Blame the expectations on the U.S. Open in 2000.
The images of Tiger Woods carving up Pebble Beach Golf Links with freakish accuracy, using irons and otherworldly putting, is the lasting impression of how dominant he can be while playing on the Monterey Peninsula.
In arguably his greatest triumph among 15 major wins, Woods seized that championship by a record margin of 15 strokes.
In reality, Woods doesn’t have the cozy relationship with Pebble Beach he has at Torrey Pines, Firestone, Bay Hill or Augusta National.
On those four courses, Woods has a combined 29 victories.
Two wins at Pebble Beach are nothing to discount, but he clearly hasn’t always looked totally comfortable on the short layout with tiny greens.
The last time Woods made a tournament appearance on the Monterey Peninsula, his mediocre three-over-par 75 on Sunday was put to shame by Phil Mickelson’s surging 64 as they played together in the last group of the 2012 AT&T National Pro-Am.
Mickelson prevailed over Woods by nine shots in the tournament that is played on three courses, and Mickelson won here again in February to tie Mark O’Meara for the most victories at Pebble with five.
Another 75 on Sunday — after he fired a 66 in the third round — doomed Woods in the 2010 U.S. Open here. He tied for fourth and lost by three shots to Graeme McDowell.
With Woods making just eight starts this season, his prospects get as foggy as a summer day in Carmel. None of that seems to dampen the enthusiasm of the 43-year-old who won his fifth Masters in April.
“There’s nothing like playing a U.S. Open setup here at Pebble Beach,” Woods said Tuesday. “The golf course is not overly long. It’s not big in that regard, but man, it’s tricky. The greens are all slanted, very small targets. And if they ever firm up, then we have a totally different ballgame.”
Calling Tuesday a “rest day,” Woods chose not to play a practice round. He is expected to tour the layout Wednesday with a full round.
“It’s more important for me to feel energized than it is to go out there and get wear and tear,” he said.
Since missing the cut at the PGA Championship last month, Woods revealed he was battling an undisclosed illness at Bethpage. “I was in rough shape,” he said Tuesday.
Unlike before the PGA, he did get in a tournament start before the Open, tying for ninth in the Memorial two weeks ago.
Woods believes the field will experience a test similar to that 2000 Open he won at 12 under to become the first champion to finish double digits under par.
Deeming Pebble’s fairways “plenty wide,” Woods said: “We’re all going to be playing from virtually the same spots, and especially if it dries out. The longer guys will be hitting a shorter club [off the tee], and the shorter guys will be able to sneak driver down there.
“How you put the ball in the correct position is key. … We don’t have greens like this — this small and steep. So it puts a premium on iron play.”
Woods pointed out that although he wasn’t perfect in hitting fairways in 2000, “I had the best angles.”
The biggest difference came on the greens, where Woods said he didn’t miss a putt inside 10 feet. That is extraordinary on poa annua surfaces that sprout tiny buds in the afternoon and can serve as hurdles to a rolling golf ball.
Woods has done a lot of work on the greens already this week with coach Matt Killen.
“It doesn’t take much to get off line on poa,” Woods said. “Bent [grass] sits down; poa perks up. And good putts look like they should go in and don’t.
“The trick to putting on poa is to make sure they’re always below the hole. If you’re putting downhill, it’s like a Plinko effect; you’re going to go every which way.”
Woods isn’t nearly the formidable putter he was 19 years ago. In his limited sampling this season, he ranks 73rd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. To the considerable upside: He is No. 1 in greens hit in regulation.
If Woods keeps his ball in the fairway, Pebble could be nearly as friendly to him as in 2000, when he won the AT&T and U.S. Open with a combined score of 24 under.
“He had a lot going for him,” said Ernie Els, who recently watched a replay of the 2000 U.S. Open. “His swing was unbelievable. He was hitting it a long way past most of us and in total control of every aspect of his game. I’m sure he had a good time.”