When great American golf courses – or just great golf courses in general – are the topic of conversation, one name that always comes up is Pebble Beach. Golf fans of all stripes, from the casual to the most avid, know Pebble Beach – even if they’ve never stepped foot on the property – thanks to years of television coverage of the old “Crosby Clambake”, the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, which is now the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Between the Crosby, and the five U.S. Opens that have been held there since 1972, the dramatic land- and seascapes of Pebble Beach are familiar territory to millions worldwide.

With fame and acclaim come complications, however – crowds on the course, shuttle buses from miles-distant parking venues, ropes and course marshals funneling the throngs of spectators into specific traffic areas. While it’s still a thrill to be physically present at Pebble Beach when the PGA Tour pros (and in the case of the AT&T, their celebrity amateur partners) are teeing it up, it’s still a filtered, micro-managed experience.

Wouldn’t we all like to roam this great golf course unhindered, walking the fairways (if we choose), picking our viewing spots and seeing the course the way the players do? Of course we would, even without our clubs (and the $495 green fee…). Well, for 41 years that opportunity has existed, in the form of the best-kept secret in golf – the Pebble Beach Invitational.

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See Pebble Beach like you have never seen it before

Sponsored for the past fifteen years by Callaway, the Pebble Beach Invitational started in 1972 as the Laguna Seca–Del Monte Hyatt Pro-Am, growing and changing over the ensuing years with sponsors such Lynx Golf, Spalding, Ben Hogan and Merrill Lynch.

The Pebble Beach Invitational is like a cross between the AT&T Pro-Am and an industry golf outing writ large. Though it is played over four days on a three-course rota, with the final rounds played on the home course – just like the AT&T – the Pebble Beach Invitational differs in a couple of significant ways. The amateur players aren’t stars from the worlds of sports, music, television and movies, with a few industry and business people thrown in; they are mostly business people and dedicated amateur golfers with the ready cash and the free time to take a week off in November and come to the Monterey Peninsula to play golf. The most important difference, though, and the aspect of the tournament that sets it apart, is the mix of professional players that take part.

The Pebble Beach Invitational is the only tournament that pits professional golfers from the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, the Champions Tour and the LPGA– with a leavening of PGA professionals and mini-tour players – against each other under a length-adjusted handicap system. Graduated tees level the playing field –black for the PGA Tour players, blue for the Champions Tour players, gold for the LPGA pros, white for the amateur men and red for the amateur women – allowing each hole to be played with similar shots by the male and female competitors; on par-4s and par-5s you’ll see the ladies walking past their male competitors’ ball positions in the fairway and pulling the same or nearly the same, club for their second shots as the men are playing from further back.

For spectators, the Pebble Beach Invitational offers a low-key, simplified version of the better-known, bigger-name tournaments. While there are no celebrity amateurs and few really well known pros playing, the Pebble Beach Invitational allows spectators a more intimate viewing experience and plenty of high-quality golf. Forget about 20 minute shuttle bus rides from the CSU-Monterey Bay campus – for the Pebble Beach Invitational, free spectator parking is located at Collins Field, the polo field right next door to the Peter Hay Par-3 golf course, a 5-minute walk from the Pebble Beach Lodge. Admission to the tournament is free, and the usual $9.75 fee to the 17-Mile Drive is waived for the four days of the tournament.

Convenient free parking and free admission aside, the biggest draw for the Pebble Beach Invitational is the unfettered viewing experience the tournament offers – few course marshals and those mostly just there to direct traffic at road crossings within the course, and no gallery ropes (for the most part – the edges of the greens are roped off). In a radical departure from the big tournaments like the U. S. Open and the AT&T, spectators are free to walk either side of the fairways, not just one, and even to walk on the fairways behind the competitors.

No matter how many times you have watched television coverage of the AT&T or a U. S. Open at Pebble, or even if you have attended one of those tournaments, being able to walk the fairways at Pebble Beach gives you a much greater appreciation for the complexity and the genius of this iconic golf course.

Walking the fairway on No. 6, for example, you will gain a much better appreciation for the difficulty of the blind second shot and for the precipitous slope, which looms over the player in the fairway.

At the 8th hole you can sight over the “aiming rock” that sits in the middle of the fairway to allow players to line up their tee shot. Continue walking over the crest of the rise, and you stand at the end of the main fairway and see the 170-yard shot to the green which players are faced with here – an approach that Jack Nicklaus has called “the greatest second shot in golf”.

