At the risk of repeating a recent refrain, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am showcases veteran touring professionals who embrace the dynamic of playing for pay in a potentially distracting environment. The West Coast Swing is loaded with these wrinkles. The CareerBuilder Challenge included a pro-am element and the Waste Management Phoenix Open is contested inside ropes separating them from the largest galleries in golf. And that’s on top of the only completely enclosed hole in the game – the par-3 16th.
So, when we’re interested in understanding who’s comfortable at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course, you need look no further than the entire field of entrants. And just like those aforementioned tournaments, those who most appreciate the opportunities presented don’t need to return.
This phenomenon is realized in the fact that all of the top seven in all-time earnings in the tournament are scheduled to compete. But, c’mon, it’s Pebble Beach!
MOST COMFORTABLE: Phil Mickelson
Comfortably No. 1 on the money list here with $4.67 million. He’s won four times (1998, 2005, 2007, 2012) and finished third twice. A consecutive starts streak of 20 ended last year when he elected to spend time with his family, a recurring theme for the father of three at this time of year. But the World Golf Hall of Famer is back and poised for six starts in a seven-week stretch extending into March.
“I missed the tournament the first couple of years of my career in the early ‘90s,” Mickelson said after clinching victory in 2012. “I don’t know why. I don’t know [if] I had a good big picture of the overall importance of the tournament to the game and what it provides and how much I love the place.”
Earlier in that gathering with the media, he labeled Pebble Beach as a “national treasure,” so his connection with the tournament extends beyond the pro-am component and even the fact that his grandfather was a caddie on the historic track.
The 45-year-old co-owns the course record at Spyglass Hill, too. He was the first to a 10-under 62 in 2005. Luke Donald equaled a year later. Mickelson opened his edition, which he’d go on to win, with 10 birdies on what is traditionally the hardest of the three courses sharing host duties during the first three rounds.
Defending champion Brandt Snedeker also won here in 2013. He’s fifth in earnings in tournament history. While winning the Farmers Insurance Open just 10 days before the opening round of the AT&T is enough reason to ride good vibes, he summed up why he’s at home at the AT&T following last year’s bogey-free, 7-under 64 at MPCC in the opening round.
“I love the greens here,” he said. “I love the golf courses. The greens are Poa annua, which I’m a big fan of. And I love the format. ... To come out here and play these golf courses, this year, you’re not going to get a better conditional golf course, perfect weather, everything has been ideal and there’s not a better place to be in the country right now than right here and this tournament. So, I have a lot of fun when I come out here and it’s a fun feeling when you’re playing good out on the West Coast.”
Sneds’ usual amateur partner and friend, Toby Wilt, is back again this year. They shared the pro-am title in 2013.
“You need somebody to keep your mind off what’s going on and focus when you need to,” Snedeker said of Wilt, who was responsible for Snedeker’s scholarship to attend Vanderbilt. “We’ve played so many rounds of golf together and I kept thinking of how special it would be if we could win this as a team, because I’m sure he had a great time today playing in the last group of a PGA TOUR event watching me.”
Naturally, Dustin Johnson deserves a seat at this table. He connected victories in 2009 (shortened to 54 holes) and 2010 and has a total of six top-seven finishes in eight appearances. He also led the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after 54 holes before backpedaling with a closing 82 to finish T8.
“I just enjoy this event, especially if you have a good group,” DJ said after sharing fourth place. “I’ve always had good partners. I played with [father-in-law] Wayne [Gretzky] the last two years. Before that, I played with my partner, Joe Rice, and just always had good partners and fun to play golf with. So, that makes a big difference. If you enjoy the people you’re with out here, even if you’re out here for a long time, it’s not too bad.”
Johnson is second in all-time earnings. Vijay Singh (third), Davis Love III (fourth), Mike Weir (sixth) and Jimmy Walker (seventh) round out the top seven in the field.
It hasn’t taken Jordan Spieth long to warm up to most tests in his brief career, the AT&T included. After a T22 in his first appearance in 2013, he’s added a T4 and T7, respectively. Tony Romo was his amateur partner in 2013, while musician Jake Owen teams up for the third consecutive edition this week.
“I enjoy the pro-am part of it,” Spieth said prior to last year’s tournament. “Even though it’s a long round, we get good food, it’s a nice change of pace, you’re kind of laughing down the fairways. It’s like you’re playing a round on the weekend ... It’s a little lighter mood, makes me feel like I’m just playing another round, yet we’re out here on a few of the best golf courses in the world, certainly [a] few of the prettiest golf courses in the world. So that combination certainly brings me back.”
James Hahn is a Cal-Berkeley product. As a rookie at Pebble Beach in 2013, he tied for third. That’s best among all rookies since MPCC replaced Poppy Hills in 2010. He’ll be defending at next week’s Northern Trust Open, site of his lone PGA TOUR victory, but he wouldn’t be surprised if he makes the trip to Riviera with win No. 2 in tow.
“I think all those courses fit me very well,” he said about this week’s rotation after the second round at TPC Scottsdale last week. “I love Poa annua greens the West Coast Swing, everything about that area. I thought of all tournament, that would be the one I’d be able to win.”
Given in part that he led the WMPO at the midpoint, you can’t rule it out.
OTHER SIGNS OF COMFORT
• Pat Perez usually lays the foundation for his year on the West Coast, but he’s come up dry. Since the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, he’s just 2-for-9 worldwide with no top 60s. So, Pebble Beach is what the doctor ordered. Among five top 25s in 13 appearances, he hung up a T7 in 2014 and a T4 last year.
• As stated in Sleepers, Chesson Hadley reset his attitude the week of his debut here in 2014. He tied for 10th, and then matched that last year.
• Bryce Molder’s only PGA TOUR victory came at CordeValle, which is a short drive north from Pebble Beach. Not surprisingly, his best finishes on TOUR have occurred on tracks within his modest reach off the tee. After opening his career at the AT&T for four straight missed cuts, he’s 6-for-6 with a quartet of top-12 finishes.