PEBBLE BEACH, California (Reuters) - Any golfer expecting to win the U.S. Open this year at Pebble Beach Golf Links should probably have committed himself to play in this week's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
The four champions in the U.S. Open held at Pebble Beach, Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tom Watson (1982), Tom Kite (1992) and Tiger Woods (2000), have all won the February event. Nicklaus and Woods, who is still in self-imposed exile after admitting to cheating on his wife, won both tournaments in the same year.
But even with that statistic, and the improvements made to the course, it has still been difficult to get professionals to play.
The weather is the main deterrent for many players. The winter often proves merciless on the Monterey Peninsula, where rain is as regular a visitor to the tournament as actor Bill Murray.
"Yeah, you know, it could be totally, it could be soft and wet this week," said Steve Stricker, who last played the event in 2006 and tied for 14th. "It could be soft and wet when we go back there for the Open, too, who knows?
"But I've played there enough so I don't feel like I need to go there for that reason alone. I just don't care to go up there and fight with that weather too much."
The weather, along with sometime agonizingly long rounds that are played with amateurs and celebrities, keeps many golfers away.
Pro-am tournaments comprise anywhere from three to five competitive rounds and many golfers do not want to play with amateurs when it counts.
The tournament committee at Pebble Beach has tried to lure more prominent players.
They took Poppy Hills out of the rotation and replaced it with Monterey Peninsula Country Club's (MPCC) Shore Course. The professionals were not impressed with Poppy Hills and with the Shore Course they get a stronger layout and a link with history, like Pebble and Spyglass Hill, the other course used in the rotation.
This is not the first time the MPCC has been in the event. When crooner Bing Crosby first began the pro-am in 1947, the Dunes Course was used for 18 years, then the Shore Course for the next two. The Shore Course was also in the rotation in 1977.
But the decision that has really enticed players to come to the event was cutting the field from 180 golfers to 156 in an effort to speed up play.
"The format of the tournament is a little more forgiving now," said Australian Stuart Appleby, who is playing the tournament for the first time since 1999.
Appleby said he had not been influenced by the location of the U.S. Open.
"It's not a course you have to play a dozen times to get to know," Appleby said. "If you played a practice round before the Open it might be a better strategy. It's a brushover, you get a look at the course, a quick how do you do, shake hands but the course will be very different.
"If you were very unfamiliar with the course and the greens then it would be a good idea. But from the way it will play it would be very different."
Arnold Palmer was brought in to renovate some of the course and Pebble Beach can now play longer at 7,040 yards, though it will not be that long for this event.
"You could get more in a practice round than you could during the tournament," said Ben Curtis, who won the 2003 Open Championship, the first time he played in a major.
"You might see guys show up a couple of weeks before and play and get a feel for the course. Every tournament I have won it was the first time I have seen it. It's a matter of whether you have your game on or not."
(Writing by John Reger; Editing by John Mehaffey)