Pebble skippers: A few contenders skip annual pilgrimage

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — It was a chance to check out the nuances and seek out the subtleties of one of America's true cathedrals of golf while potentially setting themselves up for success at the U.S. Open a few months down the road.

As is their custom, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas both passed.

Two of America's brightest young stars have rarely found time to fit the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, played as a regular stop on the PGA Tour each February, into their schedules. And even though they knew the U.S. Open was returning here this week, they made no changes in their plans for 2019.

"To me, I look at Pebble as not necessarily a place that, the more you play it, the more you have an advantage," said Fowler, the popular 30-year-old who is still in search of his first major title. "It's a pretty straightforward golf course."

There is truth to that — Pebble is 100 years old this year, no mystery to anyone who plays the game for a living, regardless of whether they make the annual tour stop or not.

And one could argue that the fact that Pebble Beach at the sunshiny, USGA-infused U.S. Open in June is nothing like the damp, often-waterlogged tournament in February, makes the trip to the pro-am something less than mandatory.

But still.

There are enough quirks to the course — the postcard-sized greens, the approach shot over a chasm of Pacific Ocean on No. 8, the bumpy poa annua putting surfaces, the redesigned par-5 14th — that a competitive round or two across one of the world's most iconic layouts certainly couldn't hurt.

"I've hit 7-iron on 7 here at Pebble before," Thomas said of one of his rare tee shots, back in 2014, on the tiny par-3 that juts into the ocean and is among the most photographed golf holes in the world. "It was blowing about 30 (mph) and it was raining. It was 90-something yards, and it wasn't very fun. You can have some interesting rounds out here."

Much is made of the list of players who have won the U.S. Open on what is viewed as an iconic U.S. Open course: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell. Of those five, all had played at least 10 competitive rounds at Pebble before their victories; all but McDowell had previously won the pro-am.

None of which factored into the thinking of either Fowler or Thomas.

Though the pro-am format of the tournament that began as Bing Crosby's celebrity-studded clambake can turn 18 holes into a 6-hour ordeal, both players view it as a matter of scheduling more than anything.

Fowler said he did think about playing this year. But a sponsorship deal takes him to Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open in late January, and he loves playing Phoenix the week after that.

"So I thought about it, but ... it wasn't something that I didn't think fit in," he said.

Thomas, meanwhile, has bigger concerns than course knowledge.

He missed six weeks, including last month's PGA Championship, with a wrist injury that he insists is fully healed. The injury forced some juggling of his schedule; he played the Canadian Open last week, then jetted down to Pebble. As of late Monday afternoon, he had not played a practice hole.

Sure, he said, it's always nice to learn new things about a golf course.

"I feel like I know Augusta better than, or just as well as, anyone in the world," Thomas said. "But every time I play, I learn something else."

Now, he's on another American classic, but one he's not nearly as used to.

Nothing he can do about it now.

"It's just golf," Thomas said. "You have to drive it in the fairway, you have to hit the green, you have to make the putts, and you have to do it in less strokes than everybody else in four days. And if you do, they give you a pretty nice trophy and a nice check on Sunday."


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