PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Dustin Johnson wanted to make sure he got off to a good start as the defending champion of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He succeeded Thursday because of a phenomenal finish.
Johnson overpowered the par 5s on a pristine day at Pebble Beach and closed with five consecutive birdies to tie the tournament record with a 30 on the back nine. He finished with an 8-under 64 and was atop the leaderboard.
Charley Hoffman had a 6-under 64 on the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula, the newcomer to a three-course rotation that opened to rave reviews and scenery to match.
“One of my favorites now on tour,” Phil Mickelson said after a 68 at Monterey Peninsula.
The best round might have belonged to David Duval, who played bogey-free until the final hole for a 5-under 67 at Spyglass Hill, traditionally the toughest course of the bunch. The average score at Spyglass was 71.52, compared with a 70.89 at Pebble Beach and a 69.97 at Monterey Peninsula.
So who’s leading?
“No one,” Duval said, laughing. “All the courses are so different. It’s hard to tell until after the third day.”
J.B. Holmes finished eagle-birdie at Pebble Beach for a 7-under 65, an unusual streak that began by holing out an 8-iron on the par-4 eighth hole over the edge of the Pacific Ocean. K.J. Choi also had a 65 at Pebble Beach.
The most famous of the three courses was the best place to be in such serene conditions. If wind and rain is in the forecast — anything is possible in these parts — it’s best to get Pebble out of the way.
“It’s one of the best places you want to be when it’s good weather,” Johnson said. “It’s so pretty, too. It’s a fun place to be.”
It’s always good to have length, and Johnson used that to his advantage.
He reached the front edge of the green on the 573-yard 14th hole, setting up a chip and a putt to start his birdie run. Johnson was worried momentarily when he pulled his 3-wood toward the out-of-bounds stake, safe by some 20 feet and leaving him a sand wedge that he hit inside 6 feet. Johnson finished with another big drive that left him only a 3-iron to the middle of the par-5 18th green.
But it was a 7-iron that left him the most pleased.
Johnson had 169 yards to the hole, typically an 8-iron. But with the pin to the back right, he tried to protect against too much spin down the slope. Instead, he hit what Johnson called a “chip 7-iron” that settled about 6 feet away.
“One of the better swings,” he said.
Johnson missed a 30-inch par putt on the fifth hole, but that’s not unusual at this tournament, with soft, damp greens that get plenty of footprints considering the 156 players each have an amateur partner.
Holmes also missed a par putt about that length on the par-3 seventh hole, but he bounced back better than he could have imagined. The 8-iron over a corner of the ocean to a tough green at No. 8 covered the flag and landed about 10 feet behind the cup before it spun back into the hole. He followed that with a 40-foot birdie putt on the ninth.
“That’s one of those rare occasions when you make one and you actually hit it perfect,” he said of his 8-iron from 175 yards.
Holmes has been working with Dave Stockton over the last month, and the first instruction was to ditch the belly putter. Stockton wanted Holmes to putt the way he did as a kid — similar to the advice Stockton gave Mickelson— and Holmes learned quickly that it was tough to make a forward press with the end of a putter jabbed into his gut.
“That was a pretty quick decision,” Holmes said. “I had been wanting to go to the short putter, anyway.”
The celebrities were at Monterey Peninsula, and the antics were at a minimum. Most of them — whether it’s Bill Murray or George Lopez or Andy Garcia — pace themselves for the third round Saturday at Pebble Beach.
The best golf out of Mickelson’s group belonged to Brian Gay, who shot a 68. Mickelson made the turn at 3 under, but he missed a short par putt on the 14th and played his final eight holes in 1 over.
One similarity to Pebble — along with the Pacific scenery — is that it’s best to play Monterey Peninsula on a calm day. Half of the holes run along the coast, making them exposed to the wind.
“We caught it on a pretty calm day, and I thought that there were some low rounds to be had out there,” Mickelson said. “But you’ve got to make some putts. That was the one area that I didn’t quite do.”
Hoffman’s highlight was an eagle at the par-5 sixth with a hybrid that cleared the bunker and stayed on the top shelf, some 18 feet away. His green-and-black shoes were no match for the “Gumby &Smurf” pairing of 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, dressed all in green, and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler, dressed all in blue.
Fowler wound up with a 67, while the Japanese teen had a 72.