PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Tiger Woods was finishing up his nine-hole practice round for the 110th U.S. Open at dewy Pebble Beach on Wednesday morning when he gave a gentle reminder why he can never be counted out.
Teeing off at the picturesque, par-5 18th hole, Woods was distracted and stopped mid-swing. He regrouped but lost his drive to the right and into the fairway bunker — a familiar shot in 2010.
Joe Bramlett, who graduated from Stanford last weekend and is still an amateur, and Arjun Atwal, Woods's Isleworth neighbor, powered drives well down the fairway.
Finding his ball nestled against the front lip of the bunker, Woods splashed out with a wedge, leaving himself more than 240 yards to the green. It was from there that he hit the type of shot only he and perhaps Phil Mickelson can: a head-high 2-iron that followed the right-to-left contour of the sod and ran onto the green. He two-putted for a routine par.
"Tiger got me by one," Bramlett, 22, said as he, Atwal and Woods climbed into SUVs behind the 18th green scoring trailer for the ride up the hill toward the practice range. "He's hitting it good. He's ready to go."
There are several intriguing questions as the year's second major gets set to tee off Thursday. Can a Euro win for the first time since Tony Jacklin in 1970? Lee Westwood is coming off a win at the St. Jude last weekend and would seem to be ripe, maybe overripe, to win a major.
Can a player in his 20s prevail, as has happened 10 times on Tour already this season? Dustin Johnson, who will turn 26 next Monday, has won the last two AT&Ts at Pebble.
Can Tom Watson, the only man in the field to have played all four previous Opens at Pebble, get in the hunt to win, as he did at Turnberry last year at the British Open? He famously chipped in on 17 to win here in '82, and he could do well again if he can tame Pebble's brawny, 502-yard, par-4 second hole, one of the only holes that will require much length this week.
But no questions are more central to this championship than the ones hanging over the game's top two players.
Mickelson has never won his national championship but has finished second five times. Is he fated to end his career without the trophy, as Sam Snead did? Does Phil lack some secret combination of fortitude and self-restraint? And will he ever take over Tiger's No. 1 ranking?
More vexing still: Where is the Woods who dominated the game like none other in 2000? Every so often, as with his stinger 2-iron Wednesday, he resurfaces, reminding us of that magical year when he won the U.S. Open at Pebble by 15 shots, but what a difference a decade makes.
After his nine-hole round Wednesday, he disappeared for about 45 minutes before reappearing on the driving range to a round of applause at 10 a.m. He worked on his swing, but not with the fierce singlemindedness that marked his 2000 U.S. Open preparations. Woods chatted with his agent, IMG's Mark Steinberg, and Notah Begay III, his old Stanford teammate and now a Golf Channel analyst.
Never as a professional has Woods come into a major with less momentum. His personal life is still unsettled, and his game is still a work in progress, to put it mildly. In his last start, at the Memorial two weeks ago, he hit three spectators with errant tee shots in the last round.
"It's a good thing I get them for free," he said of the golf gloves he kept handing out to his dazed, bruised fans.
Still, he saw some good signs, and said of his game earlier this week, "It's started to solidify."
There may be no better course for the old Tiger to re-emerge than Pebble Beach. It was here that Woods trailed Matt Gogel by seven strokes with seven holes to play at the 2000 AT&T before going four under on the last four holes to win. It was here that Woods dusted Open runners-up Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez by more than two touchdowns five months later in a display that NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller and others have called the finest golf ever played.
Woods hit 47 of 56 fairways, was the longest player in the field, and enjoyed the best putting week of his life.
"If you want to watch a guy win the U.S. Open playing perfectly," Els said, "you've just seen it this week."
Mickelson tied for 16th place at the 2000 Open, and shot 68-81 to miss the cut at the '92 Pebble Open. He is one of only seven players in this week's field to have played both of the last two U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach.
More importantly, Mickelson has won three times at this historic seaside treasure, most recently in 2007, when his 20-under total beat the next-best finisher, Kevin Sutherland, by a very comfortable five strokes.
"I've played so much here over the years," Mickelson, who turned 40 Wednesday, said this week. "I've had some success at AT&T and have a lot of fond memories here."
The problem is that he also has a lot of not-so-fond memories of his near misses at the confounding U.S. Open, would-haves and could-haves born of ill-timed back-nine bogeys at Pinehurst No. 2 and Bethpage Black (twice), and killing double-bogeys at Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot.
At a firm 7,040 yards, Pebble Beach could hardly be more different from 7,445-yard Bethpage, home of last year's rain-plagued second major. Pebble is also playing differently than it ever has in four previous U.S. Opens.
Oceanside fairways have been moved closer to the cliffs on holes 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10, and the rough that used to keep balls from rolling over the cliffs of doom has been shaved. This could be the year that puts the "beach" in Pebble.
"I actually hit one onto the beach the other day on the 10th hole," said Els. "I think I could have got down there [to hit the ball]. I don't know if I would have come back up. I think you might need a rope or something."
The weather has been typical for this time of year, a bit cool with a mix of fog and sunshine, and the odd breeze. Even Wisconsin's Jerry Kelly, usually impervious to the cold, donned a sweater for his practice round Wednesday.
The USGA is using its graduated-rough setup for the fifth consecutive year. Fairways will average 35 yards in width, with a six-foot wide swath of 1.5-inch "intermediate rough" on either side. Then comes a 15-foot band of primary rough (2.5-3 inches), framed by the tall hay (4-5 inches).
"It's the best golf course I've ever played," said Jason Gore, who like Woods grew up playing Pebble in the state am, starting in 1995. "Mike Davis [of the USGA] did an incredible job. You're going to need a good short game, since the greens are so small and so hard, and some luck, since they're [poa annua, a slightly bumpy strain of grass]. They're exciting."
Mickelson and Watson are among the few players in the field who know Pebble's greens as well as Woods, who went all four rounds without a three-putt at the 2000 Open.
Woods and Mickelson are perhaps best suited to attack a short Open course with postage-stamp greens. They will need to use their volatile drivers only once or twice per round if the wind doesn't blow, at which point their superior touch may take over and separate them from the field.
That's the plan, anyway. It's been a long time since anything went according to script for Woods. Mickelson is still waiting for his fairytale ending. Each has reason to hope that this is the week that changes everything.