G-Mac to conquer Pebble once more
Ben Coley previews the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with Graeme McDowell his headline selection.
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The PGA Tour returns to California's coastline for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Like the Humana Challenge, professionals will play 54 holes across three courses - Pebble Beach, Monterey Peninsula and Spyglass Hill - before the top 60 return to Pebble Beach on Sunday to do battle for the title.
All three courses measure under 7,000 yards and while both Pebble and Spyglass do play to a par of 72, power isn't really a factor here even if Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson together account for three of the last five renewals.
Instead, there's a premium on accuracy from tee to smaller-than-average greens and it's no surprise that only DA Points managed to win one of the last five events here without ranking inside the top six for greens in regulation.
Course and current form have both tended to be extremely solid pointers here - more so than most weeks - and I suppose with that in mind it shouldn't surprise that Jason Day heads the betting with just about every firm.
I was planning to select Day here and had readied my 'here's why he's a better price than you might think' argument. But that argument fails once he gets below 16/1 and with some firms quoting 9s, I've prepared myself for the very real possibility that he wins without my backing.
Day's return in the Farmers might have been one shot short of what both we and he were looking for but it was also a marker for 2014, a year which could end with him being mentioned alongside Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott et al.
He's got form here having twice been inside the top six, there are few better iron players the world over and any improvement in his short game from Torrey Pines will likely see him challenge for what would be just a second official PGA Tour title.
Therein lies the problem. Day has worked his way onto the world stage without winning tournaments, with his headline-making performances coming courtesy of top-five finishes in majors. While impressive, from a punting perspective we're now forced to take short prices about a player who hasn't yet shown an ability to churn out titles like a Dustin Johnson, alongside whom he sits in the betting.
Given that Johnson has eight Tour wins to Day's one and that two of them have come here at Pebble Beach, I was rather hoping - and in truth expecting - Day to be a couple of points bigger at the very least. But he isn't, so we move on.
Happily, my disappointment with regards Day was soon forgotten when I saw 40/1 quotes about Graeme McDowell and he rates smashing value at the price.
As far as I can see there is one negative with regards McDowell's prospects here and it's the fact that he hasn't played tournament golf since finishing 15th behind champion Day in November's World Cup at Royal Melbourne and going on to take sixth in Tiger's event at Sherwood.
Clearly, McDowell concedes match sharpness to his rivals and it could cost him, but conversely he is absolutely raring to go and where better to start his season than at the scene of his 2010 US Open triumph?
I'm sure you all remember that famous Father's Day when McDowell celebrated a first major title with his old man Kenny, and the fact that the two will play together in this week's pro-am shouldn't be overlooked.
"I couldn't ask for a better place to start, having lived my dream when I won my US Open there on father's day in 2010," McDowell wrote in his new BBC Sport blog.
"And this week will be a real 'bucket-lister' because I will be partnered by my dad Kenny, the first time we've played together in what's always a great event.
"It's sure to be a really emotional return. I'm so buzzed up and I can't wait to get going."
In that blog, McDowell speaks of the hard work he's put in with his coach Pete Cowen over the winter and how, unsurprisingly, the Ryder Cup is at the forefront of his goals for 2014.
Interestingly, McDowell already considers Jamie Donaldson, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson and Thomas Bjorn as 'locks' and while I'm not quite so sure, what this does mean is that the Northern Irishman is focused on the big challenge that lies ahead as he knows qualification is far from assured.
It's true that US Open form doesn't always work out in this event - they're played under very different conditions - but DJ led into the final round of McDowell's Open and Mickelson, the 2012 winner of the AT&T, was one of McDowell's biggest threats in the final round.
In addition, McDowell was eighth in this tournament back in 2005 - one of just three starts in it - and there's absolutely no doubt he's a much better player now.
McDowell's other PGA Tour win came on the classical, coastal layout at Hilton Head while he was also runner-up just down the road in San Francisco when Webb Simpson added his name to the list of new major winners.
Throw in the fact that he's a fairways and greens machine who has twice placed on his first start of the campaign (2011 and 2012) and 40/1 looks a gift, plain and simple.
I tipped Nick Watney in this event last year and, at more than twice the price, he's worth another chance.
Watney is a Californian who grew up nearby and used to watch the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - as well as Tiger Woods - tee it up here so it's no surprise that you'll find several examples of him referring to it as a 'special place'.
