When asked what their dream golf experience would be, the majority of American golf enthusiasts would describe a round at either Augusta Golf Club or Pebble Beach Golf Links, the two most popular golf courses in the nation.
Augusta will have it’s annual place in the spotlight in April for the most recent edition of The Masters.
Pebble Beach? They get two events this year: the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, taking place this week, and then four month later, the 2019 U.S. Open.
First up is the annual PGA Tour stop, which brings together a collection of professional golf talent and celebrities for an event that first teed off in 1937, when Sam Snead won the third of his record 82 PGA Tour events.
An event long associated with legendary entertainer Bing Crosby, there are a plethora of intriguing storylines for the 2019 version, but here are the four likely to gain the most traction:
1. Potter Defends
The final round of last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was close to best-case scenario for the network. Dustin Johnson, a two-time event champion who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, was 54-hole co-leader, and Sunday also had two big names in the mix with c and Jason Day two of the top chasers. The trio ended up in a tie for second.
The man who got the better of them? Little-known Ted Potter Jr, a vagabond tour pro who had not posted a top 10 on the PGA Tour in five years.
Unknown champions happen occasionally on Tour, seen most recently when Adam Long took January’s Desert Classic, but what Potter Jr did at Pebble Beach was special. It was not a case of everyone around him collapsing; Potter came and won this tournament, taking it away from some of the Tour’s biggest names.
After a third-round 62, Potter found himself tied with Dustin Johnson for the 54-hole lead, giving the duo a Sunday date in the final pairing. Showing some understandable nerves, he three-putted the first hole from 18 feet away to open with a bogey and already drop out of the lead.
Many players have found themselves in a similar situation and proceeded to implode and finish significantly off their 54-hole pace. That was not Potter. His opening bogey would prove to be the only blemish on his best day as a professional golfer.
That bogey seemed to awake something in Potter. He birdied the very next hole, then added more on 4, 6, and 7 to establish himself as the surprising solo leader. Becoming the chased rather than the chaser, an unfamiliar position for him, Potter played brilliant defense of his lead. He calmly parred the 8th hole, and then the 9th. He then went on to par each hole of the back nine, showing an amazing level of composure. When the last putt fell on the 72nd hole, Potter had not just stared down the Tour’s best and survived, he won by three strokes.
However, as the season progressed, Potter found it difficult to maintain the success he had at Pebble Beach. He missed his next cuts, finishing 4-over-par or worse in all five, including a 12-over disaster at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The last of those missed cuts happened at Augusta, which was his second career attempt at The Masters, but from there, his season did improve. He made the weekend in 11 of his final 14 starts of the season, but only placed in the top 20 once, a T16 at the RBC Heritage, a post-U.S. Open event that typically draws a relatively weak field.
The new season has been more of the same. Potter continues to make starts and occasionally gets hot within an event, but he rarely sees his name on the first page of the leaderboard.
In seven starts this season, he has made five cuts, with just two top-25s, a T14 at Octobers The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges where he opened with a 77, and a T13 at last month’s Sony Open. In his most recent start, he missed the cut at last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
This week will mark the second time Potter has played an event as the defending champion. He was an out-of-nowhere winner at the 2012 Greenbrier Classic, and impressed on the defense, finishing in a tie for sixth. Those starts mark two of just four career top-10s. He will still be considered a longshot at Pebble Beach this week, but the way he stood down elite competition last year, it would be unwise to overlook him.
2. Phil Takes Center Stage
Last week in this spot, we expressed how impressive it was that Phil Mickelson had played in every Waste Management Phoenix Open since 1991, making his 29th start. Mickelson has not quite played in as many AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams, but his history in the event is just as, if not more, impressive than what he has done in Phoenix.
It is well-known that Phil is a west coast guy, but this has been traditionally his best stretch the season.
Mickelson has won this event four times: 1998, 2005, 2007, and 2012, with his second, third, and fourth victories all coming by multiple strokes. Those four victories tie the great Sam Snead for second-most in tournament history, and trail Mark O’Meara by just one for the event lead.
In addition Mickelson, has finished runner-up twice (2016, 2018), and third twice (2001, 2004). It should be no surprise that he is the event’s all-time earnings leader.
Now, 48 years of age, Mickelson is still going strong and remains among the favorites this year at Pebble Beach. In three events in the new season, he has one great start (T2, Desert Classic), one good start (T17, Safeway Open), and one terrible start (CUT, Phoenix Open). That terrible start happened just a week ago, however, making it difficult to gauge just where the five-time major winner’s game is.
