Pair of prolific champions look for old form at Pebble

February 5, 2020
Justin Ray

Over the last five years at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, there are two players who have a combined score to par of 54-under or better.

Both players have been ranked number one in the world within the last four years. Each have double-digit PGA Tour wins and at least one major championship to their credit. Yet this week, it’s impossible to pick either of them to win without feeling uneasy.

  1. Jason Day, -65
  2. Jordan Spieth, -54

Two massively successful players – two divergent paths since reaching the peak of the sport.

The struggles of Jordan Spieth have been well-documented in recent months. In 2017, you could have made the argument that Spieth was the best iron player in the world: he ranked 2nd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained approach, 1st in proximity from 150-175 yards, and in the top-ten in proximity from both the fairway and the rough. Last season, he tumbled to 145th in strokes gained approach. He’s 175th so far this season.

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Spieth has never been a particularly accurate driver, but this season he’s hitting less than 50 percent of his fairways – ranking 237th of 245 players on the PGA Tour in 2019-2020. In his two-major-win season of 2015, Jordan’s driving accuracy was at 63 percent.

Jason Day’s ball-striking drop-off hasn’t been as dramatic, but it’s still noteworthy. In each of the last four seasons, he finished a bit worse in strokes gained tee-to-green than he did the year before. Likewise for birdie average, a statistic he led the PGA Tour in back in 2015.

But for each player, the dizzying amount of possessed talent screams for a return to form. Day is less than five years removed from a stretch of 7 wins in 17 worldwide starts. Spieth was the youngest player to win two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922. At age 26, he still has the second-most PGA Tour wins among the under-30 crowd (11 victories to Justin Thomas’ 12).

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Phil Mickelson entered this event last year with just one top-ten finish in his previous 16 tournaments. He proceeded to claim his fifth career AT&T Pro-Am win, tying Mark O’Meara for most in tournament history.

Maybe a return to a site of past success will help both Spieth and Day find their old selves this week.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

Last season, Pebble Beach was the toughest course on the PGA Tour to make putts between four and eight feet. As you might expect, the top of that list is covered with California venues: Torrey Pines South and Riviera rank second and third, respectively.

Something to keep in mind as the opening rounds unfold this week: Monterey Peninsula plays to an average score of -0.42 per round over the last ten years in this event. That’s nearly 0.7 strokes in relation to par easier than Spyglass Hill during that same span. Oddly enough, only one of the last eleven winners of this tournament opened their week at Spyglass – Mickelson in 2012.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– Speaking of Lefty, his tie for third last week in Saudi Arabia was his best finish worldwide since the win at Pebble one year ago. If Mickelson wins again at any point on the PGA Tour, he will have done so three times since turning 47. Over the last 30 years, only Fred Funk (3 wins at 47 or older) and Kenny Perry (5 wins) have done that.

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Dustin Johnson is the betting favorite entering the week, and rightfully so: he finished runner-up last week on the European Tour and has won this tournament twice in his career. Over the last thirty years, only two players with ten or more rounds at Pebble (in this event) have a scoring average better than 69.5: DJ (69.41) and Tiger Woods (69.00). Johnson is one of two players with 100 or more birdies-or-eagles in this event over the previous five years. Jason Day is the other.

– One interesting sponsor’s exemption in the field this week: Kurt Kitayama. The 27-year-old American may be a new face to PGA Tour fans, but he’s a regular on European Tour leaderboards, where he has two wins to his credit. Kitayama ranked third on that Tour in driving distance last season, averaging more than 313 yards a pop. This will be just his 8th career registered start in a PGA Tour event.

Graeme McDowell had a stellar short game in his win last week on the European Tour, ranking second in the field in scrambling and fifth in strokes gained putting. This will be the third straight year Graeme has played in this event, site of his 2010 U.S. Open victory.

– Another European player with great history here – albeit more recent – is Viktor Hovland. At last year’s U.S. Open, Viktor recorded a 72-hole total score of 280, the best by an amateur in the history of the championship. The old record was held by Jack Nicklaus, who shot a score of 282 at Cherry Hills in 1960. The Norwegian is looking for solid footing this week as he’s missed three of his last four cuts worldwide.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger Woods has 14 PGA Tour wins, including two major championships, in the state of California. The only player besides Tiger currently under age 45 with 14 PGA Tour wins and multiple majors – overall – is Rory McIlroy.