Here we go again.
After the multi-course American Express and the two-track Farmers, the PGA Tour arrives at the legendary Pebble Beach for this week’s AT&T.
Seamus Power E/W25/1
Alex Smalley E/W35/1
Robby Shelton E/W80/1
Harrison Endycott E/W400/1
Shorter than the average tour event, the coastline course/s deliver a reasonably simple test for the high-level celebrities and their professional playing partners, but this changes dramatically should any of the famed coastal weather arrive.
Bad enough for those paid to hit a dimpled ball, it can turn an amateur’s enjoyable (and expensive) round into something horrendous like this.
Three players clearly stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, both in terms of quality and world ranking, and they do have figures that justify that – in spades.
Favourite Jordan Spieth is the King of Pebble. His record here is unsurpassed, and he relishes the challenges of this seaside terrain, so much so, you almost think he puts himself in positions no other player would, including this shot off the edge of a cliff:
However, with no serious turn in conditions, I’m not sure his current game is much to go on. The 29-year-old has missed the cut in two of his last six starts, the best results coming in limited field events at two of the FedEx play-off events and the Tournament of Champions.
Not as if Spieth needs to be in form – he won the RBC Heritage last year after a run of mc/35/35/mc, but even a win, runner-up, third , fourth, seventh and ninth, it always feels as if you take your life in your own hands when backing him at 10/1 and less.
Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland make up the elite trio, all residing in the top-16 of the world rankings.
Both justify being alongside the Texan at the top of the market, although until last season’s closing sixth place finish, only Fitz’s 12th at the 2019 U.S Open was worth noting from an event formline of missed-cut and 60th
Interestingly, the Norwegian matched that finish three years ago, becoming low amateur for the second major in a row, and both are hard to argue against.
With combined wins in Mayakoba, Puerto Rico and Dubai, as well as top finishes at various Open championships, conditions suit both equally well. Choosing between them is tough enough, but with home players winning 27 of the last 30 events held here (17 of the last 18) and with doubts about the motivation for playing this week, they can all be left alone at combined odds of around 9/4.
The draw is probably as crucial here as any other event, with Pebble Beach having some of the smallest greens on tour and Spyglass Hill being affected occasionally by similar winds. Make the score at Monterey Peninsula, if at all possible.
Despite the quality up front, the section that includes defending champion Tom Hoge, Maverick McNealey, Andrew Putnam and Seamus Power has equally strong credentials for the title.
Hoge aims to become only the second player to defend this title since 2000 and, whilst playing as well as ever, is no Dustin Johnson, whilst it’s hard to put McNealey in front of the Irishman given the latter’s 2-0 lead in PGA Tour wins, and 3-zip if you count the KFT.
Power ranks in the top echelons of players with form at short courses and is easy to make a case for in an event at which he opened up a five shot lead at one point last year, before finishing in ninth.
The 35-year-old has never been better, now ranked inside the top-30 after a season that included that top-10 here and again at Southern Hills, a top-12 behind Fitz at Brookline, third at Mayakoba and fifth at the RSM. The highlight, of course, was the victory in Bermuda, sitting nicely with his first victory at the Barbasol, that Kentucky event showing links to proven coastal/short course player Kelly Kraft (runner-up here to Spieth in 2019) and Aaron Baddeley and Kevin Streelman, with six top-10 finishes between them at the AT&T.
Rather like the player he beat in that Barbasol play-off (J.T Poston) Power is fairly easy to read, and although the very nature of pro-ams doesn’t suit everyone, the course make-up suits perfectly.
Usually consistent and in the top echelons for tee-to-green, greens-in regulation, and for up-and-down, Power comes here looking to recover from an unusually poor performance on the large Abu Dhabi putting floors. Certainly the figures look awry compared with his 10 strokes gained for tee-to-green and 12th for around-the-green, and it’s easy to see improvement in California, where in 2022 he lay in fourth place into Sunday at the pro-am at La Quinta, as well as a previous ninth place finish at the Barracuda (fifth into Sunday).
He’s the best of the week but I’m also including:
Alex Smalley – We were on 26-year-old Smalley for the American Express a few weeks ago and he was going well until the PGA West (Nicklaus) caught him out, causing a drop into 62nd from 21st place, and close to two of the other three selections this week, as well as Garrick Higgo, who just missed out due to lack of experience here.
The recovery into a place just outside the top-20 was impressive, though, with a final round 63 comprising 10 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation, as well as making all his putts under 10 feet.
Those sorts of figures have been expected from the outstanding Duke graduate, who made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur at the 2017 U.S Open. Since then, it hasn’t been plain sailing, indeed he has yet to win an event despite an excellent return to this level in 2022.
Starting with a best-of-Sunday 65 to finish tied runner-up at Corales, he then finished in the top six behind Jon Rahm and co in Mexico, 10th at the Scottish Open and 13th at Sedgefield.
Since October, Smalley has made seven of nine cuts, highlights being 11th at Bermuda and a pair of top-five finishes at the RSM and Houston, all contributors to the tee-to-green stats that see him rank 1/2/6/11/13 for his ball-striking and significant given the test this week..
He couldn’t get it going at Waialae for the Sony but followed up the La Quinta effort with a top-40 at Torrey Pines, when his tee-to-green game was again perfectly respectably ranked in 33rd given the strength of the field.
Runner-up in the Dominican Republic, fourth and 15th in Houston, and with form at Colonial and Bermuda, this looks the prefect test for a player that at least had a look last year, and that the bookmakers simply cannot make their mind up about.
Robby Shelton – Makes his event debut here this week in his second time at the top level, but the former Walker Cup player has enough relevant form to make him of interest, particularly after a sixth place at the multi-course American Express a few weeks ago, his best finish in California so far.
Shelton included Scottie Scheffler and Ben Griffin as play-off victims when winning two of a total of four KFT events in 2019 and 2022, coming here after making eight out of ten cats (yeah, I know) since arriving back on tour in September.
Best efforts are 15th at the Shriners and a top-10 at the RSM, but let’s also throw in a sixth at Mayakoba, 11th at the Honda and a top-20 in Texas.
This is a drop in class, and significantly in distance, from Torrey Pines and I’d expect to see more advantage taken here.
Harrison Endycott – One of the Players To Follow for this season, it’s hard to work out exactly what the 26-year-old Aussie wants in terms of course set-up, but given his heritage and junior career, it’s fairly certain he can play well in the wind.
Having made his way through the grades including a win, two top-10s and two top-20s on the KFT, he wasted little time making his mark at the highest level, finishing tied-12th at the Fortinet in California, a joint best-of-the-day 65 launching him up the board on day three.
A month later, Endycott started the Bermuda Championship with a pair of double-bogeys before signing for an opening nine-under 62, the catalyst for another career top-10, and in November he overcame a poor opening round at his home PGA Championship (111th) before flying through the field as the event progressed, finishing a never-nearer 18th behind Cam Smith.
Even the missed-cut at the Australian Open was not devoid of promise, an opening 68 seeing him start the second round in 7th place.
With a pedigree in Australia and a residence in Scottsdale, I’ll take the chance he will find something back in California, scene of the best of three events in 2023 – 22nd at the American Express – when his game showed the all-round prowess it did in Scottsdale – top-11 in approach and top-15 tee-to-green.