Clearly, he's not the only one who thinks so but as a five-time PGA Tour winner, including down the road at Torrey Pines, Watney certainly has what it takes to contend if he can get everything to click.
The last couple of years have seen his career stall somewhat, but a closing 64 for second place in the BMW Championship last September suggested that when the putter works, Watney is hitting it well enough to win again.
Unfortunately, he's continued to struggle somewhat with the putter but the tee-to-green game remains in good shape and a share of 29th last week was a decent enough return considering that he again holed very little.
In truth there's not a great deal to suggest he's about to turn that around but with his long game in such solid shape it's a chance worth taking in an event where he's twice finished in the top 10.
All of Watney's wins have come following some sort of promise the week before and his return to form in 2012 came under similar circumstances: he was hitting it well and making a lot of cuts, but just couldn't put together a score.
There are definite risks attached with Watney but I remain sure he can win one of these and at 50/1 there's every reason to take a chance.
Justin Hicks played Pebble Beach particularly well on his way to a tie for 12th last year and looks primed for a decent run at 150/1.
Hicks is a fine ball-striker so it's no surprise that this test suits and having shot 68-67 at the host layout in 2013 - despite a four-putt in round two - he'll be looking forward to a return.
I wouldn't have expected the shootout in Phoenix to suit last week but Hicks closed with rounds of 69-67 for 19th on his first start at TPC Scottsdale, which acts as a real pointer towards his chances back in California.
If you go back to the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines you'll see that Hicks led after round one so a coastal California test appears right up his street and given that he leads the PGA Tour in greens hit and ranks eighth in total driving, he's definitely on top of his game.
Michael Thompson is another player with strong US Open form in California - he finished alongside McDowell when second to Simpson in the 2012 US Open - and is worth chancing at the same price as Hicks.
It's less than 12 months since Thompson scrambled his way to victory in the Honda Classic at a tough, wind-swept PGA National and after an initial adjustment period, he's gradually finding form once more.
He led the all-around ranking when 16th in the Tournament of Champions before narrowly missing the cut in Hawaii and then making his way to Phoenix where, after a three-week break, he snuck inside the top 20 despite having missed the cut on both previous visits to Scottsdale.
That therefore acts as an encouraging pointer and while Thompson hasn't got any form worth shouting about here, he did make the cut in his first full season on tour (and most recent visit) which represents a step in the right direction.
Thompson was 10th for greens hit and fifth in driving accuracy in Phoenix and with other noteworthy PGA Tour results coming from appearances at Sea Island, Waialae, Trump International and nearby Riviera, this sort of test really should serve him well.
Others who can be expected to play well include fiery local Spencer Levin and the likes of Matt Jones and Bryce Molder, both of whom have spurned opportunities to win this title.
The case for Duke is simple. He carded a remarkable 64 at Pebble Beach on his way to seventh here in 2012 and it could have been so much better were it not for a disappointing Sunday.
However, he's since become a PGA Tour winner courtesy of his play-off victory in last season's Travelers Championship, so if he can play his way into contention again we could see an altogether different outcome.
Duke has three top-30 finishes since the start of this wraparound season including in Phoenix last time, so his form is solid if not spectacular. However, this is probably the most suitable test he's faced and at ninth in greens and 11th in fairways, he's hitting the ball well enough to capitalise on these short layouts.
Brown has harder to justify as he missed the cut at Torrey Pines last time out but if we forgive him that then prices quoted look much too big.
Brown has, after all, placed twice this season and while both were back in 2013, I'm not totally convinced he's completely gone off the boil. Anyone is entitled to be forgiven one poor round at Torrey Pines, after all.
What catches the eye is that Brown was 30th here last season on his first start of the campaign and, like Duke, he's since become a PGA Tour winner by beating none other than Jordan Spieth to win in Puerto Rico.
Along with his fourth at Sea Island that confirms that coastal layouts suit and Brown has since returned here to play in the Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational, in which he finished eighth behind Kevin Kisner.
That might not amount to much but James Hahn was sixth in 2012 before placing at a huge price in this event last year and Brown gets the vote ahead of William McGirt, who fared better but lacks Brown's potential.
Click here to listen to Ben discuss this week's action on Golf Weekly.