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Experiecnce a big factor at Pebble Beach

Davis Love III had the crystal trophy under his arm as he walked to the practice range Wednesday morning at Pebble Beach, prompting a sarcastic protest from one of the caddies.

``We already have a winner?'' the caddie called out. ``What is this, wrestling? Predetermined winners?''

Love was simply returning the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am trophy to the tournament office.

Besides, this is one of the most unpredictable tournaments because of the fickle weather, bumpy greens, three very different courses and six-hour rounds with amateur partners that range from CEOs (Charles Schwab) to actors (Kevin Costner) to Super Bowl MVPs (Tom Brady).

That's not to say Pebble Beach doesn't have its share of favorites, even without Tiger Woods.

Love's victory last year made him the 10th multiple winner at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Mark O'Meara won five times during a 13-year stretch. Jack Nicklaus won the National Pro-Am three times, plus a U.S. Open and a U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

And even some guys that haven't won always seem to be around the lead Sunday afternoon.

Vijay Singh has been in the top 10 four of the last five years and figures to be there again this week. The big Fijian has top-10 finishes in 11 straight Tour events, three shy of the modern-day record.

Matt Gogel blew a big lead in 2000 -- the year Woods made up seven shots over the final seven holes -- but returned two years later to win at Pebble Beach.

``Experience is huge here,'' Gogel said Wednesday. ``There's no other tournament where the greens are soft, the weather is unpredictable at best, and the ball doesn't go very far. The more times you go around, the more you realize where you've got to pull back.''

The tournament starts Thursday at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills.

Woods is skipping the tournament for the second straight year. He has made it no secret that watching short putts fishtail across the greens takes a toll on his confidence.

Woods clarified his position in his monthly newsletter Wednesday.

He still loves Pebble Beach, where he won the U.S. Open by a record 15 shots in 2000. But along with the greens and long rounds, playing in the AT&T would be the start of five consecutive tournaments.

``I just don't want people to get the wrong idea,'' Woods said. ``I've enjoyed going to the Monterey Peninsula since junior golf, and it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. The people have always treated me well, and I'll definitely go back.

``I hope they have a wonderful tournament and the weather holds up.''

The forecast calls for some sunshine, clouds, a little rain and some wind -- just about every type of element except for snow and hail, and that's not entirely out of the question.

Love, Singh, Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Mike Weir will be among the favorites, all of them in the top 10 in the world and with good memories -- not to mention good attitudes -- about Pebble Beach.

``It's a good tournament for a good player,'' Love said. ``The top players are always up there. Experience pays off.''

While scoring records have been set at most PGA Tour events over the last few years, that hasn't been the case at the AT&T. In a beautiful event, and the amateur make it feel like a casual round.

But it's hard.

Only three tournaments last year featured higher scoring averages -- the British Open, the Masters and the PGA Championship.

``I think playing three different courses, it's hard to get in a rhythm,'' Love said. ``I always felt like if you could hang in there and stay within four or five of the lead, you always had a good shot on Sunday because you can get one hot round ... and jump up and win.''

Love did that in 2001. Starting the final round seven strokes behind, he played the first seven holes in 8 under par, then won with a 3-wood into the par-5 18th that set up a two-putt birdie for a one-shot victory.

Last year was even more dramatic.

Love twice lost his final-round lead and came to the 18th hole tied with Tom Lehman. He figured he needed at least a birdie to have a chance to win, and came through with the best drive of his career, so pure and long and it left him only a 4-iron into the green. He hit that to 12 feet and two-putted for the win.

Dramatic finishes have become common at Pebble Beach, with the winners having to make birdie on the final hole every year dating to Mickelson in '98.

There have been a few changes to the course, none more noticeable than the 18th, one of the most picturesque closing holes in golf.

The two Monterey Pines in the middle of the fairway died last fall. Now, players are aiming for two green windows on a house in the distance as their sight line off the tee.

Two cypress trees will be planted after the tournament, about 30 yards up the fairway from where they had been.

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