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The long, slow open of the U.S. Open

When you spend a few hours walking around Pebble Beach, trying to get a grip on a U.S. Open that no one has yet taken control of, you see some interesting things.

And I'm not just talking about Ian Poulter's pants.

You see a sea gull land atop the big white scoreboard beside the 18th green, crane its neck sideways like it's looking at the scores and gently shake its head like it's not impressed. It's still too early.

You see Tiger Woods, his electric green shirt peeking out from beneath his black sweater, shouting across the third fairway to playing partner Lee Westwood: "Lee, I'm unplayable."

Then you see Woods, who looks like he's playing better than his scores suggest, reaching into a shin-deep patch of fescue where his golf ball is buried, using his driver to determine his two club-lengths relief, dropping his ball then coming up short of the green on his third shot. That's the way most resort guests play the hole.

You see Phil Mickelson punching the gray air after a third straight birdie on the front nine, and you see the future when you see 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa walking the cliff side with 60-year-old Tom Watson, who is reminded of his younger self when he sees Ishikawa hammer putts into the back of the hole.

You hear the warm cheers for Watson, who seems to want to hug the noise, and you hear the verbal back-slapping for Tiger Woods as he walks onto each tee.

The thing about the U.S. Open is it takes awhile to come to life. You expect fireworks, but the Open is more like the fire someone has burning in an outdoor fireplace near the golf course, casting the faint scent of wood smoke on the damp air. It keeps burning, generating its own fuel until finally it's impossible to miss the heat.

That's how this Open is starting to feel.

For all of its majestic beauty, with vistas that make you stop in pedestrian traffic to watch another wave break across the charcoal-colored rocks in Carmel Bay, Pebble Beach is defined this week by its tiny, firm and sometimes maddening greens.

It's a big golf course but it has small targets, made smaller by their firmness. The most sinister examples are the 14th and 17th greens, which should have those comedy/tragedy images for tee markers.

The 14th green embarrassed more people than karaoke. Perched on a knob with its own cliff along its left side, it ruined several potential Open leaders. Paul Casey made an eight there while in contention. Ditto Ian Poulter. Double ditto Y.E. Yang. All three of them beat Zach Johnson's nine there.

The hourglass-shaped 17th green was, in a word, impossible.

Front to back, it's 18 paces deep on the left side, but not big enough to hold a long-iron shot if it isn't dropped from somewhere around Orion.

If players carry the front bunker, their tee shots will either land on the downslope of the bunker and kick to the higher grass behind the green or, if their shots land on the green, they'll bounce over into the higher grass. Pick your poison.

"I don't think I've got that shot. I've tried twice," said Ernie Els, who is lurking among the leaders.

This may be the National Open, as it was once called, but it's an international championship, particularly this week with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell the midway leader. But it's just getting warmed up.

Asked if the 18-year-old Ishikawa could win, Watson said, "Sure. Look at his position. Not a question. He's even par for two rounds. Some guy here 28 years old was even par for two rounds. He ended up winning the golf tournament at 6-under."

That, of course, was Watson.

Who knows what we'll see this weekend.

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