From the 600,000 people in a modern day golf party to The Clambake, golf’s original party for the elite. While the aura of Bing Crosby will be felt this week, it’s the modern celebrity that descends on the Monterrey Peninsula to rub elbows with some of the world’s best golfers. Is that a seal on the rocks or Kevin James working on his tan? Hiyooo! Two weeks left on the West Coast swing before the PGA Tour exits its warm-up laps to get up to speed in advance of Augusta. Grab your autograph book and get ready for Pebble.
The Course – There are three courses in the pro-am rota to start the week, with Spyglass Hill GC (Par 72 at 6,953 yards) and Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore course (Par 71 at 6,958 yards) to fill it out, but all eyes are on Pebble Beach Golf Links. Most fans don’t know that this par 72 layout barely stretches beyond 6,800 yards. It’s okay if you don’t know that. You should be paying attention to the views. No golf course matches golf and coastline better than Pebble, with more visually known holes than any course in the world, not named Augusta National. Monterrey Peninsula was the only course to play under par a year ago and has frequently been the easiest track of them all.
Last Year – It was Phil Mickelson’s tournament to lose, and he lost it. He led by two entering the final round, but a final round 72 opened the door. Vaughn Taylor, playing out of the Past Champion category with limited Tour status and starts, shot 65, including birdies on holes 13-16 to shock the golfing world for his third career PGA Tour win. Mickelson had a five-foot putt on the 18th green to force a playoff, but… golf.
This Year – This week is often more about celebrity (more below) than it is about professional golf. By Sunday, however, there will be questions that need to be answered. At the forefront of that list is where is the game of Jason Day? While all eyes were on Tiger Woods’ return at Torrey Pines, Jason Day had a forgettable putting performance in his first missed cut in a year (coincidentally, also at Torrey). The man who led the Tour in strokes gained putting last season looked completely lost on the greens. Offseason rust? Perhaps, but the best golfers in the world are playing well (see: Matsuyama, Hideki) and the world number-one needs to erase any doubters. How he plays is the golf story.
The Field – Four of the top 10 in the world, with Day joined by Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. The world’s best will collide in two weeks at the Honda Classic, so this is the time many players will rest. Only half of the top 30 in FedEx Cup points are participating this week as well. The celebrity field, however, is stacked, including Super Bowl comeback maestro Bill Belichick, Larry the Cable Guy, Peyton Manning, Ray Romano, Justin Timberlake and, of course, Bill Murray.
Weather – The wet winter in California continues this week, with rain greeting players on arrival, and steady precipitation in the forecast for the first two days as well. The course will be lush and damp, and temperatures will be cool with some steady breezes. Expect every course to play longer than what the scorecard reads.
Holes to Watch – Where does one start?! From the 106-yard 7th, which can be a 4-iron or lob wedge depending on the wind, to the diabolical 8th and it’s lengthy test over Carmel Bay, to the signature par-5 18th along the coast, Pebble Beach offers more holes that inspire both awe and fear than almost any piece of property. However, perhaps slightly overlooked is one of the toughest par 5’s in the United States. The 14th hole is 573 yards. There is room to miss off the tee. The fairway isn’t pinched. Long hitters can have a poke in two. The green is where the hole is sinister. Perched, tiny and never receptive, even perfect wedge shots don’t guarantee birdie. Last year, it played as the fourth most difficult hole on the course, and ranks second on Tour as the hardest par 5 green to hit.
Can I Get Your Autograph – What makes this tournament unique is that it’s the only stop on Tour to maintain its rich heritage of celebrity interaction. Other pro-ams couldn’t sustain the interest from modern celebrities, many of whom don’t play golf, or attract fans to them in the first place. That’s simply evolution. Pebble Beach has kept that old Clambake feel. Maybe it’s the isolation of the coast, or the opportunity that Pebble still presents as a must-play venue, but it still works. Saturday’s coverage will swoon over the stars more than the golf shots. Many hate it. Embrace it! There aren’t any other days like it on Tour.
20 is the New 30 – There has not been a PGA Tour winner older than 29 this calendar year. The average age of the top 10 in the world is below 30 for the first time EVER. There is a brashness and confidence with the young crop of players that makes them seemingly invincible to pressure or expectations. They are groomed to win and are winning. Until the “old” guard takes the throne back, it’s a talking point every week.
Championship Pedigree – Hot putters always rise to the top, but you have to putt well at Pebble. With poa annua greens that can get a little bouncy from traffic all three days, being confident with the stroke is key. Mickelson was 2nd last year in strokes gained putting for his two rounds at Pebble. Taylor made 108-feet worth of putts (third best) in his final round 65. All areas of the game are tested, but only one winner since 2011 has finished outside the top 7 in strokes gained putting on Pebble (Jimmy Walker in 2014)
Top Five –
Brandt Snedeker – Sneds checks every box for this tournament. He is a wizard putting on poa. He’s won this event twice. He looked solid in his last start at Torrey. Nobody, it feels like, is talking about him. The weather forecast isn’t ideal for him, but he’s proven he can withstand the worst (2016 Farmers Insurance Open) on the west coast and still win. He feels like the guy.
Dustin Johnson – His missed cut at Torrey Pines may have been the most shocking within his power trio, coming off the second-place finish in Abu Dhabi. Easiest way for him to get right? Play at Pebble. He’s won this event twice, finished second to Walker in 2014, and should have won the U.S. Open there in 2010. If it’s wet, who better to attack a longer course? Playing in the pro-am with father-in-law Wayne Gretsky is a bonus.
Justin Rose – If nobody is talking about Snedeker than Rose is on a milk carton. He’s not overdoing it on his schedule, nursing a back that shut him down in 2016. He finished a lap down to Justin Thomas at the Sony Open, for the quietest runner-up finish on Tour this year, then led early in San Diego before posting a top 4. He’s going to win soon.
Jordan Spieth – Take everything that was just written about Rose and copy it here. Rallied after a slow start last week in Scottsdale to get a top 10. The putter is a little balky right now, but he has never missed the cut at this event, and if it’s a bit of a mudder out there this week, you need a greens-hitting machine who doesn’t back down. Check.
Phil Mickelson – It is tough to pick Lefty in this spot over Day and a few others, but results speak. The return from sports hernia surgery is so last month. Despite the 71 on Super Bowl Sunday, Mickelson is showing flashes. His failure to seal the deal here last year should help to motivate. He’s won this event four times. He can play with two rain gloves on. This pick may blow up in either direction.
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – Hard not to burn Sneds here this week, and one could make the case to use Mickelson, given how much depth will be on the bench for other starts down the road. Why not ride another hot hand and pick Jon Rahm? He was okay in Scottsdale after winning at Torrey Pines, but he showed the ability on California’s coastal greens. He’s super long, which will help this week. Ride the hot hand while you can!