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.
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