PEBBLE BEACH—The sunshine that soaked Pebble Beach early in the week was swallowed by the Pacific on Wednesday, a dense fog engulfing Monterey Peninsula. It seemed fitting, given we're on the precipice of the U.S. Open beginning in earnest. For the smiles and jokes and photo-ops that were ubiquitous inside the ropes Monday and Tuesday were escorted off the property, replaced by a solemn, serious inflection. The weather letting the field know a beast lurks in the mist.
The identity of this beast depends on your view. A case could be made it's the course. The last time the national championship visited Stillwater Cove, the 54-hole leader shot 82 and no player finished in red figures. Maybe it's Brooks Koepka, the player with three wins and a runner-up in his last five major starts. That Koepka seemed especially fiery on Tuesday does not bode well for the field.
Or, judging by the caravan that followed him on Wednesday, to say nothing of the history he brings, it's Tiger Woods.
Woods joined Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Kevin Kisner for a tour of Pebble's back nine. There's usually not much to extract the day before a major: the preparation has been done, the strategy laid out. It's more out of routine, sprinkled with the search for one final secret or observation that will prove the difference. Those needing Wednesday to get their swing or mind right can be written off.
Yet Woods, a year-and-a-half into his comeback but still very much in the exploratory stages of what his body can and can't do, views Wednesdays in a different light.
"My surgeon said it’s going to take two full years to understand your body," Woods told GOLFTV. "I said, ‘Yeah, whatever’ but it’s coming up on two years. He was right. It has taken that long. But I am getting better, and I know how to get better."
The 43-year-old now takes Tuesdays off—or as much as a three-hour practice session can qualify as "off"—to conserve energy. Because his latest back procedure has tightened his muscles up, Wednesday serves as a litmus test for Woods, making sure the swing that was there on Monday has returned.
"You saw last year, I went through many iterations of my golf swing before I found something that was playable," Woods said. "This year has been the same thing, trying to peel back the layers so I feel good on a daily basis."
So how did it look Wednesday?
Compared to Tuesday's practice session, which, at times, looked laborious, Woods' swing was smooth and compact. His driving was not as accurate as it was on Monday, though he wasn't spraying it by any means, and the majority of his approach shots found the putting surface. One onlooker in the crowed yelled, "Don't you ever miss?!"
Should Woods contend, it will be through his irons, the set that leads the tour in greens in regulation. Tiger knows this as well, noting the "ridiculously small" size of the greens will separate the weak from the strong.
"Because of how small they are, you have to hit the ball in one particular spot. But then if they get firm and crusty, it’s so hard to hold it on that spot. You have to throw it straight up," Woods said.
Moreover, his work around the greens was downright clinical. That shouldn't be a surprise, not when he ranks eighth in strokes gained/around the green this season. But his pitches from the patchy, gnarly greenside rough to the deceivingly-tough greens were so consistent that Mike Thomas, Justin's father, mumbled, "He makes it look easy," on the 17th.
"These greens don’t sometimes look as dangerous as Augusta’s greens or Winged Foot’s greens, where you see these huge undulations and know I have to just tap this down the hill," said Rob McNamara, Tiger's longtime friend and manager. "Pebble’s are subtle. Even today, a few of the guys hit it 10 feet by. And they aren’t at full tournament speed yet."
For his part, Woods was stoic throughout his round, and the crowd took its lead from his demeanor. The galleries that surround Tiger are rarely quiet, but—due to Woods' body language or the languid feeling brought on by the murky weather—they watched in revered silence for most of his walk around the course. For a crowd that size to be that quiet was downright eerie.
However, that silence broke on the 18th, replaced by chants of Tiger's name when he walked off the green.
Some were shouts of encouragement, others acknowledgement. At what he achieved this spring at Augusta, and what he did here in 2000. Perhaps it was an acknowledgment to themselves that the 15-time major winner was in their midst. Woods nodded, keeping his head down as he slithered his way to the left side of the grandstands.
As Woods entered a shuttle to take him up a hill to the locker room, a familiar face—and voice—greeted him in Johnny Miller. The former U.S. Open champ and recent retiree shook Woods' hand. What the two spoke of could not be heard, a conversation meant to stay between legends
But as Woods departed, Miller turned to no one in particular, cocked his head to the left and said, "He looks good. Going to be a good week for him."
Miller has always called 'em like he sees 'em. Thursday will prove if his forecast shines through the fog.