On the back of a 45/1 winner on Sunday, golf expert Ben Coley previews the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where Jason Day rates the best bet.
Preview written and published before Dustin Johnson's withdrawal from the event on Monday night; all bets stand at advised prices
It is sometimes said that dominating golf is no longer possible. It was always the hardest sport to dominate anyway, because it's played outdoors, the ball is small, the hole is a long way away, and there are usually in excess of a hundred other people trying to do the same thing. Now, with post-Tiger athleticism embedded and the US college system capable of preparing players to compete at the highest level straight away, golf has a depth to it that makes omnipotence of the Woods kind all but extinct.
Dustin Johnson is doing his best to prove otherwise. The Masters champion is clear at the top of the world rankings, and has won five of his last 13 tournaments - a remarkable statistic even if one of them, absurdly, gave him a head start on his rivals. Last week, Johnson lost strokes to the field with the putter and still won the Saudi International, where in three visits he's been beaten by a grand total of one player. After that, little wonder he's as short as 7/2 to add the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, another title he's won twice before.
The problem is that Johnson has not as yet demonstrated the ability to pull a reverse Casey, that is to jet around the world and win as the Englishman did when travelling from California to Dubai. Johnson has headed the other way to complete back-to-back appearances on three occasions, first missing a cut at Torrey Pines and, more recently and more relevantly, following those first two performances in Saudi Arabia with 45th and 32nd here. Jet skis and jet lag have proven to be among the handful of things that can stop him, others including himself, and a non-childproofed set of stairs.
Last year, I was prepared to give Johnson the benefit of this doubt at 13/2. Now, doubt doubled and price halved, while acknowledging that he has half an eye on next week's world-class event at Riviera, he has to be left alone. Such is his dominance - not quite Tiger-esque, but nevertheless significant - that any bet placed on anyone else comes with a reminder that Johnson sets an extraordinarily high standard. For one week only, though, he might let his own standards slip.
Patrick Cantlay looks the obvious one against him, arriving as he does refreshed following second place in the American Express, but 10/1 about the three-time PGA Tour winner is giving nothing away and I much prefer to take a chance on a former major champion who loves it here and showed signs of encouragement in Phoenix last week.
No, not Jordan Spieth.
Yes, it was dizzying to see him produce that magical 61 on Saturday, with the full range of Spieth spells cast around Scottsdale. That was as exciting a round of golf as I have watched in some time, and I don't blame bookmakers for reacting as they have, that is with the '1' taken off last week's 125/1. I just don't think Spieth did enough, or said enough, to suggest we should expect one big performance to follow another.
First and foremost he drove it appallingly, and by his own admission 'got away with murder' at times during both the first and third rounds. That's possible in Phoenix, where a wild drive can scoot into space as easily as it can cuddle up to a cactus, but Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, where this year's no-amateurs event takes place, are less forgiving. Granted, he'll be able to club down, and his field-leading approach stats caught the eye, but it wasn't quite enough to have me rushing to side with a player who I put up at 40/1 in this event a year ago.
Instead, JASON DAY is considered by far the most compelling option at the top of a weak market, where Spieth and Francesco Molinari have understandably turned heads but have to build on their promise, where Casey must surely be running on empty, and where many of those just behind Day also have plenty to prove.
You might say that about the Australian, who has missed back-to-back cuts to start the year to raise concerns that his work with new coach Chris Como isn't going to plan. But dig deeper, and focus on the way he struck the ball in Phoenix, and the opposite may well be true. Day's ball-striking was superb last week, his strokes-gained approach figure on track to match a field-leading performance in the PGA Championship only to be halted by a narrow missed cut.
Day was two shots from making the weekend, and that's down to two things: one of the worst putting performances you'll ever see from him, and the fact he played the six par-fives in 30 strokes. Even as he trod water towards the end of round two, his final four holes saw birdie putts of seven, 10, three, and eight feet go begging - he really should've sailed through to the weekend and been able to get more competitive golf under his belt.
That he failed to do so is of course a concern, but if there's one thing Day backers needed to see it was good ball-striking, which he delivered. Now we have to pin our hopes on him maintaining it, although to be frank he could drop off a little and still win this if the return to poa annua greens has the transformative effect I hope it might.
