Golf expert Ben Coley is sticking with Patrick Cantlay ahead of the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am, with a former major champion also among his selections.
- Jason Kokrak, who originally featured in the above staking plan and is discussed below, withdrew from the tournament on Tuesday
- Patrick Cantlay, who was the headline selection, withdrew later the same day
Brace yourselves for a US Open scene-setter as a battered and bruised Pebble Beach plays host to the AT&T National Pro-Am, just four months before it will welcome the world's best for what's now the third major on the calendar.
Anyone who has taken the 17-mile drive around Monterey Peninsula will know that this week's event takes place at heaven on earth, but it could look more like hell with storms having already done some damage and more rain forecast over the final three days of the tournament.
Rain doesn't automatically muddy the waters from a punting perspective, as typically it would help push us towards big-hitters who can carry their ball 330 yards knowing it'll stop where it lands. The trouble is, the three short courses used for this quasi-unique tournament don't encourage use of the big stick, and with steady winds also in the forecast it could just be a week to get out the umbrella and grind.
Pebble Beach is a special place for any golfer, but especially so if you're American and this is a coveted title for those who grew up on a PGA Tour diet. Perhaps that's why there have been only two overseas winners in 50 years - there have been nine in the LA Open and ten in Phoenix - and Dustin Johnson quite rightly dominates the market.
Johnson won this title in 2009 and followed up in 2010, when last it preceded a US Open. Famously, he then looked set to complete the hat-trick only to slump to a final-round 82, and you could argue, albeit fairly weakly, that he's yet to truly lay those ghosts to rests having hit the crossbar without adding to his Pebble Beach haul.
Last week's dominant display in Saudi Arabia means he arrives back close to his best and one thing we know about Johnson is that he's capable of going back-to-back, having done so more than once before and rattled off a hat-trick in 2017. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2013 for the last time he failed to follow a win with a top-10 finish, a quite extraordinary record and one which fully justifies his short price.
The trouble is the forecast. Pebble Beach does not drain well, so it's easy to see him taking it apart, but equally there is a risk that he's stuck on the wrong rotation. Two years ago, when Jordan Spieth won, there was a strong bias against those who played a certain sequence with the host course proving an exceptionally tough place to start, and it's these imponderables that always encourage discretion in a multi-course pro-am.
Indeed, rewind just three weeks and you may recall another, similar event, also in California. It went to Adam Long, out of form beforehand and back missing cuts since; there was nothing in the form book, really, to explain his totally out-of-the-blue success.
Here at Pebble Beach, wins for the likes of Spieth and DJ have been interspersed with the rather more bizarre successes of DA Points, Vaughn Taylor and Ted Potter, and there are simply very few players who can be confidently ruled out. It's in that spirit that my staking plan attempts to cover most bases.
First, the obvious: Patrick Cantlay.
Born and raised in California, where he played plenty of golf here, Cantlay would be a popular local winner and his pace-of-play issues - to put it politely - actually make him well suited to a rainy grind alongside hackers.
He marked our cards here in 2013 when finishing ninth in the embryonic stages of his career but had to wait until 2017 for his return, having been sidelined by a series of injuries and set back by personal tragedy. When he did make his way back to professional golf, it's significant that he elected to resume here at Pebble Beach, finishing 48th, before failing to capitalise on a fast start when 35th last year.
That's 12 solid rounds of course form for a player whose sole PGA Tour title so far came over the border in Nevada, and there's a high level of expectation that at some stage he picks up silverware here in California where poa annua greens and some tough, classical courses suit his game.
The only real negative is that Cantlay missed the cut last time out at Torrey Pines, where he was a shorter price and featured among my selections. Ultimately, he had a bad day on the brutal South Course and it really doesn't worry me, particularly as his two missed cuts since returning to the PGA Tour have both been followed by contending top-10 finishes.
When a player as consistent as Cantlay does hit a bump in the road, there's a temptation to sound the alarm bells when really the more appropriate reaction should be to accept that it happens, and take a broader view of their form. He was playing superbly before Torrey Pines, and chances are he'll be back at that level immediately.
For my money, Cantlay is clear third best here, behind Johnson and Jason Day, and at 25/1 with eight places on offer he has to go in as the headline bet.
Next on my list is Jason Kokrak, who gets the bold treatment at last having been mentioned several times of late.
Back in 2012, this big-hitting talent was all at sea in his rookie campaign, until arriving at Pebble Beach and finishing ninth. It was the first of several pieces of form which confirm that he's very well suited to playing golf on the west coast, even if he was born in Canada, raised in Ohio and now lives in North Carolina.
Kokrak went on to add a top-10 finish at the Frys.com Open the same year, finishing second to keep his card, and having added further strong results in the Golden State he went closest to a breakthrough title when second to Bubba Watson in the 2016 Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
Riviera has always been a good Pebble Beach guide - when DJ won here in 2010, it came after he'd contended the week before in LA and the top-fives of both events were almost identical - and Kokrak has since shown yet more signs of encouragement here in the AT&T Pro-Am.