Speaking of majors, Phil will likely be extra-focused at Pebble this week. The course hosts the U.S. Open in June, with that major being his white whale (no wins, 7 runner-ups). Obviously the course will not play exactly the same as it will when it gets prepped for the major, but there are enough similarities that an intimate knowledge of the course, even in a “regular” event, should give a tremendous advantage.
With fewer than two years left before he has Champions Tour eligibility, this year might be his last, best chance at the U.S. Open victory and the Career Grand Slam.
3. Don’t Forget DJ
All-time, Mickelson, Snead, and O’Meara have collected the most AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am titles, but in more recent years, it has basically been the Dustin Johnson Open. Having first teed up at this event in 2008, here are the event results for the 19-time PGA Tour winner:
DJ’s two victories leave him just one behind Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller for fourth all-time. This is clearly a course that Johnson feels very, very comfortable on.
He was also the 54-hole leader by three strokes at the 2010 U.S. Open, which was the last time Pebble Beach hosted a major. He got off to a rough start and finished T8, but that was pretty typical for him at that point in his career; he has since gotten infinitely better at closing events, although with his talent and career accomplishments, most agree that he should have more than one major title (2016 U.S. Open).
Johnson currently trails only Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka in the world rankings, although he was No. 1 when he played this event last year. In that 2018 event, DJ took a co-lead through 54 holes, but was surprisingly pedestrian in round 4, carding three birdies to three bogeys and shooting an even-par 72 to fall three shots short of champion Ted Potter Jr. With neither Rose nor Koepka in attendance, DJ will again be the highest-ranked player in the field.
Johnson did not finish as well as he would have liked as last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but he is coming off a fantastic season, nonetheless. In 2018, he had three victories, in addition to two runner-ups, and three other tertiary finishes. He made $8.5 million in earnings, and his 12 top 10s ranked first on Tour.
Statistically, DJ was even better. For the season, he led the PGA Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, birdie average, and scoring average. He is known mostly for his length, but he also finished 2nd on Tour in proximity, 5th in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and 9th in greens in regulation. Had Brooks Koepka not won two majors last year, DJ may very well have won his second career PGA Tour Player of the Year award.
DJ has not played a PGA Tour event since posting a T4 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first week of January. He did, however, play a European Tour event last year, and whether that is good or bad for his chances for a third Pebble Beach title this week is debatable.
On the plus side, Johnson won that European Tour event, riding a second-round 61 to a two-stroke victory over budding Chinese star Haotong-Li. Other big names in the field included Rose, Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, and Patrick Reed. The victory could give him excellent momentum coming into this event.
On the flip side of that European Tour victory, however, was that the event occurred in Saudi Arabia, about as far from Pebble Beach as a person can get while remaining on Earth.
As an extremely rich professional athlete, it is unlikely that DJ flew from the Middle East in a middle-seat on coach, but a very long flight is still a very long flight. His body might not be as ready to go as it usually is.
What could help is if he feels comfortable with his celebrity pro-am partner. As it has been the past several years, that partner is all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who happens to be the father of DJ’s long-time fiancee, Paulina, and grandfather of DJ’s two children.
4. A Notable Debut
Among the handful of players making their first AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am start this week, easily the most notable is the addition to the field of European Tour star Tommy Fleetwood.
Currently ranked 14th in the world, he is known mostly for his work in Europe. He is two years removed from winning the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings, and has four wins on the big league Tour on the other side of the pond.
As great of a player as Fleetwood has been, it might be surprising to hear that he has not won a tournament in over a year, with his last victory coming at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January of 2018.
Of course, that is not mentioning the formidable effort he put forward last September as a highly-valued member of Europe’s prevailing Ryder Cup Team. Fleetwood scored four points for the European side, with all the wins of his 4-1-0 record coming while paired with reigning Open Champion of the Year Francesco Molinari.
Fleetwood has not yet won on American soil, but in each of the past two years, he has contended in the U.S. Open. Two years ago, he finished solo-fourth at Erin Hills, playing in the final Sunday pairing with Brian Harman.
Improving on that performance last June at Shinnecock Hills, Fleetwood looked like he was playing a different game than the rest of the field when he posted a final round 63 to finish solo-second, one stroke short of Brooks Koepka. As close as he has come to victory at the last two U.S. Opens, it makes sense that he would want to get a head start at the course hosting this year’s edition.
In 19 PGA Tour starts last season, his first full year as a PGA Tour member, Fleetwood missed just one cut. He finished in the top 25 in 14 starts, with six of those ending in a top-10. He was fourth on Tour for the year in strokes gained: total, while ranking an impressive fifth in birdie average and sixth in scoring average.