Always among the standout poa annua putters in his pomp, he has a fabulous record in this tournament and we will learn plenty about the state of his game this week. He has rewarded each-way backers in each of the last four renewals, five of the last six, and seven times from just 11 visits in total. Twice he's led the field in strokes-gained putting, which is measured only at Pebble Beach. This year, three rounds are played on the iconic layout which he so obviously adores.
Another reason to ignore last week's effort is that he's yet to play well in Phoenix, and it's the previous week, where he failed to advance to Saturday in the Farmers, which is of greater concern. Still, it was his first start in two months, there was a mix of new clubs in his bag, and in both 2016 and 2017 he followed missed cuts there with excellent performances here. For all he's won twice in San Diego, he's been more consistently in contention here at Pebble Beach, and he can draw encouragement from what Brooks Koepka (recently left coach, changed clubs) did on Sunday.
Given the weaker field and the potential vulnerability in the favourite, Day has to be worth chancing - especially with his world ranking dropping to the point that another bad week or two and he'll be outside the top 50. That happened when the PGA Tour came out of lockdown last summer, and although it took him a few events, Day put together some of the best golf he's played since he topped the rankings and ended up contending for a major. Don't be surprised if he puts last week's ball-striking together with improved putting in an event he'd love to win.
This really is a flimsy front end of the betting, which means we have to respect Cameron Davis and Sam Burns as they go in pursuit of breakthrough wins. Davis threatened to get off the mark in the AmEx three weeks ago - another multi-course event which is ordinarily a pro-am - and is a massive talent, but while he's played nicely in this I'm not convinced Pebble Beach and Spyglass are ideal for him. Burns meanwhile is disappointing a little too often when in contention to be worthy of the odds beside his name, and he prefers bermuda.
With Monterey out of the equation for this year only (at least that's the hope), Pebble Beach form becomes more relevant than ever and it justifies Kevin Streelman's skinny-on-the-eye price. Placed in each of the last three renewals, Streelman was the best scorer at the host course in 2020, he arrives in excellent nick, and this is one of the few events where quotes of around the 40/1 mark appear perfectly fair.
I prefer MAX HOMA, though, as he has been in even more eye-catching form, hails from California, and has plenty of improvement in him having only turned 30 last November.
Since then, Homa's form has improved quite dramatically as he charged through the field in Mexico, returned to contend in the AmEx, defied bad putting to take 18th at the Farmers, and again struggled on the greens on his way to 42nd place in Phoenix last week.
All in all it's been an encouraging run from a player who has been talking a good game for a few weeks now and with his approach play firing (eighth and third the last twice), he looks ready to improve on finishes of 10th and 14th over the last two years, before which he was the second-best Pebble Beach scorer when 29th in 2015.
Homa won a good event at a tough course in 2019, leaning heavily on his putter, and the hope is it comes around back on his preferred poa annua. He's certainly made his share here in the past and I like where his game is, as well as his state of mind. He's certainly capable of doubling his PGA Tour tally as Taylor did last year and will be eager to take advantage of two more weeks out on the west coast.
Brian Harman and Cameron Tringale are both ticking over nicely and could go well along with Matt Jones, Alex Noren and Matthew NeSmith, but all things considered this is an uninspiring market when it comes to those priced at less than 100/1. That's no bad thing, because Pebble Beach has produced its share of skinners including Ted Potter, Vaughn Taylor and Nick Taylor over the last five years, and it's worth throwing some darts in the hope of another.
How much that has to do with the presence of amateurs, it's hard to say. Perhaps this year their absence will reveal itself in some way, and you could even argue it helped Si Woo Kim to not have to engage in small talk with amateurs, in his second language, as he returned to winning ways in a similar event last month. That might sound a little silly, but both the American Express and this have been dominated by Americans down the years, more so than just about any other pair of tournaments, and it's the best explanation I have.
