Two Days In a Gorgeous Hellscape: The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
While watching last year’s U.S. Open, I saw an ad for this year’s tournament, played at the relatively close Pebble Beach Golf Course. My friend Phil and I decided to attend, and purchased tickets a year in advance. Neither of us had ever been to a golf tournament before, nor had we been to Pebble Beach. We decided attending both Saturday and Sunday was the perfect plan. We could try a few spots and vantage points on Saturday, and use that to inform our plan of attack on Sunday.
The night before we left, the reality of the fact I was going to leave my wife with two kids for two days while I watched golf seemed to set in for her. She peppered me with questions. What are you going to do? Watch golf. Isn’t that boring? Yeah, I had to admit, maybe. This is so stupid. Is that a question? She was understandably not thrilled.
The next morning, Phil picked me up at 5:30am, and we hit the road. With her questions fresh in my mind, and Phil’s fiance’s similar questions fresh in his mind, we asked ourselves: What kind of person attends these things? What’s it like to attend a golf tournament? What’s the best way to watch a golf tournament in person? We’d soon find out the answers to these questions and many more.
Who Attends the U.S. Open?
Let’s get this out of the way: Lots and lots of white people. More specifically, though, white people who really love golf. If you think you love golf, you are probably wrong. A person who attends the U.S. Open, many of them flying across the country to do so, love golf in a way I can’t get my head around. They love to watch it. They love to talk about it. They love to analyze it. They love to crack jokes about how much better the pros are than they are. Lots of old white guys leaned over to us after a big shot and made some variation of the following joke: “Heh heh, you don’t want to see me try to get up and down from there.”
So, obviously, golfers attend the U.S. Open. But not your once-a-year duffers like your hosts, here. Golfers who take it really seriously. So seriously that they wear their golfing gear to the U.S. Open. I’m talking performance golf pants and golf shoes — hand to God we saw people in golf spikes! It’d be like going to a football game as a fan in full uniform. They dress like they dress when they play, but they aren’t playing. It’s wild. This was a big topic of conversation for us all weekend.
The U.S. Open is also a great place, apparently, to show off your bonafides as a golf fan. Before we even got on the shuttle Saturday, I saw three Masters-branded clothing items. We decided to count them, hoping to find 100 such items on the day. We barely got there, finding #100 in the line to board the shuttle home, but by God we did it.
The Masters-branded clothing item is a very specific statement: I Have Been to the Masters, Thus I Am a Very True and Devoted Golf fan. Some people were wearing two and three Masters-branded clothing items. We saw many groups where they were all wearing Masters-branded clothing items. During one trip to the concessions, Phil saw a Masters-branded braided belt and I almost cried when he told me about it, because I was so mad to have not seen it myself. Phil and I had a lot of laughs imagining these guys packing for their trip, panicking as they couldn’t find their Masters shirt. “HONEY! WHERE’S MY MASTERS SHIRT!!! I TOLD YOU TO MAKE SURE IT WAS WASHED AND READY!”
On top of Masters-gear, there were an incalculable number of 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach-branded clothing items. Hats, jackets, shirts, windbreakers, sweaters, sweater vests, t-shirts, sunglasses. You name it, they sold it, and thousands of fans bought it. We saw people with huge bags of 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach-branded clothing items, and we saw thousands that threw those items on top of whatever it was they arrived wearing. There were also a decent number of fans busting out their 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach-branded clothing items. We even saw two guys with 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach-branded clothing items, and boy was golf fashion in 2000 awful. By the way, those two items were in pristine condition, so you know those guys kept those jackets protected carefully the last two decades, only busting them out for special occasions.
More obscure but equally as bonafides-signaling were the other U.S. Open-branded clothing items. Shinnecock, Erin Hills, Oakmont, Pinehurst, Congressional, Bethpage, Torrey Pines, Oakmont, Winged Foot, and the Olympic: All have hosted the Open over the last twenty years, and I saw hats and pins and shirts from each.
Another thing that can’t be ignored is that U.S. Open attendees are, or seem to be, overwhelmingly pro-Trump. Given that I live in San Francisco and enjoy my liberal bubble, this was a bit disorienting. We saw a few MAGA hats, but that wasn’t all. For example, I find military flyovers to be distasteful, especially as the current administration seemed to be sounding the drums of a war against Iran. But shortly after the tournament ended Sunday, two military jets performed a flyover. It was crazy loud. The crowd cheered in approval, and a U-S-A- chant broke out. Phil and I muttered quietly.
But the funniest moment occurred when we first got to Pebble Beach on Saturday. Just as the free shuttle got to the gates, we saw a small handful of protesters holding signs about global warming. The loud and talkative man with a thick southern accent who was sitting in the seat directly behind us could not let this go without comment.
