By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; D01
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- There is something incongruous about the setting provided by Pebble Beach Golf Links, stunningly gorgeous on a sun-dappled Thursday, and the fear it injects into the best golfers in the world. Thursday could not have seemed a finer day to begin the U.S. Open. A breeze came in off Monterey Bay, stiff at times but hardly unpleasant. The waves rolled in to the south as the townsfolk of Carmel walked their dogs, carefree, on the beach. The greens, scary and small, were unusually receptive.
And the stars? Well, they largely succumbed. One hundred fifty-six men began the tournament in these conditions. Only nine of them broke par, none by more than two strokes. Some of their names -- Ian Poulter, Mike Weir, K.J. Choi, Paul Casey, Ryo Ishikawa, Alex Cejka -- would perk up the ears in avid golf-watching households. Others -- Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Brendon de Jonge -- would send even rabid fans to Google.
And only one, Shaun Micheel, would tug at the heartstrings. The leader board shows that Micheel shares the lead with Casey, an Englishman who counts himself as one of the best players in the world, and de Jonge, a former Virginia Tech all-American who hadn't played an Open round before Thursday. It would show they all shot 2-under-par 69 on what might end up being Pebble's most benign day. But that same board does not show that Micheel is dealing with circumstances that have nothing to do with a dastardly pin placement or sturdy, penal rough.
"Sometimes," Micheel said, "you rise under difficult situations."
Micheel's situation is this: His mother, Donna, is dying of lung cancer at 63. She received the diagnosis last April, and by this Mother's Day, when Micheel received an afternoon call from his father that he should come over, she could hardly talk.
"I thought I had lost my mom then," he said. "I picked her up and put her on the bed."
No one, among the rest of the field, dealt with that Thursday. There were issues, of course, because this is the U.S. Open. But the degree to which the game's brightest stars struggled -- not to mention the degree to which Micheel excelled -- was surprising, because the United States Golf Association softened the greens just a hair overnight, making them a tad easier to hold, and presented the players with some accessible pins. That may not be the case come the weekend.
"Our scores say a lot about the U.S. Open," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, who did well to shoot 73. "You get good golf courses like this and set [them] up reasonable, in a regular event guys would shoot regular scores. But in this event, everybody gets a bit more tense."
Those who looked at Pebble's beauty but simultaneously considered its tenacity -- and then flinched a bit -- included Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the top two players in the world. Their total number of birdies at the end of the day -- zero -- seems implausible. Mickelson's morning round of 75 included two penalty strokes and five missed birdie putts that, strung together, totaled less than 40 feet. Woods's afternoon trek that led to a 74 was more methodical, and appeared to be more encouraging, until he bogeyed 16 and 18.
"The greens are just awful," Woods said, lamenting the state of the poa annua putting surfaces, which grew bumpy in the afternoon.
Others, though, seemed just fine with everything.
"It's unbelievable," said de Jonge, a 29-year-old native of Zimbabwe who holed out from the fairway for eagle on the difficult 14th. "Everything that goes along with it, with the tournament, the venue -- everything."
Micheel, too, played on the same greens, and he teed off only 44 minutes before Woods. He is by now, though, accustomed to dealing with such circumstances a bit better than he once would have. His claim to fame to this point comes from his only victory, the 2003 PGA Championship. But he has learned since then -- as he struggled to recapture that moment, then battled a debilitating shoulder injury that shelved him for nine months -- that he's guaranteed little in the way of free passes. Last summer, as he tried to come back from the injury, he gained no sponsors exemptions into PGA Tour events -- "zero," he said, somewhat ruefully.
"It's amazing how quickly people forget you," he said.
This year, as he simultaneously dealt with his mother's declining health and tried to re-establish himself in the golf world, he joined the European Tour because he could get into more events there, and he tried to straddle to continents. In April, while Micheel was finishing fifth in the Houston Open, he got the news that his mother's cancer had spread to her brain. It is now in her spine, in her liver, overtaking her body.
"I don't think she'll be here much past August," he said.
When Donna Micheel's condition worsened on Mother's Day -- her white blood cell count had skyrocketed, necessitating a trip to the hospital -- Shaun canceled plans to play two events overseas. He needs, he said, to stay near the family's Memphis home. And when he plays, he does so for different reasons.
"It's nice to really be able to play for someone other than me," Micheel said. "It's always been about me and my team, and where I stood on the money list, where I stood on the FedEx Cup list, and it just gets all a little bit too consuming."
Now, there are other situations about which to be consumed. The rest of the field can deal with the greens, the pins, the rough however they see fit. Shaun Micheel will do the same, then call home, and realize this: "I'm really playing for her," he said.