Today marks the beginning of the 110th United States Open Championship. Years of preparation are over, and we now follow the pursuit of our national championship.
The storylines leading up to this year’s U.S. Open have been rich with talk of course alterations, rule changes, tales of heartache in sectional qualifying, and debate over who will be this year’s champion. Before we turn full attention to this year’s championship, let’s take a look back at the run-up to the first U.S. Open Championship held at Pebble Beach in 1972.
Nineteen seventy-two was a year of great expectations for the game of golf. Pebble Beach Golf Links, one of the world’s most recognizable courses, which had previously hosted five USGA championships, would play host to its first U.S. Open Championship.
Pebble Beach had served as the home of Bing Crosby’s “Clambake” since 1947. Crosby may have known the course better than anyone. He predicted in a Golf Digest article that the 1972 U.S. Open would be “the greatest U.S. Open Championship in history.” Having played the course countless times, Crosby knew what kind of skills a Pebble Beach champion needed to possess, and he knew how the golf course would present itself to the field.
Crosby believed the winner would be someone who could hit every type of golf shot known to man. He would possess distance, accuracy, the ability to recover from trouble, a great putter and the ability to hold up under pressure.
The man who the crooner felt possessed the requisite skills was Jack Nicklaus, who had already that year won both The Masters and Crosby’s tournament at Pebble. Nicklaus, he felt, was the favorite because the course was a “thinker’s track,” and Jack was one of the game’s best strategists, not to mention his length, touch and ability to perform under pressure.
Crosby believed the weather would also have an effect on the championship. For decades his tournament was plagued by rain, cold weather and wind.
In the pre-championship publications, Nicklaus was the favorite, as many felt he was at the peak of his game. Some even felt 1972 presented Nicklaus with a chance to win the coveted Grand Slam. Other notables given a fighting chance to win at Pebble included previous or future major champions Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, then-amateur Ben Crenshaw, and local favorite Johnny Miller, among others.
Nicklaus, who had won the U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach in 1961, grew up idolizing Bob Jones. In 1972 he came to Pebble Beach with a chance to tie Jones’ record in the majors, a goal Nicklaus had kept in mind since he began playing competitive golf. In a 1972 Golf Digest article Jack spoke of his admiration for Jones: “I’ve always had Bob Jones on a pedestal… I started playing golf when I was 10 at Scioto Country Club in Columbus. He had won the 1926 Open there, and photographs of him were all over the club. A friend of my father’s was a great fan of Jones and would take me around the course and show me where Jones hit every shot in 1926. I tried to play my early rounds that way. He was and is my hero. To break his record has been my lifetime dream.”
Ironically, the wind that Bing Crosby’s tournament had to deal with in January made a surprise visit to the U.S. Open in June. The wind, combined with efforts to roll the greens smooth, created conditions that left Nicklaus saying in a Golf World interview, “I can’t recall a day like this (the final round) when we were almost not playing golf. Golfing skills were almost eliminated. If you made a putt it was luck, no skill. All you could do was avoid three-putting.”
At one point during the final round Nicklaus almost avoided having to deal with the treacherous greens altogether when he fired a 1-iron straight at the pin on the par-3 17th hole. The ball bounced once, hit the flagstick, and came to rest inches from the hole, instantly becoming one of the greatest shots of all time, and sealing Nicklaus’ U.S. Open victory.
With his win at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus realized his dream of tying Jones’ record of 13 major championship victories. Nicklaus had won the first two majors of 1972 and went to the British Open at Muirfield, Scotland, with a chance to win the third leg of the Grand Slam.
Unfortunately for Nicklaus, those hopes were dashed by U.S. Open fourth-place finisher Lee Trevino, and any chance to win the “American Slam,” the three majors played in the United States, was denied when Gary Player won the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in Michigan later that summer.
Pebble Beach has a record of producing great champions and great moments. This year spectators will have the opportunity to view the wedge used by Tom Watson to hit his famous chip shot in the 1982 U.S. Open and the driver used by Jack Nicklaus during his 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship.
As this year’s championship begins, we all look forward to Pebble’s next great moment.
Robert Alvarez is the collections manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.