As for the volatility we've seen here, the multi-course format is a factor, as are changeable weather by the coast and those bumpy poa annua greens, but above all else it represents a drop in intensity and depth following Torrey Pines and Scottsdale, and with Riviera, a World Golf Championship and the return east in the weeks to come.
One thing that does tie champions together, though, is tournament form. Both Taylors, Vaughn and Nick, had previous top-10 finishes, even an often erratic Potter had been 16th and DA Points 14th. Since Steve Lowery caused a shock here in 2008, the only player to win without a previous top-20 finish to their name is Brandt Snedeker, who not only had been 21st, but went on to underline his love for the place by capturing the title again two years later.
It's that which leads me away from CT Pan, Doug Ghim and Akshay Bhatia to those with a bit more experience and guile, which could come in especially handy should the forecast wind arrive over the weekend.
First, JOEL DAHMEN looks a nice type for this tournament and is chanced after a missed cut in Phoenix.
This of course is a very different event to last week's, from atmosphere to agrostology, and a quick turnaround in fortunes has been fairly common. Two years ago, Phil Mickelson missed the cut in Phoenix then won here, Nick Taylor was also way down the field at Scottsdale, Vaughn had missed the cut on the Korn Ferry Tour, and Potter's last round was a 10-over 82 at Torrey Pines.
Dahmen does have to overcome missed cuts in Phoenix, at Torrey Pines and in the Amex, but he's done something similar before when 12th at the PLAYERS after a poor run and ninth in Texas after shooting 80-74 a week earlier, and a second-round 65 in Phoenix might be the clue we need that he's in fact not too far away.
His ball-striking was good in both rounds at Scottsdale, particularly his approach play, and it was just a horrible first day on the greens which looked to have cost him all chance to make the weekend. In the end he valiantly got within a single shot and Torrey Pines aside his form isn't bad at all, especially as his final three starts of 2020 included eighth in a high-class Zozo Championship and 20th in Mexico.
Last year, he was also well down the field in Phoenix before withdrawing and followed that with a run of 14th (here), fifth and fifth before the Tour ground to a halt, and there was much more encouragement to be taken from the way he played not just last Friday, but on Thursday too.
Hailing from Washington he's well used to poa annua greens and it was quality ball-striking which saw him step up on two good markers to bag that top-15 finish here 12 months ago, as his close friend Taylor won the title. Hopefully some of the magic can rub off on Dahmen, one of the best maidens around and one good week away from the world's top 50.
Rory Sabbatini is another who suffered a missed cut in Phoenix on account of one shocking round and his game is in a good place, but whether the ex-South African has another win in him I'm not so sure. He's been runner-up in this and is respected but MICHAEL THOMPSON is preferred at the same sort of price.
Though his form here is a mixed bag, Thompson does have finishes of 10th in 2019 (fifth in Pebble Beach scoring) and 19th in 2014 to his name. Crucially, with the emphasis on Pebble Beach, where 75 percent of the golf will be played, he also bettered the field average here during a run of missed cuts from 2015 to 2017, so it's not the famous host course which has caused him problems and Monterey has in fact been an issue for him more than once.
Speaking of 75 percent, that's exactly the proportion of greens he's hit on all four starts this year and the first three were solid, as he improved upon 25th in the Tournament of Champions to take 21st in the Sony and then fifth, contending to a point on Sunday, in the AmEx. Last week's missed cut shouldn't detract from those performances, especially as Scottsdale doesn't really suit him.
Given he once finished second in a US Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco, has a top-seven finish at Riviera and defied tough conditions to win the Honda Classic, a breezy week at Pebble Beach is much more to his liking and though born in Arizona and raised in Alabama, this excellent putter doesn't seem to stray much from his baseline whether it's bermuda or poa annua he's operating on.
That he had a shocker with the putter last week explains his failure to make the weekend, but it tends not to indicate a wider problem and he excelled on the greens when picking up a second PGA Tour title last summer. He looks to be back at that sort of level now and given that his 10th place two years ago came after a similarly encouraging AmEx, I can see history repeating, especially with a sterner test in his favour.