His performance in 2017 was particularly remarkable, as he started with a round of 77 on a nasty day at Monterey, before climbing all the way up to 23rd thanks to a trio of sub-70 rounds in a similarly wet renewal. A year earlier, he'd also finished inside the top 30 despite arriving in no sort of form.
This time around, he is probably playing as consistently well as he ever has. Kokrak hasn't missed a cut since last summer, a sequence he extended with an excellent second round in Phoenix last week at a golf course which he's yet to really crack, with an eventual 20th place among the pick of his efforts.
Before that he'd finished 18th in the Desert Classic and 20th at Torrey Pines and with all departments of his game firing, he looks very close to contending and potentially shedding that maiden tag.
Kokrak's power game remains a plus with the weather in mind (although he's shown at places like Harbour Town that he's more than comfortable scaling back from the tee) and there's a similar case for JB Holmes.
Like Cantlay, he's horribly slow but that's not going to hurt his chances here and Holmes boasts some strong form in the event, including second place behind Johnson in a rain-soaked 2010 renewal.
Prior to last year's missed cut, he'd produced a trio of top-25 finishes in succession including 10th place in 2015, with 13th in 2011 and 16th on his 2007 debut further underlining how well these courses appear to suit.
What's particularly encouraging is that Holmes has twice led the field in strokes-gained: tee-to-green in this event, ranking in the top five on three other occasions, and while those figures are generated only from rounds at Pebble Beach they remain a strong pointer towards his chances.
An excellent poa annua player who has gone close at Torrey Pines and Riviera as well as here, Holmes looks to have a strong each-way chance on the back of an eye-catching 26th at Scottsdale, where he struggled badly on the greens.
Russell Henley showed a lot more last week but is best kept on the wider radar with a return to the east coast in mind, while there is of course some temptation to forgive Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau, last week's disappointments.
Hand on heart, I had decided to swerve Graeme McDowell and talk about him in Wednesday's eve-of-tournament preview, but the more I looked at the various factors pointing towards his outside chance, the harder he became to resist.
McDowell, as most will know, won the US Open here in 2010, the main beneficiary of Johnson's collapse - although he still had to play superbly to fend off challenges from three of the modern game's greatest players in Mickelson, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods. Oh, and Gregory Havret.
While not everyone would've thought him a major winner waiting to happen, certainly it was no surprise that McDowell found comfort when others could not here at a brutal Pebble Beach, given his upbringing by the coast in Northern Ireland and the fact that his straight-hitting, tough-scrambling game is perfect for a grind.
He'd finished eighth in this event in 2005 and returned to take seventh in 2014, which makes for a mixed bag of results at Pebble Beach given that his other three visits have resulted in missed cuts.
McDowell's other PGA Tour wins have both been by the sea, first at Harbour Town and then in the Mayakoba Classic, and if he is to get back to his best and start winning again it's most likely to happen on short, coastal courses - and quite possibly when the weather is foul and others have cried enough.
As for form, 2018 was a write-off in the main but he did end it with 11th in the RSM Classic, a coastal, multi-course event, before taking second in the QBE Shootout alongside Emiliano Grillo. These may not be results which you'd expect to change the course of a career, but they gave him something to work on at just the right time.
You see, this year is particularly significant for McDowell. Not only does the US Open return to the place he won it, but the Open Championship - for which he's not yet qualified - heads to his hometown, Portrush, a fortnight after which he turns 40.
There can surely be no more motivating factors than those, so if McDowell is to reignite his career, the time is now. Where better to start than at the scene of his finest hour. He has to be worth chancing, surely.
There are any number of options elsewhere. Patrick Rodgers, for instance, finished second in the aforementioned RSM Classic and has contended here, at Torrey Pines and at Riviera, enough to make last week's second-round rally more eye-catching than it might otherwise have been.
Aaron Baddeley, a Riviera winner, has seen his putter finally come back to life just at the time his long-game has gone walkabouts again, but if both align he could be a factor. Chez Reavie looks solid, Jimmy Walker looks interesting, Michael Thompson is playing well and Trey Mullinax continues to progress.
But I'll end with another of last year's selections in local man Brandon Harkins.
So far in what's in some ways a journeyman career, Harkins has impressed most when playing on home soil. Last year he bagged five top-15 finishes in total, three in California and two in Nevada, while in 2017 his sole PGA Tour top-10 and his standout Web.com effort both came nearby.
All told, eight of his top-10 career performances in terms of world ranking points have come on the west coast and that was essentially the case for him 12 months ago, along with the fact that he's won the Monterey Open.
Making his debut in this event, Harkins played well at Monterey on day one and cut through the pack at Pebble Beach on day four, only a poor third round at Spyglass hurting him, and it's a bit of a surprise to be able to back him at a bigger price on his return.
In part that's a reflection of a generally lower level of overall form, but he struck the ball really well at Scottsdale last week where bagging a top-30 finish. That upturn in form coincided with the familiarity of playing where he now lives, and it's hoped that he can carry it back to the coast in front of friends and family.
It's significant that Harkins struck the ball so well at Pebble Beach last year, leading a quality field in strokes-gained approach and ranking fifth off the tee. A similar display would see him threaten the places once more - particularly if he can find a little improvement at Spyglass Hill.
Posted at 1130 GMT on 05/02/19.