PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It's hardly a stretch to call Pebble Beach the St. Andrews of America, a course that doubles as a national treasure in its spare time.
Dustin Johnson, who will defend his title at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this week, learned the course's intricacies from playing it on a video game. Nick Watney, who grew up outside Sacramento and played for nearby Fresno State University, used to come to Pebble as a kid to watch his heroes in action.
"Almost every hole, you can think of shots the greats have hit," Watney said of this shrine to the game. "Seventeen, Jack hits a 1-iron, Tom Watson chips in. Fifteen, Tiger is holing a wedge — there's just a lot of history and scenery here. I think both of them are, you know, what sets the place apart."
Sounding like a true Pebble fan, Watney waxed rhapsodic about, "the way the ball sounds here on the coast, through the trees."
This year's AT&T, though, will be less about the past than the future, namely the 2010 U.S. Open, June 17-20 at Pebble Beach. A handful of players are using this week as a reconnaissance mission of sorts for the year's second major.
"Yeah, that was obviously my thinking when I decided to play here," said Luke Donald, who is coming off a runner-up finish at the Northern Trust Open.
The two-time Tour winner missed the cut the last time he played here, in 2007, and revisiting the course now took on extra importance since Donald, 32, and his wife, Diane, are expecting their first child in March.
The course has slowly morphed into something different than what competitors faced at the 2000 Open, when Woods blew away the field by 15 shots.
Four greens, 16 bunkers and 11 tees have been rebuilt, altered or installed, while trees have been either added to or taken away from six holes. The course has been extended from 6,846 yards in 2000 to 7,040 yards today.
The changes, which were made with input from Arnold Palmer, also will include shaving certain patches of rough that would prevent some wayward shots from rolling into the Pacific Ocean.
"I think it will play a little bit different, obviously, in June," Donald said, "but still, it's nice to get familiar, hopefully have a good week and leave here with some good feelings." Others in the field seem to be here in anticipation of the same thing.
Sergio Garcia hasn't played the AT&T since a T59 finish in 2001, but he will make his U.S. debut here this week. Adam Scott, coming off a missed cut at Riviera, where he is a past champion, has never played this tournament until now.
They'll join Donald and a strong international contingent that also includes Retief Goosen (3rd last year), Padraig Harrington, Ryo Ishikawa and '04 champ Vijay Singh. (Garcia will be paired with actor Josh 'When in Rome' Duhamelthis week, a potentially dangerous cross-pollenation of teeny-bopper attractions.)
Pebble has hosted the AT&T and the U.S. Open in the same year four times, and twice the winner of the regular Tour event has gone on to win the Open. (Jack Nicklaus in 1972, Tiger Woods in 2000.) It's an all but impossible double-dip, but still tantalizing, and like they say at the county fair, you can't win if you don't play.
"I think the field is definitely stronger this year than it was last year," Johnson said. It's also smaller, going from 180 to 156 pros, which could speed up play at this notoriously pokey tournament, where unpredictable Bill Murray tops the celebrity lineup.
AT&T newcomers could also have been drawn here by the big course change, which has generated strong advance buzz. The highly regarded and totally redesigned Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course returns to the rotation for the first time since 1977. It replaces Poppy Hills. Many players had not set foot on the new track. Donald, who planned to get his first look at the 6,900-yard, par-70 on Wednesday, said Adam Scott told him over lunch, "It'll be one of the better courses we play all year."
As a rule, the AT&T rewards big hitters like Johnson, two-time winner Davis Love III and three-time champion Phil Mickelson. Those players are able to overcome cold, soggy conditions that prevail here in February, making Pebble rank as the course with the shortest average of all measured drives (261.2 yards) on Tour in 2009.
This week's forecast: more of the same. Security guards outside the Lodge were wearing gloves Tuesday, and at least one Pebble employee had wrapped herself in a parka with the hood up. The temperature struggled to crack 50 degrees by mid-morning.
Johnson said he was the only member of his foursome who had been able to reach the green in two shots on Monterey Peninsula's 465-yard, par-4 16th hole.
Inclement weather forced officials to abandon the final round last year, and rain fell on players as they arrived and began to look around Tuesday. Watney said conditions reminded him of when he came here to watch the 1998 tournament, which was so besieged by rain officials had to push back the third and final round to August. That dire assessment may have owed more to the week of rain in L.A. last week, or the headlines out of the East Coast, than the light shower that fell on Watney on the driving range Tuesday. The weather is expected to improve as the week progresses.
On other tours:
• Paul Azinger and Tommy Armour III will make their Champions tour debut at the Ace Group Classic in Naples, Fla., this week. Loren Roberts defends.
• Jeev Milkha Singh, who became a new father two weeks ago, headlines at the Avantha Masters at India's DLF Golf and Country Club. The event is tri-sanctioned by the European Tour, Asian Tour and Professional Golf Tour of India.