the U.S. Open four previous times, the seaside stretch has been refashioned back to the days of yore on the shore.
"I can remember years ago, looking at some old photos of Pebble Beach and thinking, 'Look at that, the fairway is right up against the ocean on several holes,'" said Mike Davis, the USGA's rules and competition chief. "Then you look at what had been Pebble Beach now, and they had these strips of rough bordering the ocean."
Over the years, the swath of rough sped up play for the resort guests, probably saved a few of them from toppling into a personal injury lawsuit and was easier for the Pebble grounds crew to maintain, but the so-called second cut seemed to gradually get wider and wider along the cliffs. So when Arnold Palmer and the USGA were doing some design tweaks in advance of the 2010 Open, they adjusted the fairway mowing patterns so that they virtually parallel the cliffs -- with little to stop the ball from rolling off the cliff like a ball barreling down a bowling alley lane.
On famous holes like Nos. 8, 9 and 10 -- which ranked second, first and fifth in difficulty when the Open was played at Pebble a decade ago -- the fairway cut of grass was moved about 20 yards closer to the cliff's edge. The fairway in many spots runs right off the edge.
"It's just such a great feature to have holes that run right up against the ocean, I felt like we should take advantage of that," Davis said. "And when we met with the Pebble Beach people, they were so receptive, particularly when you could say, 'At one time here, this is how it was.'"
Any ball headed right on those three holes at the turn, or on waterfront holes at Nos. 4 and 6 for that matter, is also going straight down the hill.
"Absolutely," Davis said. "That was one of the ideas. If you have got a ball that's is going toward the ocean with enough speed, it's going to go over."
The fairways on the seaside holes are already sloped toward the ocean by Mother Nature, so Davis took pains to make sure a left-to-right wind, rare in these parts, wouldn't make the stretch unfair or unplayable. They left a thin strip of rough alongside the driver landing areas on Nos. 4, 8 and 10 just to be safe, he said.
The USGA has been accused many times of going over the edge with the setup. This time, they did it literally -- and players are fine with it. Phil Mickelson, one of the favorites this week and a three-time winner at the regular PGA Tour stop at Pebble Beach, said he loved the revisions.
"I thought moving the tee over on 8, moving the tee back on 9, and moving it back on 10 were great changes, because I buy into the philosophy of making the hard holes harder and the easy holes easier," he said.
Not sure whether they made the easy holes easier, but they got the first half right, for sure. There's a decent chance the tournament will be decided on the trio of brutal seaside holes at the turn. Down the hill below is a public beach, where folks from the neighboring hamlet of Carmel sunbathe and walk their dogs.
If players need ropes to rappel up and down the slopes, maybe the civilians below should be fitted for hard hats.
"Especially if the wind is into us on those holes," Els predicted, "you're going to see a lot of fun and games."