“Protesters, hah. They probably went to Berkeley.”
I, a proud Cal grad, whipped around in my seat.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
He stammered. “Uh..nothing. I hear it’s a good school.”
I sat back down. He continued, “I’m just saying, they’re probably taking time off from their job at the EPA.” A joke so dumb I didn’t even respond. But yeah, preserving our environment, what a stupid liberal idea, huh?
Not two minutes later, as we approached the course, emerging from the forest as the ocean and landscape of Pebble Beach came into view, this dude remarked, “Sure is beautiful here.” I thought Phil and I were going to self-combust. But like good adults we bit our tongues and then griped about that guy on and off for the next two days.
So, who attends the U.S. Open? Mostly white guys, from climates where golf is very popular (ahem), and all of the political leanings that come with that (ahem ahem).
What’s it like to Attend the U.S. Open as a “Sporting Event”?
I grappled with the answer to this question throughout the experience, and in the days since. As we left on Sunday, right as I was asking myself whether I would ever do it again, Phil asked me that very same question. I had to pause. Would I do this over again knowing what I know now? Yes. Would I ever come back again, though? To answer that question, I must explain a few things.
Golf is a deeply weird sport to attend. It’s unnervingly quiet. The players and officials demand silence as players begin to line up their shot, and that culture is also self-policed by attendees. Even when players are 250 yards away and can’t possibly hear you, the fans shush each other as a player begins to shoot. And there’s little ambient noise. There’s no music. There’s no announcer. There’s nothing but long stretches of silence, interrupted by brief and relatively tepid applause, with an occasional mild cheer. If you are used to attending baseball, basketball, or football games, it’s a bewildering experience.
The lack of announcers, particularly, makes it hard to follow the action, because as you sit in any single place watching two golfers take a couple shots, there are 34 other golfers on the course that you can’t see, and you have no idea what’s going on with them. They did hand out these dorky looking radio earpieces, but even trying to follow all the action on there is difficult, as the broadcast focuses on the leaders. So you’re left to scoreboard watch, with scores posted for each player’s hole after it’s completed. Though I will say that is a thrilling moment. “Oh boy, they’re posting Koepka’s score on 6 — did he get that eagle he needed. … … … NO!”
Also, the food is poor. Every single concession stand had these exact food options, with no variation: Hamburger. Grilled chicken sandwich. Bratwurst. Chicken caesar wrap. Turkey cheddar sub. Lay’s original potato chips. THAT IS IT. And none of those hot items were any good. Ok, the brat wasn’t bad, because that’s almost impossible to screw up. But it also wasn’t particularly good. And each concession had the exact same beer options: Budweiser (in a delightful Yosemite branded aluminum bottle). Michelob Ultra aluminum bottle. Sculpin can. I realize that the club does not normally need to produce food for 40,000 people so they don’t have permanent kitchens that can feed that many people, but it seems like they could have provided a bit more variety, and a bit higher quality.
Golf is also weird to attend because everyone roots for all the players. Basically, the fans root for good shots, no matter who makes the shot. Yes, there are favorites. Phil astutely pointed out that the fan favorites seem to be the guys with a nickname that fans can shout. Dustin Johnson is peppered with calls to “DJ!” Matt Kuchar, Stiffer of Caddies, is showered with drones of KUUUUUUUUUUUUCH!” Tiger is of course Tiger, and Mickelson is cheesy though beloved. But for the most part, fans cheer good shots and groan in solidarity with bad ones. Most of the fans golf, and they seem to empathize with the players, both good and bad. So when I openly root against the amateur from Stanford like I absolutely did, and cheer when he misses a short putt on 18 Sunday like I absolutely did, the eyerolls and anger are palpable.
Golf is also weird because your glimpse of both the players and the action is incredibly brief. On Sunday we sat, all day long, in the grandstand on the 18th green. We saw every single player come through: Tiger. Mickelson. Spieth. McIlroy. Koepka. But we saw each guy for what feels like 30 seconds. They appear as tiny specks on the horizon, take just a couple shots when you can actually make out their faces, and then they disappear. If you’re a huge Tiger fan, unless you brave the crowds and try to follow him for the entire day, you see him for about a minute, at best. It’s like if your favorite baseball player is Buster Posey, and you wait all year for him to come to town — then he sits on the bench all day and comes out for a single, one-pitch at bat, and disappears back into the dugout.
And even when you do see the players, they are not superhuman specimens like you see in other sports. I thought Brooks Koepka would look like a linebacker. But when we saw him tee off on the 6th on Saturday, Phil and I could not get over how he’s actually kinda skinny: chicken legs and skinny forearms — and he’s one of the bigger guys!
