Pebble will eventually show its teeth

6/18/2010 - Golf

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Nobody expects an easy U.S. Open. It is part of the tournament's pedigree, its reputation, its history, to be difficult.

Of course, this can be so ingrained in a golfer's psyche that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is not to say that Pebble Beach Golf Links was a leisurely stroll Thursday during the opening round of the 110th U.S. Open. It was never going to be a pushover.

And yet, you get the feeling that perhaps a small opportunity was missed on a day that saw Shaun Micheel, Paul Casey and Brendon de Jonge own the clubhouse lead after shooting 69s.

"Our scores say a lot about the U.S. Open," said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who opened with a 2-over-par 73 that included a birdie at his final hole, the ninth.

"You get good golf courses like this and set up reasonable, in a regular event guys would shoot regular scores. But in this event, everybody gets a bit more tense. There are plenty of tough holes out there but plenty of reasonable pins.

"I feel the scoring should be better and maybe people are giving the course too much respect at this stage. The greens were quite receptive and a lot of easier pins so you would have thought scoring would be better."

Harrington is a tell-it-like-it-is sort, so his words carry weight. The Irishman finished fifth here 10 years ago when Tiger Woods romped to victory, and knows how difficult Pebble played for the masses.

With no rain in the forecast and cool breezes, players throughout the week could sense impending doom. The greens, Phil Mickelson said before the tournament, were going to get only more treacherous.

"I think it's the best U.S. Open setup that I've seen," Mickelson said. "I think the one area of concern I have is the greens, they're so small and they're so firm that, given that there's not any forecast for rain, I'm certainly concerned that we could have 14 potential seventh holes at Shinnecock, if we're not careful."

Mickelson's reference was the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills, where the par-3 seventh green became unplayable and had to be watered during the final round after several groups had already played the hole.

United States Golf Association officials certainly want no part of that, and took pity on the participants by watering all of the greens on Wednesday night and again at certain places on Thursday morning "after firmness and moisture ratings were taken." They also moved up the tee on the par-3 fifth, where it played just 140 yards, some 50 yards shorter than usual.

"If we didn't put the corrective water on it and we got some of this wind, then the golf course could have gotten away from us," said Tom O'Toole, chairman of the USGA's championship committee. "We're happy. It's not a perfect science, but so far so good."

That is why nobody got more than 3 under par in the first round, and for most of the day the best score on the board was a quartet of 70s shot by Mike Weir, K.J. Choi, Ian Poulter and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, a qualifier.

"I actually thought the greens were holding quite well," said Luke Donald, who shot even-par 71. "They must have watered them a little bit. There were some greens that were actually spinning, you had to control the spin, rather than worrying about it bouncing on.

"Obviously it firmed up as the day went along. But the wind seemed very consistent with how it's been in the practice days. There were no surprises out there."

Unless, of course, you look at the scorecard of Phil Mickelson, who didn't make a single birdie -- a first going back to the 2009 Shell Houston Open.

One of the pre-tournament favorites, Mickelson struggled through a three-hole stretch at the end of his first nine holes (the 16th, 17th and 18th) in which he took two penalty drops and made three bogeys. Mickelson finished with a 4-over 75.

"I thought that the golf course was set up perfectly," Mickelson said. "It was very playable. There were some scoring chances out there if you played well. I thought it was just really well done. The pin placements were great. The rough was very fair. They put some water on the greens so that shots weren't able to hold, some greens we weren't able to hold, we could. I just thought it was really well done.

"I just putted horrific. It's very frustrating for me to miss all those opportunities. I don't mind making a bad swing here, there, making a bogey here, there, it's part of the U.S. Open.

"I thought going without any doubles was good. It's just I've got to make birdies. And when I missed those 5-footers and that 3-footer and a couple of 10-footers, it just was very frustrating for me."

It will come as little consolation to Mickelson that Tiger Woods was also unable to make a birdie, despite hitting his first 10 greens in regulation. After that, Woods missed four in a row and finished with a 3-over 74.

"[The greens were] so bouncy out there," Woods said. "I mean ... the greens are just awful. It is what it is. It's poa [annua] in the afternoon and they're fast.

"So you know they're going to be bouncing all over the place and you can't leave yourself a second putt. You saw Ernie [Els'] putt over there on 13. Simple putt, but out here it's not. It's going to be bouncing all over the place."

The round, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the first time neither Woods nor Mickelson made a birdie on either card.

As hard as it is to believe, the top two players in the world played the same course on the same day and didn't make a birdie between them.

And this was likely the easiest day they'll face.

"There's no way under par is going to win here, I don't believe," Mickelson said. "I think over par will win."

Or, as Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen said: "This course increases the stress levels considerably compared to most weeks. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 10."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.