PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The famed cliff swallows no longer migrate to the Mission of San Juan Capestrano, the byproduct of global warming or designated tournaments or something BP did.
Instead they gather to build their mud nests up the coast at Vellano Country Club, which seems about right since the golf world has been taking literary license on their winged backs for decades.
The tale of the swallow seemed apropos as dusk settled in on the famed links at Pebble Beach on Thursday. Things change. Long-held truths fade. Invincible champions become flawed and vulnerable.
Round 1 of the national championship had plenty of that. Phil Mickelson playing for pars, players gushing over a U.S. Open setup and Tiger Woods complaining about Poa annua greens following a sloppy round that fouled his mood more so than his championship chances.
“I hit the ball well enough to shoot a good score,” said Woods, his demeanor as gray as his attire and the gloom that swept in just as he was wrapping up his round. “These greens are just awful. They are bouncing all over the place.”
That about sums up the golf. For the day Woods hit 10 fairways, 12 greens and needed 34 putts that added up to a 3-over 74 and a five-stroke deficit.
Before we leave Woods’ U.S. Open title chances for dead, however, consider the venue, consider the challenge and consider the history.
The last time the Open was played hard on the shores of Stillwater Cove, Woods spotted the field a touchdown per side and still won. The last time Woods played a Left Coast Open, he made history on one leg. And, perhaps even more telling, the last Open champion also found himself five-strokes adrift after Round 1, but enough about Lucas Glover.
“I just have to be patient,” Woods said. “I felt very consistent all day.”
Even though Woods signed for 74, it could have been worse, and at an Open, that’s the ultimate compliment. Beginning at the 11th hole, Woods missed five consecutive greens to varying degrees of concern and made five consecutive pars.
No, he didn’t look like the guy who won the 2000 Open by 15, although he played Pebble’s 18th hole on Thursday like he did. But it is a testament to Woods’ brilliance a decade ago that Phil Mickelson calls it the greatest performance he’s ever witnessed. That was not grudging respect, just the truth.
Through the first lap in 2000, Woods was a shot clear of the field, but the world No. 1 knows there are no pictures on trophies. In the Grand Slam tally, the 2008 Open spends just as easily as the ’00 masterpiece.
All of which makes that opening 74 that much more palatable, at least in the short term. As 74s go, Thursday’s wasn’t a complete disaster, not on a golf course and at a tournament that cherishes par and one-way traffic above all else.
No, it wasn’t pretty, but it was productive.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing Woods can take from Thursday’s opener is that he doesn’t have to be perfect, particularly with his driver, to be part of the conversation. In many ways, Pebble Beach is the Americanized version of Royal Liverpool with a more appealing frame.
Woods won his third British Open at Liverpool hitting just a single driver. He may not need many more than that to win his fourth U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach. On Thursday, Woods hit just four drivers, stayed below the hole for the most part and never was in danger of anything more sinister than a bogey.
After his round, Woods said it was two three-putts and an inexplicably bad layup at the 18th hole that cost him a special round. The more likely culprit was a golf course that is as hard and fast as any have ever seen and a weed called Poa that can test even the best putting strokes.
Poa is golf short hand for hit and hope, but – as Woods pointed out – everyone has to play the same bounce.
This is not the dominant player that toyed with the field in 2000, but we knew that. Times have changed, the swallows have moved on, but they still build their nests.