The back nine at Pebble Beach Golf Links has 11 holes. At least that has been the case in the 78th U.S. Women’s Open. Player after player in Saturday’s third round stepped onto the eighth tee under par on the day – sometimes well under par – only to feel the bite of the closing holes on this iconic seaside links. That dramatic twist enhances the anticipation for Sunday’s final round.
Part of the design brilliance of Pebble Beach is that the opening seven holes seduce players into a false sense of security. The par-5 second and sixth holes, the short par-4 fourth and the visually magnificent par 3 at No. 7 – especially when the wind is not blowing – all offer birdie opportunities, and even eagles in the case of Nos. 2 and 6.
But walking onto No. 8 tee is a wake-up call akin to being hit with an icy wave from the adjacent Pacific Ocean. If a player is not fully engaged mentally when she reaches the eighth hole, she could be fully unraveled when leaving it.
Amateur Amari Avery was 3 under par through seven holes to get in the mix, then played the final 12 holes in 10 over par, beginning with a double bogey on No. 8. Another amateur, Aine Donegan, of the Republic of Ireland, was 3 under par for her round and 2 under for the championship when she got to No. 8. She made a quintuple-bogey 9 after hitting two balls into the penalty area right of the green.
“I hit a good tee shot and I had about 190 to the flag,” she said. “The wind was really, really left to right there, and that wind often doesn't suit a right-handed golfer who plays a draw. Not that it makes a huge difference, or it's an excuse, but I hit two very bad shots in a row, which obviously concluded in me having a 9 on the hole.”
The last 11 holes, beginning with No. 8, included the 10 most-difficult on the course Saturday. The eighth hole was the most difficult and the final nine averaged more than two strokes higher than the front.
“I think all the holes honestly on the back nine are a challenge,” said Andrea Lee after going out in 33 and back in 40 on Saturday. “I think anyone who comes out even par or 1 over is going to gain strokes on the entire field. The wind is kind of with you or across on the front nine, mostly, but then when you get to the back nine it's just completely the opposite way. Lots of long clubs into the greens and even a hybrid.”
Rose Zhang, who was making a move on the leaders over the first seven holes, went out in 34 and came back in 38. After making two birdies on the first six, she made no more the rest of the round.
“It was very difficult,” she said about the test that began on No. 8, which she said “is just a very menacing hole in general. I just felt like I made a couple mistakes going in and missed a couple putts, but that's pretty normal when you're out here and playing Pebble. Bogeys are not necessarily the worst score in the world, so just being able to stay composed is what I tried to do.”
The chances for volatility down the stretch in the final round are enormous. For those chasing the leaders, that‘s an important factor in for Sunday. Literally, no lead is too large and no deficit is too great.
On Sunday, those holes likely will be pivotal in determining who hoists the Harton S. Semple Trophy and collects the $2 million first-place check.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.