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Back to Pebble in what feels like US Open

AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-AmPEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – So many players at Pebble Beach for the first time since the U.S. Open feel as though they never left.

Firm and fast?

That’s a description usually heard at the U.S. Open in June, not the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February. But in a beautiful break for the 156-man field, the Monterey Peninsula has been without rain for most of the last month, leaving Pebble Beach and the other two courses in the rotation tougher than ever.

Stuart Appleby posted a video of him dropping a golf ball on the putting green, and watching it bounce a foot in the air.

Tim Herron was on the practice green across from the Tap Room on Wednesday, rolling a 6-foot putt that stopped a few inches short of the cup.

“Out there,” he said, pointing to Pebble Beach, “that would have gone 3 feet by the hole.”

Was that an indictment on the putting green not being up to speed?

“No,” Herron said. “It’s just really fast out there.”

Davis Love III knows this place as well as anyone, making his 25th consecutive start. He spent Monday on the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club and couldn’t believe how it looked.

“Firmer than I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “The fairways are like most places’ greens – really tight to the ground. But it’s in great shape. Different than in the past where you just threw it at the pin every time. You still get some into-the-wind shots that will spin back. But definitely firmer than in the past.”

Padraig Harrington is making his PGA Tour debut this week, a tournament he loves for the beauty and the format. Harrington is among the more social golfers and enjoys three days of a pro-am format, especially with longtime Irish friend J.P. McManus.

And there have been years it has reminded him of Ireland.

“Over the years when you come here and the greens are soft, it’s exactly like playing golf at home,” Harrington said, referring to the shots he played growing up in wind and rain. “The greens are firmer than normal.”

Under such conditions, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am gets under way on Thursday with Dustin Johnson in a rare spot of being the defending champion while seeking redemption.

Johnson is the two-time defending champion, and he has a chance to become the first player since this iconic tournament began in 1937 to win three successive years. But the lasting image of the powerful American and Pebble Beach was that final round at the U.S. Open last summer, when he lost a three-shot lead on the second hole and shot an 82, the highest final round by a 54-hole leader in the U.S. Open in nearly a century.

Which memories will come back?

“Neither,” Johnson said. “I’m just coming out to play the golf course. It’s still good, even though the last time I played it I struggled a little bit. But I’m still excited to get back out there and play. I’m always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I’m just ready to get back out and play.”

But then he paused, and offered a slight smile.

“Get a little redemption for the last round of the Open,” he said.

Harrington was on his way out to Pebble Beach for a practice round when he bumped into Johnson. He stopped to shake hands and pass along a playful message.

“I’m trying to take the trophy off your hands this week,” Harrington said.

“Good luck,” Johnson said.

He is not lacking confidence, especially at Pebble Beach.

Johnson might not be on top of his game as he was a year ago, when he was coming off a runner-up finish at Riviera. His season began with a couple of top 10s, including an outside chance to win at Torrey Pines. He made more news for his relationship with LPGA Tour player Natalie Gulbis that surfaced at Kapalua, whatever that relationship was.

Even so, he gets most of his attention on the course.

“We’ve never had an athlete like that play this tour,” Paul Goydos said. “He’s the best athlete that I can think of who’s playing out here. It’s ridiculous to watch this guy work out. He’s a tremendous talent who can do things that very few people have ever been able to do.”

Johnson nearly had a chance to win as a rookie until he chopped up the 14th hole. He followed that with two victories.

He is not sure why he has such an affinity for Pebble Beach. He just does.

“I’m very comfortable out here,” he said. “I think I’ve got this course figured out pretty well. I tend to play it pretty well. Confidence is huge, especially playing golf. If you’re confident you’re going to play well on the golf course, most of the time you do.”