The fact that players look like normal people has an interesting effect, especially in concert with all of the above: the U.S. Open doesn’t feel important or dramatic or special. I’ve attended big sporting events, and it always feels so exciting. But at the U.S. Open, for most of the day you’re with a relatively sparse crowd watching some normal-looking people play golf, with no announcers giving you context in hushed tones. It feels so incredibly normal, and far less exciting than I expected.
What’s the Best Way to Attend a Golf Tournament
Ahead of the tournament, I was very excited to answer this question. And I’ll give golf this: there are practically infinite ways to watch a golf tournament. Some people follow their favorite golfer from hole to hole. Some people camp out at one spot. Some people are there to get drunk and enjoy the scenery. Some people want to show off their golf gear. Some people are there for the pure sport — to see some great golf shots.
On Saturday, we went in with almost no plan. In the morning, we first stopped by the driving range (don’t do that) and then we walked almost the entire course, just to get the lay of the land. We scouted positions, watched some golf, scouted some more positions, watched some more golf. Then, in the afternoon, we found a relatively small and empty grandstand on the 6th hole, and we parked it. We didn’t intend to stay long, but suddenly the big names were on their way and we had a front row view of the tee box. The 6th is a par-5, so we were going to see some bombs, and it was good. We saw all the big names from very close, and it was neat. We even got on TV making fun of Phil Mickelson’s personal logo, which commemorates his unathletic yet mildly iconic jump after he won his first Masters.
The problem with being on the 6th hole though is that when the last group goes through, there are still 2+ hours of golf left on the course, but no more golf where you are. So as the last group approached, we left the grandstand to beat the exiting crowd and tried to find a new spot. After some more meandering, we found ourselves in the grandstand at 18, and we realized that this was the best spot to be, something I did not expect myself to conclude.
So on Sunday, we considered getting a spot in the grandstand for the iconic 7th hole (a very short par 3 right on the ocean) for a little bit before heading over to 18 before it got too crazy. But the lines at 7 were long and not moving because people don’t leave.
So we popped over to the 5th for a minute, another par 3, but it was kinda boring and I started to get antsy about getting into the 18th grandstand, which is far bigger than the others, but is also very popular. From 5, we had a solid view of the 18th grandstand and could see it was already almost half full, at least two hours before the first group would even arrive.
So we elected to head over, and we did just in time. We got great seats, and camped out the rest of the day. Once the grandstands fill, there’s basically a one in, one out policy. Except! They understand people need to use the restroom and eat and whatnot, so if you are already in and plan on returning they give you a card with a time on it — you have thirty minutes to get back without having to wait in line. So we spent the rest of the day alternating trips to the bathroom or concessions, marveling each time at the length of the unmoving line to get into the special place we’d staked out, and patting ourselves on the back for having such foresight.
We of course also had the grouping schedule, so we could plan those breaks accordingly. When the big names and the final groups came through to finish their tournament, there we were, in our seats that we occupied for approximately nine hours.
The nice thing about that setup is that because the 18th is a par 5, there was almost never a lull in the action. Group 1 would tee off and then walk to their shots in the middle of the fairway. They’d take their second shot and head up to the green. Before they got to their ball, Group 2 behind them would tee off and walk to their shots in the middle of the fairway. Then, as soon as Group 1 completed the hole, Group 2 would take its second shot to the green. Compared to our day at the tee on 6, where we awaited players finishing the par-3 5th hole where only one group can play at a time, there was very little sitting around without anything going on. Plus, we got to see the end of the tournament, from great seats, as the other 40,000 people in attendance crowded 10-people deep along the fairways.
So, the best way to watch a golf tournament is in the grandstand at the green on a par-5, preferably the 18th hole so you can see the end.
So, Would I Go Again?
Well..I wouldn’t say attending the U.S. Open is a purely fun activity, though I did have fun hanging out with Phil for two days, talking about life, cracking jokes at the things we were seeing, and analyzing the experience while living it. But…
The U.S. Open returns to Pebble in 2027. At that time, my kids will be nearly 13 and 11 (geeeeeze). If they wanted to go, I’d go. I certainly wouldn’t be champing at the bit, but I’d go. I’d spend a little more money to get a hotel closer to Pebble. I might only go Sunday, and I’d probably take the following Monday off work, to avoid having to drive home so late. And if the Open ever returns to the Olympic Club, a place I could get to on a short bus ride from my house? I would definitely go.
In the end, the people watching is too magnificent to pass up. Also, now that I have a taste for attending an event like this, I really want to go to a major tennis tournament. Or an obscure event at the Olympics. Or maybe the X-Games? Luckily, I have a wonderful and understanding wife.
A version of this story first appeared on the author’s blog, www.123sports.net.
Thomas J. O’Brien is an estate planning and litigation attorney in San Francisco. When he’s not busy attending sporting events, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children. He can be reached at email@example.com, or at www.obrienlegalgroup.com.