A Changed Man


2010 U.S. OpenPEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – He said he would change, and change he has – for the worse. The clumsy evasiveness with the media is nothing new, nor was the unexplained parting with his swing coach, for that matter, but the neck injury out of nowhere? How about Thursday’s Poa-annua pout? Since when did Tiger Woods start blaming his sloppy play on course conditions?

He made 75 miles worth of putts on Pebble’s cobblestone greens in 2000 – we didn’t hear a peep from Eldrick Almighty that week. Other than the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, when Woods accused a spike mark of costing him his third-round tilt against Nick O’Hern, I can’t recall Tiger finding fault in something other than himself. Bumpy greens, ruddy fairways and inconsistent sand all have been known to help great players more than hurt them.

Greatness capitalizes, mediocrity capsizes. Woods hasn’t been great this year and he certainly hasn’t been all that good this week. “I’m right there,” he must have said a half-dozen times after a second-round 72, but where “there” is, I’m not really sure. He did manage three birdies Friday, three more than we saw Thursday, but his speed on the greens is off, and when Tiger is putting poorly, it’s not because he’s misreading them or striking them crooked.

Maybe that’s why we heard him complain about the bumps and bruises after a 34-putt Thursday. Why Woods said nobody in the late/early half of the draw made anything, when in fact the three lowest first-round scores came from the afternoon side. We call it frustration, and when it comes from the greatest player of this generation, maybe any generation, we have little choice but to search for a reason.

Tiger isn’t the same player because he isn’t the same person. Five starts into the Biggest Comeback Ever, he has yet to strike the ball well and hole timely putts on the same day, much less in the same week. His best score in 15 rounds this year remains the first round he played – an opening 68 at the Masters. As if to prove that statistics are nothing more than a numerical mirage, Woods entered this week leading the PGA Tour in putts per green in regulation (1.708) and birdie-conversion percentage (36.6).

He’s also 47th in scoring. This week, Tiger’s golf swing is 10 times better than it was at Memorial, a blend of speed and balance we haven’t seen very often. Then, out of nowhere, he clanks a tee shot off a tree left of the par-4 third and does well to make a 5, but it’s still his third bogey in a five-hole stretch. A birdie at the diminutive seventh got him in at 4 over, but if seven strokes back with 36 holes to play is “right there,” Tiger is in dire need of a compass, six birdies and a reality check.

Woods showed up for the 110th U.S. Open armed with his best swing of the year, heading to a venue he torched to historic proportions a decade ago, given another opportunity to putt on surfaces he has deciphered the way a fortune teller reads palms. To see him drift away isn’t so much odd as it is newsworthy: the window of major-championship opportunity is wide open. Phil Mickelson, who putted even worse than Tiger on Thursday, spent Friday afternoon reinventing hope for the umpteenth time in his career. Suddenly, this is his championship to win.

There is gettin’ to be gotten, and Philly Mick, dare I say, gets it. The Dude in the Red Shirt? Jury’s still deliberating.
A few hours after landing in San Francisco to cover a 1992 playoff game between the 49ers and Washington Redskins, my sports editor at the Washington Times called with a new command. “Drive down to the Monterey Peninsula and play Pebble Beach,” he ordered. It sounded a lot better than spending an afternoon listening to George Seifert or officiating the Joe Montana-Steve Young debate in Ghirardelli Square.

What I got 18 years ago was fairly typical of the Pebble Beach experience: a glorious day, a 5 ½-hour round, the jaw-dropping beauty that begins at the par-4 fourth—and the long stretch of underrated holes, the Pebble nobody talks about. What makes this course one of America’s best isn’t its proximity to the Pacific, the sea lions or Clint Eastwood. From a strategic standpoint, original architects Jack Neville and Douglas Grant created a subtle masterpiece, a place where the exceptionally small greens can feel like moving targets in a two- or three-club breeze.

When prepared with a certain amount of discretion, Pebble Beach is the ideal U.S. Open venue, and USGA setup man Mike Davis has all the dials in all the right places this week. The concept of “graduated rough” has been advanced to include a greater variance of length—some spots six or seven yards off the fairway will be much more difficult than others. Davis has also mandated that the greens not be mowed to as low a level as possible. Longer grass should mean fewer bumps, and in placing additional emphasis on rolling the greens, Pebble’s putting surfaces will still be played at near-frightening speeds.

After watching Zach Johnson toil on the practice green for about 10 minutes Tuesday, I’m more convinced than ever that this year’s U.S. Open champion will hole more than his share of 10- and 15-footers. Four days of clear skies and zero percent chance of rain (10 percent on Saturday) guarantee us firm fairways, so shorter hitters such as Johnson and Jim Furyk have a far better chance than, say, last year at Bethpage. Mega-bomber Dustin Johnson has won back-to-back tournaments at Pebble on the PGA Tour’s dead-of-winter visit, but the tour doesn’t roll the greens in early February, nor is the texture of the grounds even remotely similar to that of mid-June.

Instead of the aerial contest we see at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the competitive balance of this U.S. Open will evolve largely around the ground game. Five or six of the driving alleys, most notably at the par-5 sixth and par-4 ninth, require a shot of viable shape, not only to hit a decent approach, but to keep the ball in play. “I’m probably going to hit just a handful of drivers out there,” says three-time champion Tiger Woods, for whom the longest club in the bag has caused the biggest headaches.

“When I got here last Sunday, No. 6 was into the wind and driver was a perfect club,” Woods adds. “It was just a little 3-wood [Tuesday] and I still had an iron in. The wind has a lot to do with it, but more than anything, these fairways are starting to get really quick.”

All of which takes us back to those tiny greens. “I don’t want to play aggressive off the tee,” says Phil Mickelson, who has downplayed the importance of distance this week. “I want to play aggressive at the pins.”

At an average of 3,300 square feet, Pebble’s greens are about one-third the size of those at many modern venues. Short-side misses will almost certainly lead to bogeys. Those with mediocre short games have little chance of contending—Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan, two superb ballstrikers who chip poorly, come to mind. Mickelson, Woods and Ernie Els, all terrific around the greens, are likely to factor, but by Sunday evening, a player who best combines accuracy off the tee with the ability to economize strokes close to the hole will hoist the grand prize Sunday night.

Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker—at least two of those three guys will be in the mix entering the final nine.