The scenery is always an annual highlight at Pebble Beach for the AT&T Pro-Am, the leaderboard not so much, at least not in the early proceedings as the six-hour rounds and celebrity distractions over-shadow the actual golf. The year, however, is different. This year an absolute classic is brewing after thirty-six holes.
Of course, there is still the amateur golf (and made-for-TV histrionics) of Saturday’s third round to endure but, leaving the flotsam and jetsam of mid-table American celebrity to one side, we can look forward to watching how an already stellar leaderboard unfolds throughout the day and the 54-hole cut drops on Saturday night.
Dustin Johnson, arguably the best player in the world right now, leads the way after thirty-six holes but some great players are lining up behind him like fans queuing for Springsteen tickets. Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, John Rahm – all three within touching distance of the world no.1 – are the most recognisable figures in this pack but look out, too, for one or two of the younger American guns, not least Beau Hossler, a 22-year-old Californian, and near-certainty to be a future Ryder Cup player, who finds himself tied with Johnson on 12-under par.
Mickelson, who famously won this tournament in 2012, blowing away his playing partner Tiger Woods in a final-round match-up, is three shots behind the leaders, tied with Rahm and another young American, Aaron Wise.
Wise has a jockey’s build but the ball-striking punch of a blacksmith’s hammer. Like Hossler, he is a star in the making, a stand-out on the American college circuit who has proven in the past that he is not intimidated by the prospect of winning. This week might have come too soon for the 21-year-old but if he can keep himself in contention into Sunday afternoon then don’t expect him to shrink in the spotlight.
Day is another player on nine-under. The Australian, a former world no.1, has looked revived in recent weeks after shaking off the effects of long-term injury and acquiring himself a new caddy. He won in a play-off at Torrey Pines a couple of weeks ago and has stated his intention to return to the top of the world rankings totem pole. A victory here would cement this ambition.
Yet he, like everyone else in the field, will have to rely on Johnson falling victim to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve or, even more unlikely, form. DJ is a great front runner, as he showed in Hawaii last month, lapping the field at Kapalua, and is a deservedly short-priced favourite. Yet the big American has been known to stumble, as he famously did on the final day of the 2010 US Open at Pebble, when he coughed up a three-shot lead within a couple of holes of his final round. Graeme McDowell was the one who took advantage back then. Who would be the one to do so this weekend?
Mickelson, Rahm and Day are the most obvious candidates, if not the ones who offer the best value. Hossler’s youth and relative anonymity will chase away the less informed money but already in his rookie PGA Tour season he has shown the kind of fortitude required, missing only one cut in nine events. His best Sunday finish has been tied for seventh place. He will surely be better placed at the close of play.
The search of even better value requires a look further down the leaderboard, although probably not all the way down to 85th place, where Rory McIlroy languishes after a frankly ludicrous five-putt on Friday afternoon. Barring a miracle, or an overnight intervention by the putting Gods, we can say the Irishman’s first appearance in the AT&T Pro Am will not be a triumphant one. For all his gifts, not even he can spot Dustin Johnson 11 shots on the Friday night of a golf tournament and make that deficit disappear.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 9, 2018
Jordan Spieth is also well behind the leader, on five-under par, but a seven-shot deficit is just about manageable, especially for a player intent on silencing the murmuring about the state of his game. For the first time in his PGA Tour career, the Texan has putted poorly for a sustained spell – a worrying turn of events for a player who has never been known as one of the great ball-strikers in the ilk of, say, McIlroy and Johnson.
What Spieth does have, however, is a mountain of pride, as he showed on Friday with a fine round of 66, six-under par. Expect more of the same over the next two days. He won this event last year in storming fashion. That won’t come to pass this year but when the final accounting is made on Sunday evening he will be there or thereabouts.
I’ll be backing Hossler each way at 9/1. He’s some player and too young to be scared about winning.