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Without Tiger, watch the players, not the courses
Pebble Beach Golf Heal

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Two years ago on a course along the Pacific, the U.S. Open winner was never really in doubt.

And that was four months before the U.S. Open was played.

Tiger Woods opened the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines with a 67 on the South Course, prompting a caddie watching from behind the 18th green to declare, "He just won two tournaments with one round."

Sure enough, Woods went on to an eight-shot victory that week, his fourth straight at Torrey Pines and sixth overall, not including a Junior World Championship title. And when the U.S. Open rolled around that summer, Woods won again, even on a shattered left knee.

No one will make such a prediction this week at Pebble Beach, mainly because Woods isn't here.

Nor should they even if he were.

His 15-shot victory in the 2000 U.S. Open remains the most dominant performance in major championship history. Woods became the first player to finish the toughest test in golf at double digits under par (12 under), and no one else managed to break par. That's why this year's rotation of the majors — Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews — looks so appealing.

But the mistake is putting more emphasis on the golf course than the golfer.

Jack Nicklaus is among those who are overstating how much of a personal playground Pebble Beach is for Woods. He was asked last month about Woods' return from a sex scandal, and how it would affect his pursuit of Nicklaus' 18 majors.

"This year with where the majors are ... he basically owns all three places," Nicklaus said. "If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard."

Most everyone agreed.

He has won half of his 14 majors at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, just as Nicklaus won half of his 18 majors on those three courses.

Woods has been the favorite at the Masters since his record 12-shot victory in 1997 and the three green jackets he added over the next eight years — although it's worth noting that Phil Mickelson has nearly the same record at Augusta National since the last of the significant course changes for the '02 Masters.

St. Andrews? Woods might as well have his mail delivered to the home of golf. He has won twice on the Old Course by a combined 13 shots, and another victory would make him the only player to win the British Open three times at St. Andrews.

Pebble Beach deserves closer inspection.

It only appears that Woods owns America's most famous seaside course because of one magical season 10 years ago.

When he won the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, despite trailing by seven shots with seven holes to play, it was his sixth consecutive PGA Tour victory. Then came a performance close to perfection. He played bogey-free over the final 26 holes and set U.S. Open records for largest margin after 36, 54 and 72 holes.

But what if that U.S. Open had been played at Winged Foot instead of Pebble Beach?

The way Woods was hitting the ball and making every putt in sight, he probably would have won by at least 10 shots, maybe more. Ditto if it had been held at Shinnecock Hills or Southern Hills, Olympia Fields or Olympic Club.

True, he also won at Pebble during the regular PGA Tour stop in February, just as Nicklaus won Pebble twice in one year in 1972. But that victory was made possible by a hole that got in the way of a good shot (Woods holed out for eagle on the 15th), and Matt Gogel shooting a 40 on the back nine as he tried for his first PGA Tour victory.

Woods had only one other top-10 at Pebble Beach, finishing in a tie for second behind Mark O'Meara in 1997. When he was still working on his first big swing change, Woods shot 40 on the back nine and barely made the cut in 1999.

Nicklaus' relationship with Pebble was far stronger. He was a three-time winner of the PGA Tour event, won the 1972 U.S. Open with that majestic 1-iron off the pin at the 17th, finished runner-up in the 1982 U.S. Open to Tom Watson and his famous chip-in on the 17th, and won his second U.S. Amateur title in 1961 with an 8-and-6 victory.

To be considered a favorite for this U.S. Open, Woods first has to play.

His indefinite break after confessing to infidelity began Dec. 11, and there is no indication when he might return. Even if he does get back to golf, no one is certain how much the public ridicule will affect him.

Pebble Beach is among his favorite courses, but it does not belong — at least not yet — in the same "horses for courses" conversation as Torrey Pines and Firestone, where he has won seven times each and has never finished out of the top 10. It's not even as good as Medinah, where Woods has twice won the PGA Championship.

Remember, Bethpage Black was supposed to right up his alley at the U.S. Open last year because of his three-shot victory in 2002. One tournament is hardly much history, however, and Woods tied for sixth last year when he couldn't make a putt, his theme for '09 majors.

Chalk up Pebble Beach as a coincidence.

For now.