It was the golf course that looked so different.
The fairways are more narrow and defined than they were four months ago when it hosted the PGA Tour. The rough is far more dense, except on the right side of five holes that run along the Pacific Ocean. Native grass is waist-high on the outside edges of bunkers, while the edges near the fairway have been shaved to feed golf balls into the sand.
It’s supposed to be that way. This is the U.S. Open.
Johnson played early Monday with Tiger Woods, another player who can claim to be a defending champion. Woods won the U.S. Open the last time it was played at Pebble Beach, obliterating the field in 2000 by a record 15 shots.
He’ll have to hit the ball a lot straighter that he has been since returning two months ago at the Masters.
Johnson’s experience at Pebble Beach is pounding the ball some 300 yards in the air and watching it plug in the soggy grass. He’s not used to feeling firm ground under his feet, and seeing the ball bounce along the fairways.
“Any time the ball is bouncing, the ocean is in play more,” he said. “I don’t hit driver as much.”
He did on the par-5 sixth, and while his drive went so far and straight that Johnson only had an 8-iron to the green, he decided when he walked onto the fairway that he will opt for a 3-wood off the tee, maybe even a 3-iron. That would leave him another 3-iron to the green.
A reporter asked if that decision was to keep it out of the rough.
“No,” Johnson replied. “To keep it out of the ocean.”
Right of the sixth fairway is one example where the U.S. Golfers Association has cut down the rough. Any shot that drifts to the right and rolls too much could easily go over the cliff and into Stillwater Cove. Just standing on the sixth tee, the fairway looks like carpet. It’s beautiful to see, more frightening with a club in hand.
It’s like that down the eighth, ninth and 10th fairways, the famous stretch along the Pacific.
Woods played for the second time Monday as players began to arrive from the St. Jude Classic or from their homes. They were greeted with surprisingly chilly air and a light fog, and only late in the afternoon did the sunshine take over.
The weather, not to mention the surf that sends ocean spray onto 18th fairway, was better during the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But at least there is no rain in the forecast, and seven days of sunshine could make Pebble a real menace.
Even so, there were few complaints about the USGA going over the top to make the U.S. Open live up to its billing as the “toughest test in golf.” Ernie Els, who shot a 67 at Pine Valley in his final round before coming to the West Coast, offered a cautious smile when he spoke of the fast fairways and the changes to the angles on some tee shots.
“This course right now is ready for the U.S. Open,” said Els, a two-time champion. “It’s not tricked up. They’ve done a good job. The bunkers are not plugging. I don’t think anyone will be complaining.”
Will he say that on Thursday when he has to put a score down on his card?
“Yes, if they can keep the course the way it is now,” he said. “The weather, obviously, can change. We had only a light breeze today. But if the greens get white, we’re going to have some problems.”
There already is potential for problems on the par-5 14th, especially with the front left hole location. That’s where Paul Goydos lost a one-shot lead in the final round in February with a quadruple-bogey 9, when his wedge went down the slope to the left. His first chip came back at his feet. The next one rolled down the slope on the front of the green.
Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson each hit sand wedge at the flag during practice Monday, walked up to the green and were shocked to eventually find their balls down in the rough. McIlroy gouged out a high pitch that struck the branches of the tree and rolled back to his feet. Stenson stood on the green, looked down at his ball and said, “Ridiculous.”
Walking toward the gallery, Stenson motioned at McIlroy’s caddie and said, “I say ridiculous, he says severe. Which is it?” The fans laughed, and Stenson joined them with a smile, but not for long. After one chip he said, “If that doesn’t stay on the green, I’m on the next flight to Orlando.” He was joking. Maybe.
From the front bunker, with a face so steep that Stenson could barely see the top of the flag, he found a solution.
“Here’s what I’ll do,” he said, then stooped over to pick up his ball and tossed it onto the green. “At least I won’t make a 10. I’ll take my two-shot penalty.”
Sadly, his caddie informed him that it wouldn’t count. He still would have to play the shot.
That’s what Monday at a major is all about – getting to the know the course, finding where not to miss, preparing for a grueling week.
Camilo Villegas tried to figure out where to hit his tee shot on the par-3 fifth hole, not convinced by his caddie’s suggestion to aim at the largest tree on the left side of the green. His 5-iron sailed well to the right, toward either the waist-high native grasses or down onto the beach below.
“You might not find that,” his caddie told him.
Villegas turned and smiled.
“It’s Monday,” he said. “I don’t need to.”