Watson warns of rough justice at Pebble Beach

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The Independent Online

As the pros were tussling for position here in the first round of the 110th US Open yesterday the warning of Tom Watson was ringing loud in their ears. "Your chipper better be on," said the celebrated 60-year-old.

The Pebble Beach galleries soon understood exactly what the old boy meant. When you see short-game specialists of the calibre of Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington struggling to get up and down it is all too easy to ascertain the extent of the challenge. And even if some fans remained in the dark, Watson, who happened to win the US Open on this stunning property 28 years ago, explained the task quite eloquently.

"The rough is very unpredictable," said the Kansas veteran who last year at Turnberrry came so close to becoming the first player with a false hip to win a major. "You can get a decent lie, and then you can get a lie you don't know what to do with. Maybe it's just old age talking, but I've had difficulty chipping around these greens – which is a problem as you're always going to miss these greens. They are the smallest set of greens we play. So your chipper better be on."

Harrington provided the physical proof of the severity. After saving an outrageous par on the par-five 14th – which saw him hack it from one patch of heavy rough to another before somehow flopping in his fourth from 70 yards to a few inches – the Irishman's miracle quota dried up by his seventh hole of the morning, the 16th.

He was only 20 feet from the pin but was buried in the thick stuff. He could see the very tip of the ball and could only chop down on it. He managed to move it a whole two feet and was forced to take a bogey. There would be another blemish on Harrington's card on the 17th, but there was hardly any shame in that. The par-three green is less like a postage stamp and more like a microchip. Certainly there would be plenty of big numbers being posted as the opening day built up to the marquee afternoon grouping of Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and Ernie Els.

By then the early starters were discovering that their sand wedges had better be on as well. Like Watson, Tom Kite is also a former winner at the Monterey Peninsula layout and knows all about the punishment which meets the wayward. "If you miss the green, you have those high-lipped bunkers," said the 1992 champion. "And from there it's very difficult to get the ball close to the hole. You will end up hitting a lot of pitch shots out the bunker. The course has all the ingredients of a very difficult course, especially when you get some weather conditions."

Kite was referring to wind, but as it was, the first wave of players arrived on the spectacular California coastal course to discover a light breeze. The Dane Soren Kjeldsen set the early benchmark reaching the turn in three-under. In the main, however, par was looking a decent enough score, with Luke Donald on one-under after 10 and Mickelson and Harrington both two-over after eight. If the gusts do rise these next few days then this will be demanding way beyond the point of being treacherous; particularly on the eighth, ninth and 10th holes. The USGA has shaved back the rough on these trio of par-fours to bring the beach which lies over the cliffs into play. Woods and Co truly are feeling as if they are playing on the edge of the world.

"Those holes are going to make or break the championship," said another former US Open champion in Johnny Miller. "They will eat you up. After you go through No 7 you better hold on to your underwear."