PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Perhaps they should just play the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach every year. At least that's the way it feels on days like this, when the sun shines bright, the ocean breezes take a break, the low-tide ripples quietly on Carmel Bay and the smell of smoke from the fireplaces in the nearby villas hangs in the air. It was against the serene background that Tiger Woods played his last practice round Wednesday for the 2010 U.S. Open.
Well, call it a practice half-round. Teeing off at 7 a.m. with Arjun Atwal and Stanford University qualifier Joseph Bramlett, Woods packed it in after nine holes (he played the back nine), jumping into Lexus van No. 81 and telling Atwal he'd meet him on the practice range after grabbing some breakfast.
Short though it was, the last tune-up before his 1:36 PDT tee time with Lee Westwood and Ernie Els in Thursday's first round was pretty much a microcosm of Woods' season. He hit some errant shots, laughed easily with his playing partners and grew testy at times with photographers.
Returning to the scene of his most emphatic triumph - 15 strokes in the 2000 U.S. Open - Woods is trying now not to reaffirm greatness, but re-establish it. His play on No. 18 Wednesday felt a whole lot like the way his abbreviated 2010 season has felt.
Standing at address on the tee, driver in hand, Woods was about to take the club back when he stopped, glanced over at a group of five photographers and shook his head. He fanned the drive into the right bunkers - bailing out well away from the Pacific waves lapping gently at the shore - then attached an adjective to the word "photographers" that can not be repeated here.
Woods ball was up against the front lip of the left bunker and the best he could do was blast out to the short-cut of rough. He then drilled a hard draw with a 2-iron onto the green and two putted for par. And that's the way it has gone this year for Woods: Mistake. Recovery. Move on.
This Woods is not the same Woods who won here in 2000. The aura of his invincibility is gone and so, it seems, is a degree of his confidence. Still, against the quiet calm of a glorious morning, the talent of Tiger Woods - not fully realized at this very moment - stood out as one more breathtaking aspect of Pebble Beach. The most dominant player in recent history has become the game's biggest mystery -- and that's sort of fun.
-- Ron Sirak