The PGA Tour moves from their annual weeklong party in Phoenix, back to California, where a tremendous field will be taking in the sights of arguably the Tour’s most picturesque course, Pebble Beach, for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“Bing Crosby’s tournament” attracts not just the elite names in the sport, like Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, and Jason Day, it also boasts an impressive group of celebrities, with this year’s crop containing big names such as Wayne Gretzky, Larry Fitzgerald, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Toby Keith, Larry the Cable Guy, and perennial crowd favorite Bill Murray.
It takes considerable patience for the Tour pros, as the celebrities can disrupt the flow, but given the inimitable views from the course, most of them manage well.
Here are some of the more intriguing storylines coming into the week:
1. DJ vs J-DAY
In a tournament featuring a marquee course and a marquee field, the two most closely-watched players could be a pair of big names coming off a victory in their last PGA Tour event: World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, and World No. 1 at this time last year, Jason Day.
Dustin Johnson has an impressive history in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, winning in back-to-back years, 2009 and 2010, adding a runner-up in 2014 when he fell one stroke short of Jimmy Walker. He also finished solo-third in this event last year, and a T4 in 2015.
Clearly, this is a course where the best golfer in the world feels extraordinarily comfortable.
Perhaps an even better reason to expect another Pebble Beach championship run is DJ’s incredible recent form. In his last PGA Tour event, Johnson absolutely obliterated a stacked field at the year-opening Sentry Tournament of Champions, riding a 66-65 weekend to an 8-stroke romp over Jon Rahm.
He was unbelievably good tee-to-green in Hawaii, and co-led the field in birdies while also carding the second-fewest bogeys.
In the month since that rout at Kapalua, DJ has not just been doing shots of pasion azteca off the immaculate midsection of his supermodel fiancee, he has been keeping form by playing in the UAE, finishing T9 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC-Championship.
While not as dominant as DJ over the past 12-24 months, former World No.1, and current World No. 10, Jason Day is coming off his first victory in 20 months, when he outlasted 10-time Euro Tour champion Alex Noren in a six-hole playoff at Torrey Pines at the Farmers Insurance Open.
After a very disappointing 2017 season based on his lofty standards, finally getting back into the winner’s circle is a huge deal for Day, a man who won eight tournaments between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. If he is “back,” it adds another credible name to the pantheon of professional golfers.
A troublesome back is still a threat to circumscribe Day’s ridiculous potential, but if it holds up this week, something which very nearly did not happen at Torrey Pines, Day is a good bet to contend at Pebble Beach, a place where he has had success in recent years, including a T5 in the most recent edition and a T4 in 2015.
2. SPIETH DEFENDS
With Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, the talk is about whether they can keep their current strong form. With defending champion Jordan Spieth, however, the talk is whether he can find it again.
Spieth was a one-man show in his Pebble Beach triumph last year, shooting back-to-back 65s on Friday and Saturday to a six-stroke lead into the final round. He then looked very comfortable with the lead, not letting anyone get close on Sunday, employing a conservative gameplan that led to 16 pars and 2 birdies in a 2-under 70. Spieth won by four strokes over Kelly Kraft.
Spieth failed to disappoint much over the rest of 2017, notching two more wins, including a performance of the ages in a Open Championship triumph, and posting top 10s in more than 50% of his events (12 of 23). Expectations were again high going into the 2018 season.
However, in three outings in 2018, the normally formidable Texan has been, well, not very good. After two pedestrian finishes, at least by his lofty standards, Spieth shockingly missed the cut entirely at last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
He is still Jordan Spieth in his tee-to-green game, but shockingly, the world-class putter has been abysmal with the flat stick. The man who was 2nd on tour in strokes gained: putting in 2016 has fallen to an unfathomably poor 195th in 2018.
Three tournaments is a small sample size, and over the course of the season, it is difficult to believe that his work on the greens will not improve dramatically, but if he wants to go back-to-back this week at Pebble Beach, he is going to need to putt MUCH better.
3. RORY RETURNS
If there had been a “Most Disappointing PGA Tour Player in 2017” award, perhaps something tantamount to “The Sacko” from the TV Series The League, a significant percentage of the votes would likely have gone to four-time major champion Rory McIlroy.
Despite six top-10 finishes in 14 PGA Tour starts, including two in majors, Rory never really contended anywhere in 2017, except maybe at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he was in the mix going into Sunday, but finished nine-strokes (T5) behind winner Hideki Matsuyama, who shot a final-round 61.
