Photos from the 2019 US Open at Pebble beach, June 9-16.
It’s a long week, in more ways than one. For starters, it’s a long walk. All in, 105.8 miles to be exact, over the course of 9 days, if my iPhone is to be believed. And speaking of those 9 days, that’s a long time as well—much longer than a normal tournament week, which usually only comprises 5 or 6 days of shooting. But Pebble beach is a special place, and a U.S. Open in no ordinary golf tournament, so the extra work and extra steps that went into this one were well worth it.
One of my favorite things about U.S. Open week—for that’s what it is, and then some—are the informal practice rounds that take place on the Saturday and Sunday preceding the Championship. Player registration isn’t open yet, and that means that contestants don’t have the ability to register for—and/or publicly reveal—their preferred practice round groupings and tee times. Rather, players just kind of show up. Mostly, they’re by themselves, walking with their caddies and plotting out strategy, trying to guess hole locations and practicing what they feel might be necessary shots once the real golf begins. Occasionally they’ll bump into a fellow competitor and play a few holes with them. But mostly it’s a weekend of solitude, and that’s what I love about it, even for me—the chance to walk a course like Pebble on my own, to think about what I might be doing later on in the week, to experiment with different shooting positions or techniques and see what “works” and what doesn’t. There are very few, if any, rope lines yet, and the grandstands are empty. I can go out and appreciate the landscape, enjoy the moment, and hopefully make a decent picture or two.
And you just never know who might show up. Wandering down to the 9th fairway at about 5 o’clock on Sunday evening, I saw in the distance, off to my left, a small gaggle of people, and a golfer teeing it up on the 14th. Which was odd, I thought, because I hadn’t heard that anyone was out on the course that late. Only as I got a little closer did I recognize Tiger—and I still did a double-take because Tiger is always an early-morning practice round person. I’ve never—and I mean never—seen him practice on the course at such a late hour. I was amazed that life was going on as normal around the course while he was out there (another thing you seldom see), he was just another golfer hitting balls, checking angles, judging greens, as everybody else went about their business. It was so refreshing, and I thought it said just as much about Tiger’s attitude as it did about the nature of the day. So I walked with him for a little while, keeping my distance but trying to find a picture that placed all of this in context. And when we got to the 15th green and the grounds crew just kept on mowing around the collar as tiger practiced putting, I knew I had what I wanted.
I had mentioned that I also like to use the pre-championship weekend to experiment, and in this case it was a need to refresh my memory. I’ve always said the Pebble Beach, while gorgeous, is built entirely on the wrong coast, for the simple reason that afternoon and evening sunlight comes from the west, over the ocean, but the 8th, 9th, 10th and 18th fairways—the most scenic ones, are the ones with a view of the Pacific. Which is fine until you realize that the 8th, 9th and 10th are roped off to the left of the hole as it’s played, and the 18th is roped to the right. Meaning, if you are only allowed to venture an arm’s(ish)-length from the rope line, that means your only shot in the afternoon is directly into the water, with the sun behind the golfer and not over your shoulder. Good-bye, blue skies. So long, deep blue sea. All you get is a gleaming mass of blown-out highlights.
There is one bright spot to all of this—or, more accurately, about a million of them. A descending sun in the west, over the water, means highlights glinting off it, directly behind the golfer, on the 9th and 10th, for an hour or two every afternoon. if you can take advantage of that, well, maybe you can walk away with a picture. And it was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I packed an old Canon FD 500mm f8 mirror lens (which works with my Sony A9 system with an FD-E-mount adapter) for the trip. The lens’ design yields the signature “donuts” of out-of-focus highlights, and if a golfer hits it in the right place in the fairway, at the right time of day, there certainly is a picture to be made. And so on that tranquil first Saturday I walked back out to the 9th in the late afternoon, just to see if my memories of the last time I’d been at Pebble, over a decade ago, were accurate, and that this whole idea could work. I fully intended to shoot what amounted to a test, and come back later in the week during competition days to make something different from everybody else.
Golfer Hayden Shieh happened to be playing the ninth as I waited, and he also happened to hit it in the perfect spot. Exposing for the full sun (and then some) to keep the highlights intact, I shot a couple of frames of him as he followed through on his second shot. I got a little lucky with the frame below, but sometimes I like to think that as a photographer, you tend to make your own luck.
And I’m glad I made that picture, because after that, the sun would not poke through the clouds in the afternoon for an entire week. The “June gloom” that the Monterey Peninsula is known for reared its head and fed us a steady diet of fog, flat overcast light, and an occasional, fleeting bit of morning sunshine. But that’s exactly what you don’t need to make that picture. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but I would not have the opportunity to use that technique again for the rest of the week.
One bright spot, however, was a complete surprise. I’ve written before about how the Sony Alpha mirrorless system has pretty much changed my life—and certainly my approach to golf photography. It turns out that on the Tuesday of U.S. Open week, Sony happened to announce it’s new 200-600mm and 600mm lenses. Sony Pro Support also had a staff on-site. Would I like to take one or both of them out for a spin?
Does the pope wear a funny hat?
I took out the 600mm f4 GM-OSS on Tuesday afternoon. It’s of a similar build and feel to the 400mm f2.8, which is to say it’s light as a feather and so well-balanced that you can hand-hold it, as I did the entire afternoon. As for image quality and sharpness, well, I’ll let you judge with the next 3 pictures below, all shot with an A9 body. The first one, of Justin Thomas hitting out of the rough, is minimally cropped. The second, of Jordan Spieth, is cropped into about half of the frame. The third, of Thomas out of the bunker, is uncropped.
At the end of the week, Gary Woodland emerged victorious, and I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to his group for the entire day. My favorite images from final round are below. As always, thanks for reading!