Pebble Beach promises to be rocky road for some golfers


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The U.S. Golf Association is convinced that Pebble Beach is primed for the assault of 156 of the world's finest players in the 92nd national Open, which started its 72-hole run early today.

And most of the 156 players are just hoping the USGA hasn't overdone it.

"This is a very hard golf course," said Tom Watson, who captured the last Open (1982) played over the same terrain. "These are the smallest greens we play. They're firm and a little bumpy -- you won't see many putts go in."

Jack Nicklaus, winner of the first Open hosted by Pebble Beach (1972), agreed.

"The course is relatively difficult compared to how it plays [in the annual Pebble Beach National Pro-Am]," said Nicklaus, 52, a four-time Open champion. "It is playing along the lines of '72, and it's more difficult than in '82."

That doesn't bode well for the field. A 2-over-par 290 won it in 1972, and there were more players shooting in the 80s than 70s Sunday.

The USGA, in its customary effort to make Pebble Beach a formidable foe, went too far that year. Strip-like fairways, brick-hard greens and wild rough frustrated the players.

"We almost weren't playing golf out there," a dazed Nicklaus said afterward.

The USGA again has brought the course to the edge.

"The course is ready and we're ready. In fact, we were ready a couple of days ago," said Reg Murphy, chairman of the championship committee and a former publisher of The Baltimore Sun.

So how tough will it be?

"It will depend on the weather and how much water they put on the greens," Nicklaus said. "If they leave it alone and everything gets hard and firm, you'd be happy in the clubhouse [Sunday night] with par [288]. If it should rain or they water the greens, 280 might win it."

Nicklaus predicted that players with strong British Open records will shine this weekend because of the similarities in how the courses are set up.

"Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson would be good choices here," he said.

He added the names of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch, defending champion Payne Stewart, Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples.

Watson, 42, a former Stanford player with eight major championship trophies adorning his mantel, said the course is playing "four or five shots tougher than in the [Pebble Beach National Pro-Am]. If you hit it in the rough, 75 percent of the time you won't be able to reach the green."

O'Meara, who has won four pro tournaments on the Monterey Peninsula, is without a major championship in 11 1/2 years of campaigning. But he is confident his success at Pebble will boost his chances.

"I feel some pressure, but I'm trying to not let it affect me," he said. "Pebble Beach has a lot of uneven lies. People don't talk about that. I grew up on that kind of course [Mission Viejo Country Club], so I feel that has helps me.

"My main concern is the firmness of the greens. If you hit a 6-iron to the front third of a green, the ball should stay on the green. It hasn't been happening in practice rounds."

Nicklaus and Watson figure the experienced, seasoned players with battle ribbons on their chests are more likely to be in red numbers on Sunday.

Davis Love III, the PGA Tour's top money winner -- who like Couples has won three times this year -- prefers to think otherwise. He lists himself among the favorites in a group that includes Couples, Floyd, John Cook, O'Meara, Corey Pavin, Watson and Paul Azinger.

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