A lot of those 2017 struggles were imputed to an extremely stubborn January rib injury that plagued Rory the entire season. There were questions about whether he would shut down his season after the final major to rest and heal, but he attempted to make a go of it in three FedExCup playoff events. He played poorly in all three – going T34, CUT, T58 – which eliminated him from the playoffs before the Tour Championship. That was when Rory decided enough was enough, and shut it down on the PGA Tour.
Fortunately for Rory, and perhaps unfortunately for the rest of the Tour, the nagging injury has finally healed, and with the improved health, he has seen impressive results in Europe as of late, finishing runner-up at the British Masters, T3 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, where he did not lose the tournament as much as 22-year-old Chinese prodigy Li Haotong took it.
One thing going against Rory this week, however, is that while many of the big names (DJ, Day, Spieth, Phil, etc) have long histories of success at Pebble Beach, this will be Rory’s debut at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
4. 2018 PGA TOUR DEBUTS
Three international stars have pegged Pebble Beach for their 2018 PGA Tour debut: an Aussie and a South African who are hoping to bounce back from mediocre seasons, and a talented top-10 machine Englishman who is motivated to end a shockingly long winless streak.
The suave 37-year-old Aussie Adam Scott epitomizes the label of “shotmaker” with a gorgeous swing that is the envy of all his peers. That being said, his talents led to very few positive results in 2017.
One season after a two-win, two-runner-up 2016, Scott had just four top-10s in 2017, with the best of those being a T6 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
It was the first time since 2002 that Scott failed to record a single top five on the season. His two starts of the new season, both in late October were awful (25, T50) as he failed to record a single sub-70 round.
If he is going to get his 2018 PGA Tour season off to a strong start, he will have to find a way in a tournament he has played just once in his 17-year career: a T52 in 2010.
The 29-year-old South African Grace had one of the biggest highlights of the 2017 season, a breakthrough 62 during the third round of the Open Championship, the single lowest round in major championship history, breaking a tie between nearly 30 other players.
While the World No. 28 has not had a good finish in a PGA Tour event since July, that being his T6 at the Open Championship, he did post a recent European Tour win and runner-up – both on home soil, taking the Nedbank Golf Challenge Hosted by Gary Player, and solo-second at the BMW South African Open.
This week will mark not just his 2018 PGA Tour debut, but also his Pebble Beach debut, as he has never had this tournament on his schedule before.
This will also be the first the PGA Tour sees this year of Paul Casey, who seems to be in the leader mix in every tournament he enters, but also has an unbelievably difficult time closing tournaments.
Despite all his top 5s, which he did five times in his last eight events last season, and in the final three legs of the 2016 FedExCup playoffs, Casey is in the midst of a puzzling winless drought that stretches all the way back to the 2010 Shell Houston Open.
This will be the 40-year-old Casey’s first start in this event in 16 years, with his only experience being back-to-back missed cuts in 2001 and 2002.
5. HEAT CHECK: WOODLAND AND MICKELSON
Fans were amazed when Gary Woodland carded nine birdies in the final round of last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, and he needed each one to shoot 7-under 64 and make a playoff that he won over Chez Reavie, notching his first PGA Tour victory in five years.
The nine birdies, however, was not even the most he’s had in a final round in the past 12 months, as he tallied 10 of them at Pebble Beach last year to shoot a low-round 7-under 65 on Sunday, which allowed him to finish T5.
Players often struggle the week following an emotionally draining victory, but Woodland has shown that he can go low anywhere, and if he is still feeling what he did on Sunday in Phoenix, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the 33-year-old could enter the winner’s circle for a second consecutive week.
Also placing well at TPC Scottsdale was fan favorite Phil Mickelson, who contended on Sunday, went bogey-free for 17 holes and made a late charge at the lead before a double-bogey on the final hole, a hole he played aggressively needing an eagle to tie, dropped him to a still-impressive T5.
It was an encouraging result considering his 2018 struggles to that point: a missed cut at the CareerBuilder Challenge and a T45 at the Farmers Insurance Open.
As for his history in this event, few people have been better at Pebble Beach than Phil. He was won this tournament four times, one short of Mark O’Meara’s record of five, with the most recent coming in 2012. His 2005 and 2007 victories came by a combined nine strokes.
Mickelson played very poorly at Pebble last year, as a final round 77 dropped him 37 spots to solo-65th, the worst finish among anyone who made the cut. However, he was the runner-up to Vaughn Taylor the year prior, missing a five-foot putt on the 72nd hole that would have forced a playoff.
It is hard to tell what Phil will do week-to-week at 47 years of age, but as we saw just last week, the 42-time PGA Tour Champion still has something left in the tank.
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