Unlike Thompson, Patton Kizzire's usually excellent putting falls off a cliff on these greens and that's a shame, as his sole previous outing at Pebble Beach saw him respond incredibly well to a first-round 80 to post a Friday 67 at the US Open, a score just two players bettered. He's playing well most weeks at the moment but with errant driving also an issue, I'm inclined to look elsewhere.
The next name on my list was the hardest one to weigh up but in the end the odds look to compensate for the risks attached to BRANDEN GRACE, and he goes in the staking plan.
This will be Grace's first start since the death of his father, who was struck by Covid-19. I imagine golf tournaments really aren't all that important to him right now and if his mind is elsewhere, as we saw with Justin Thomas on Sunday, he could struggle around and make an early exit. I'm sure everyone would excuse him for that.
Then again, there's always the chance he actually finds inspiration and plays better, but as that's a guessing game my focus is on how well suited he is to this challenge, and the positive signs he showed towards the end of 2020 which culminated in a top-10 finish on the European Tour after decent golf in Georgia and Mexico.
Grace certainly looked to be on the way back and though a missed cut in the Sony Open wasn't the best way to resume, he had started well enough (17/18 GIR for a first-round 69) only to shoot a second-round 75 in difficult conditions. No doubt his waywardness off the tee that day rates a worry, but he still would've had every chance to make the weekend had the putter behaved and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
At his best, there can be no doubt that the South African is an ideal type for this - indeed when 20th on debut in this event, only three players beat him over the 36 holes at Pebble Beach. Having been 28th on his return, that's two good efforts in three and though disappointing last year, note that he was sent off around the 28/1 mark on the back of a top-10 finish in Phoenix.
That event hasn't usually been a portent to success in this one and I prefer to chance him now off the radar, given that he's won a couple of coastal, multi-course events, as well as at Harbour Town and Doha, will love the breeze, and came closest to landing a major championship when contending on the bumpy greens of Chambers Bay in Washington under difficult conditions.
There are many unknowns but his class isn't one of them and Grace shouldn't be underestimated in an event which rates a good fit for him.
Of those not yet mentioned, Will Zalatoris and Daniel Berger are among the more viable options at the front. Zalatoris is a Californian stud with an enormous future and played really well for two rounds last week, only for some poor putting and a couple of bad swings to cost him on Sunday. Now into the world's top 50, he's closing in on a Masters invite and is to be respected everywhere, even if this might be more fiddly than he'd like.
As for Berger, his approach play went walkabouts in a high-profile group last week but he tends to bounce back well from what are rare missed cuts these days, and this more demanding test will suit - he said so himself at the Sony. Though we're all used to witnessing his best golf on bermuda greens and generally on the east coast, he's excelled here and if you do want two from the top, he's the one to add.
At huge prices in this unpredictable event there are cases to be made for Rob Oppenheim, Joseph Bramlett and even Michael Kim, but I'm going to finish by keeping faith in one of last year's selections, MARK HUBBARD.
The crux of the argument back then was that in-form Hubbard loves this tournament and in fact has special ties to Pebble Beach, having proposed to his girlfriend here six years ago and attended college nearby. The latter point explains why he's got more experience of these courses than most and I'm glad Spyglass remains ahead of Monterey, as he says he's played it '40, 50 times' and feels as though he has an advantage over his opponents.
"It's actually my favourite course down here where I think it's a lot of guys' least favourite," he explained, and while things didn't work out in 2020, he is worth another chance having been right in the mix here in 2016 when sitting eighth at halfway.
Hubbard has a tournament 66 to his name at Spyglass and though his profile isn't quite as strong this time round, he did lead after round one in Phoenix and explained that a small change to his setup had him feeling good over the ball again. Although a late mistake in round two set him back, a final-round, bogey-free 67 alongside Rory McIlroy ought to have him in good spirits and he said there that the next three weeks were big for him.
Ranking fourth in driving accuracy and eighth in greens at the Phoenix Open, with strong approach figures in particular, this quiet improver is just the sort of neat and tidy operator to have contended for this title. He's preferred to Ryan Armour, another who loves Pebble Beach, and the fact that these players are viable each-way candidates says much about the challenge ahead.
Posted at 2130 GMT on 08/02/21
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.