Planet Golf — 10 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
‘The Crosby’ begins the golf season

Golf does not really have an Opening Day. There are no comparisons to a first pitch, an opening tipoff or kickoff, the first puck drop and, gentlemen, there are no engines to start or flags to drop.

The season’s first early January tournament in Hawaii has a field that is vastly incomplete, generally only about 30 competitors, all tournament winners from the previous year. You can get a lot of guys known only to their mothers in that one. There’s no buildup, no anticipation, no teams, no national anthem sung by an Idol, no uniforms, no numbers on their backs, no F-15 flyovers, no Gary Glitter vibe or media buzz. It just sort of appears in January and goes all summer, some tournaments bigger than others.

Having said that, for me golf does have an unofficial season-opener and it’s this weekend on the Monterey Peninsula. The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is really the first tournament that people around the country care about. It’s after the Super Bowl and before the NCAA Tournament. It’s in early February when much of the country – during the non-global warming epochs – is knee deep in snow and ice and those frozen duffers can’t believe people play golf this time of year.

It’s also perhaps the most magnificent and telegenic region in the nation. I remember growing up in Ohio and watching the TV coverage at Pebble Beach (pictured) and just imagining what it would be like to be there, or play there. If you are from the Midwest, you understand the enticement of California, particularly Carmel’s seductive setting against the crashing Pacific.

The tournament is played over three courses, all spectacular, but the crown jewel is Pebble, considered by many to be the greatest course in the world. It’s so revered that it’s one of only two tournaments all season in which the course’s name is in the title.

Fortunately, I covered what we called ‘The Crosby’ for three straight years a couple decades ago when I worked at the San Francisco Examiner. It still ranks as one of the best assignments of my career.

It’s also a tournament in which most of the top PGA players participate, lending itself to the idea that this is golf’s Opening Weekend. It’s especially true this year because Tiger Woods showed up for the first time since 2002. This is the guy who won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble by 15 strokes. But really, it’s not the same guy. Three swing changes and a swinging lifestyle has him scrambling to recover his inner Tiger.

Woods opened his round Thursday with a 4-under 68 at Spyglass Hill, which may be the hardest of the three courses. He has opened up his season on the PGA Tour with a victory six times: 1997 and 2000 Mercedes Championship; 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008 Buick Invitational.

But he trails first-round leader Charlie Wi, ranked 175th in the world. He shot a 9-under 61 at Monterey Peninsula Country Club to lead by two strokes over Danny Lee and Dustin Johnson, who both had a 63 at Pebble.

Wi, who has never won and has just 16 top 10 finishes since joining the Tour in 1995, set the tournament course record with a 9-under-par 61 at MPCC. The previous low at MPCC was 62 by Jeff Maggert in 2011. Wi’s front-nine of 28 set the front-nine record, besting 30 by Brian Gay (2010) and D.J. Trahan (2010). He needed just 22 putts in his 18 holes.

Lee, the 159th ranked golfer in the world with no wins and who made the cut in just 8 of 20 career starts, had two eagles (No. 2 and 11) at Pebble for his career-low round.

The guy to watch this weekend is Johnson, who seems recovered from his off-season right knee surgery. He won the tournament in 2009 and 2010, bidding to join four players with three or more victories there, Mark O’Meara (5), Jack Nicklaus (3), Johnny Miller (3) and Phil Mickelson (3).

The long-driving Johnson hit 13 of 14 fairways and 14 greens in regulation.

Best of the Rest

* Ken Duke set the Pebble Beach back-nine record with an 8-under-par 28 en route to his 8-under-par 64 and a fourth place. The previous low was 30 by Dan Pohl in the final round of the 1980 AT&T -Am. The 28 matched the low 9 holes this season set by Toshinori Muto in the second round of the Sony Open in Hawaii.
* Defending champion D. A. Points, who won the Pro-Am competition with comedian/actor Bill Murray, had an even-par 72 at Spyglass.
* Three-time winner Mickelson had a 70 at Spyglass. His 2005 win is the only wire-to-wire victory in tournament history.
* Canadian Mike Weir, the former Masters champion, made his first start since late July 2011. He underwent surgery to repair a tendon in his right elbow on Aug. 18. He had a 70 at MPCC.
* Is all the smart money on Spencer Levin this week? After all, he collapsed in his final round last Sunday in the Waste Management Open, losing to Kyle Stanley, who had collapsed in his final round a week earlier at Torrey Pines, losing in a playoff. Levin had a decent start with a 69 at MPCC.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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