Walking the fairways on Nos. 9 and 10 you’ll look over the edge of the cliffs that drop down to the beach lining Carmel Bay and get a truer sense of the severity of the slope of the fairways – and wonder how anyone ever keeps a drive in play here.

More revelations await the fairway-walking spectator at the Pebble Beach Invitational as the back nine unfolds: the tricky second shot at the uphill, left-to-right par-4 11th hole, where the green slants away uphill and to the right with only a narrow opening on the left front; the challenge of the last shot into the green at the 14th hole, the uphill par-5 with the most severely sloped green on the course – or maybe anywhere; and finally, the ultimate view at Pebble Beach – the sweeping curve of the 18th hole, with Carmel Bay on the left.

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Well-known, and not-so-well-known players mix in the field at the Pebble Beach Invitational

The field in this year’s Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational featured an eclectic mix of players from the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, Champions Tour, Web.com Tour and others. The field included such notables as 2008 Masters Champion Trevor Immelman; two-time Pebble Beach Invitational winner Tommy Armour III; 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team member Fred Funk; local gal Juli Inkster, a native of Santa Cruz, Calif., and a 7-time LPGA major winner and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. There were also relatively well-known players such as Colt Knost, 2007 U.S. Amateur and Amateur Public Links champion; Anna Rawson, a willowy blonde from Australia who splits her time between the LPGA Tour and international modeling assignments; and Cheyenne Woods, a Wake Forest graduate and two-time All-American who plays on the LPGA’s Symetra Tour – and just happens to have a famous golfer-uncle with the same last name.

Arguably the biggest name in the field was Annika Sörenstam, the retired former World No. 1 who left the professional game at the height of her career to settle down in and start a family. This was Sörenstam’s third appearance at the Pebble Beach Invitational, having played in the 1999 and 2010 editions. In 1999, she came down the final fairway with a chance to win, but lost by a shot to Rocco Mediate.

Sörenstam got her tournament off to a good start the first two days with a 70 and a 69, at Del Monte and Pebble Beach, respectively, but blew up to a 9-over 81 in wet, windy conditions at Spyglass Hill on Saturday. She redeemed herself with a 3-under 69 under sunny skies at Pebble Beach on Sunday, but the damage had been done.

“I just played bad [at Spyglass], Sorenstam said. “I already hit it shorter, I’m about 20 percent shorter than I was, and you can just add the wind on it – I mean it went nowhere for me. It’s just rust and not playing.”

Annika played her final round on Sunday in a group that included Bay Area resident Juli Inkster. Inkster, a Santa Cruz native and graduate of San José State University, holds the distinction of being the only women to have won the Pebble Beach Invitational, which she did in 1990.

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Big Break grad Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey makes it two out of three with a win at Pebble Beach

Coming out on top in this year’s edition of the Pebble Beach Invitational was PGA Tour player Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, a one-time factory worker from South Carolina who has just completed his second full season on the PGA Tour. Gainey first came to the attention of the golf world in two appearances on the Golf Channel reality show The Big Break, which he won in his second appearance, Big Break VII, a reunion show that brought back players from the previous six seasons.

Gainey came to Pebble Beach in good form; just four weeks prior to this event he notched up his first win on the PGA Tour when he took the victory at the McGladrey Classic, in Sea Island, Ga. He laid claim to that first PGA Tour win in no uncertain fashion, coming from 7 strokes behind 54-hole co-leaders Jim Furyk and Davis Love III to win by one stroke over David Toms with a final round 60.

Gainey’s somewhat eccentric style of play – he wears two “all-weather” gloves and grips the club baseball-style – held up under the range of conditions the competitors faced over the four days of the tournament. He carded scores of 69-69-70 through sunny but breezy conditions Thursday at Del Monte, light rain Friday at Spyglass Hill, and blustery and rainy conditions Saturday at Pebble Beach – the most exposed of the three courses in the tournament rota. He added another 69 in Sunday’s final round for a 277 total and a one-stroke victory.

Playing in the final round James Hahn, of Alameda, Calif., Billy Horschel, 54-hole leader Robert Streb, a Web.com player from Chickasha, Okla, Gainey had his closest competition in view down the final stretch.

After persevering to post a 2-under 70 at Pebble in the previous day’s poor conditions, Sunday’s brilliant sunshine and calm winds were just what the doctor ordered for Gainey, as he opened his round with a 3-under front side to make up the two-stroke lead Robert Streb had held after 54 holes. Streb, who just earned his 2013 PGA Tour card with a No. 7 finish on the 2012 Web.com Money List, saw the wheels wobble and then spin off on the back nine, starting with a double-bogey on No. 10 that dropped him to two shots behind Gainey. Horschel and Hahn, the other members of the final group, completed their final rounds in even par and 1-over, respectively, and never figured in the chase to the finish.

