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Pebble Beach retains its magic

Golf fans with an appetite for watching the pros play at Pebble Beach are licking their chops because they will get a double helping this year.

The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which begins Thursday, is the appetizer, and the United States Golf Association will provide the main course by holding the U.S. Open for the fifth time on probably the best links course in the United States in June.

Bing Crosby brought Pebble into the national golf consciousness when he moved his annual Clambake from Southern California to the Monterey Peninsula in 1947 and into millions of living rooms around the country when it was televised for the first time in 1958.

You can't beat the setting on the shores of Pacific Ocean, with the waves pounding against the rocky coastline while sea lions, porpoises and whales frolic in the surf.

On land, the sprawling fairways run along the cliffs and the landscape is dotted by pine and oak trees, and golfers are joined on their rounds by herds of deer that come out of the Del Monte Forest.

And then you get the sunset.

It was Robert Louis Stevenson who called this part of the Pacific Coast "the greatest confluence of land and water in the world," but it was Bing who let the world in on a secret that Californians already knew, that Pebble is one of the finest seaside golf courses on the globe.

Many of the pros actually prefer nearby Cypress Point Golf Club, but not the greatest golfer the world has yet seen.

"If I only had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach," said Jack Nicklaus, a three-time winner of the tournament still known to purists as The Crosby.

"I've loved this course from the first time I saw it. It's possibly the best in the world."

All you have to know about the course is that the winners of the four U.S. Opens that have been played there were Nicklaus in 1972, Tom Watson in a memorable duel with Nicklaus in 1982, Tom Kite with a memorable chip shot in 1992 and Tiger Woods by a record 15 strokes in 2000.

The roll call of champions of the regular-season event on the Monterey Peninsula includes Nicklaus, Watson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff, Billy Casper, Tony Lema, Johnny Miller, Gene Littler, Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson.

Not quite everybody loves the course at Pebble Beach, however.

Lee Trevino once said that if you get to the sixth tee and are 5-over-par, "It is the best place in the world to commit suicide."

Demaret, one of golf's colorful characters who won the Masters three times and later was one of the game's most beloved announcers, once said: "If you moved Pebble Beach 50 miles inland, no one would have heard of it."

It was Demaret who got off one of the greatest lines in Crosby history after Arnold Palmer, who never won at Pebble but finished second twice, hit his tee shot on the par-3 17th hole over the green and into the shallow water of Stillwater Cove.

Palmer, who now is a part-owner of the Pebble Beach Golf Links, was hoping to get a drop but eventually was forced to go back to the tee and reload.

Cracked Demaret: "His nearest point of relief would have been Honolulu."

The celebrity pro-am remains a big part of the week at Pebble Beach, and Clint Eastwood -- chairman of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which operates the tournament -- has lined up a cast that includes longtime favorite Bill Murray, Tom Brady, George Lopez, Huey Lewis, Chris Berman, Tony Romo, Vince Gill and Brandi Chastain.

The field of pros includes Mickelson, Singh, Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Sean O'Hair and three other former winners of the AT&T -- Davis Love III, Mark O'Meara and Dustin Johnson, the title defender.

O'Meara has won the title at Pebble a record five times, the last in 1997, when he outplayed his pal Woods.

"If you are having a bad day and you are walking down (Nos.) 8 or 9, you can just look out and there is one of the most picturesque of places," said the 53-year-old O'Meara, who is taking a week away from the Champions Tour to play his favorite course.

"The water is so blue and the whales are out there, the seals are squawking and the ocean is breaking over the rocks."

The Monterey Peninsula Foundation is bringing back a piece of the old Crosby this week by moving the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club back into the tournament rotation for the first time since 1977.

Some of the pros were hoping Cypress Point, which has not been part of the tournament since 1990, would replace not-so-popular Poppy Hills, but they will have to settle for the Shore Course, another oldie-but-goodie that underwent a retooling by designer Mike Strantz in 2004.

"This is great for the tournament," Love, who won at Pebble in 2001 and 2003, said when the switch was announced last year. "I know the pros will be excited. ... I am a big fan of Mike Strantz's work."

The pros will play Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula with their amateur partners in each of the first three rounds, with the final round contested solely at picturesque Pebble.

In person or on television, it's a feast for the eyes.