Just ahead of Gainey’s final foursome, William McGirt and 1996 Pebble Beach Invitational champion Kirk Triplett were making moves, and Gainey, keeping an eye on the scoreboards dotting the course, knew that he would have to stay on his toes to keep ahead of them.

A bogey on No. 10 dropped Two Gloves back to 10-under, one stroke up on McGirt and two on Triplett, but he put the pedal down on the straightforward par-4 13th hole for a birdie, and kept the heat on for another birdie on the par-5 fourteenth, the toughest hole on the course. After that good stretch the golf gods intervened, though, and Gainey hit a rough patch at No. 15 that injected a little doubt into the situation.

After landing his second shot in the right-front greenside bunker, Gainey overcooked his recovery, flying the green by a good 40 yards. Going after the ball with vigor because of its position, lying well down in the lush, damp rough, Gainey gouged a monster divot out of the turf – and only moved the ball about half the distance to the green. Now looking at a strong possibility of a double-bogey that would drop him out of the lead, his second attempt at getting to the putting surface was a beautiful head-high chip that landed about a yard onto the green. His ball must have decided that it had had enough, rolling sure-footedly down to the hole and slipping in for a chip-in bogey.

Another bogey at No. 16, less dramatic, but just as damaging, was the result of an untimely 3-putt, slipping Gainey back to 10-under. McGirt and Triplett had moved up to 10-under by this point, though Tommy wouldn’t know it until he got to the 18th tee and saw the next scoreboard. After a sand-save par out of the front bunker at the par-3 seventeenth, Gainey checked the scoreboard near the 18th tee box. Seeing that McGirt and Triplett were both in at 10-under, he knew that he had to birdie No. 18 to win.

Playing well under pressure is what success in competitive golf is all about, even when the “W” is only bringing home a $60,000 paycheck (1/12th of Tommy’s payday last month for winning the McGladrey Classic, and just a little less than what the five guys who were T-15 at the McGladrey each took home) – Gainey had a job ahead of him. Pebble’s 18th, the iconic oceanfront par-5 that is the course’s signature hole, is a beautiful, left-sweeping swath of green bordering the blue waters of Carmel Bay, but when a player comes to the tee box needing a birdie to win, it’s 548 yards of sheer terror bordered by the biggest lateral hazard on the planet.

Two Gloves, baseball grip, herky-jerky swing and all, Gainey laced a 295-yard drive to a prime position on the right side of the fairway, in front of the pair of trees guarding the spot, setting up an ideal angle for the approach shot – about 230 yards across the corner of the fairway. Taking 3-wood from the spot in the fairway that generations of golfers have striven to reach off the tee at 18, Gainey watched in dismay as his second shot hooked left, toward the long fairway bunker and the seawall that lies between the 18th fairway and the waters of Carmel Bay. Asked after the round about his thoughts as he watched his approach shot to the 18th green heading left, Gainey said, “When I saw my ball headed towards that bunker, I was just hoping it’d get in and stay there.”

Luckily for Gainey, his ball did get in the bunker and stay, and the self-described “pretty good bunker player” was looking at a testing up and down for the win. A deftly-played bunker shot across the opening of the green saw him safely on the putting surface, but with a knee-knocking 6-foot putt standing between him and victory. Stroking the ball firmly – still with both gloves on, as always – he rolled in the winning putt, raising a fist in victory as the ball dropped into the cup.

A few minutes after the winning putt had dropped, at the trophy ceremony beside the 18th green, honorary tournament host Johnny Miller – who has three AT&T Pro-Am titles to his credit and knows a thing or two about winning at Pebble Beach – acknowledged Gainey’s clutch finish, asking the assembled crowd to day:

“That was a pretty awesome birdie there on the last hole, don’t you think you guys? There’s something about winning at Pebble Beach; I don’t care if it’s the Hershey Bar Open, there’s just something about winning at Pebble.”

Miller cited Gainey’s recent success, reminding the fans around the 18th green that Gainey had now won two of the last three events he had entered.

“You gotta be feeling pretty good, huh? ” he said to Gainey.

“I’m feeling pretty happy right now,” Gainey said. “Winning here is just awesome. How could you ask for anything better – winning at Pebble Beach.”

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

Written by: Gary McCormick

GolfWRX Contributor

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