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Who's Hot and Who's Not Entering AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2013

Who's Hot and Who's Not Entering AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

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    Winning at Pebble Beach is like golf's rite of passage to glory. Besides winning a major championship, some of the sport's all-time legends have made their mark at Pebble and gone on to incredible careers, ranging from Byron Nelson and Billy Casper to Tiger Woods and this week's defending champion, Phil Mickelson.

    As picturesque as Pebble appears—the crisp, cool air paired with the fairytale backdrop of blue waves crashing just below Pebble's lush greenery—it's a callous and challenging test.

    Pebble's rise and fall in slope, thick rough and tiny putting greens test golf's elite from tee to green. Though it measures shorter than any course on the PGA Tour at 6,816 yards, it demands strategy and precision with every swing of the club.

    The player with the most complete game often perseveres at the AT&T. Let's take a look at who's stock is trending up and whose is trending down heading into the tournament.

Hot: Phil Mickelson

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    Phil Mickelson was swinging so aggressively last week in Phoenix that you've got to believe he will ride that confidence into Pebble Beach. Who wouldn't be confident after four consecutive rounds in the 60s, including an actual 60, just one stroke off the epic number, 59, which just five players in the history of the game have shot in a professional event. 

    Pebble is a course Lefty has made a mockery of in his Hall of Fame career—winning four times and is the all-time money leader at this event.

    The difference in Mickelson's game last week was, as he mentioned, the mechanical adjustment in which he treats his swing with the driver the same as his swing with his irons. Synchronizing the two swings allowed him to swing freely and last week proved to be a dangerously effective winning formula, 28-under 256, two strokes off the PGA Tour record of 254 set by Tommy Armour III in the 2003 Texas Open.

    The problem is, this is Lefty we're talking about—classically unpredictable, lead-squandering, risk-addicted Lefty.

    Phil needs to approach Pebble with same blend of confidence in his mechanics and reliance on instincts that propelled him to victory last week.

Not: Keegan Bradley

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    Keegan Bradley has one of the most complete games of any player in the world today, yet has disappointed out of the gates in 2013.

    Despite a T4 debut at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he's underwhelmed with a T49, missed cut and T24 over the last three weeks. Bradley's usual versatile self looks out of rhythm. He ranks outside of the top 65 on Tour in crucial statistical categories ranging from Driving Accuracy (85th) to Strokes Gained-Putting (71st).

    Unfortunately for Bradley, Pebble Beach isn't exactly a forgiving course. There's a reason Pebble's been the site of multiple U.S. Opens—it's a brutal challenge from start to finish. In the single time he competed in this event two years ago, though, Bradley finished T15 so we will have to wait and see if he can establish a rhythm early and ride the momentum.

    What's important to remember with a young player in a slump like Bradley is that he's proven he possesses the talent to compete with the best.

    At the end of 2011, Bradley was a nobody who'd struck gold when he won the PGA Championship in a playoff over Jason Dufner. Then in 2012, Bradley proved his major victory was no hoax, playing in 21 events the following year and finishing in the top 25 an amazing 14 times, including a victory and four other top-10 finishes.

    He became a constant contender, and his reputation gained further acclaim with a sensational Ryder Cup performance. Bradley must work through the kinks in his game to begin swinging with confidence.

Hot: Brandt Snedeker

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    "I'm running into Hall of Famers every week," Snedeker said in an interview after the final round of the Phoenix Waste Management Open last Sunday. Undeniably the most consistently player of 2013 season thus far, Snedeker came excruciatingly close to winning two weeks in a row, but ran into Hall of Famers Tiger Woods at the Farmer's Insurance Open and this past week Phil Mickelson in Phoenix. 

    In 2013 he's competed in four events and made all four cuts, which include a T24, a T3 and now a pair of seconds. How's that for following up his 2012 season where he won twice, including the $10 million FedEx Cup Playoffs?

    Snedeker's game is simple. Don't believe me? Watch him play and you'll see a different style of golf than you're used to. There's no second guessing. No over analyzing. Just gut instincts and confident swings.

    Among the many things Brandt's doing right so far this season is finding fairways and greens with consistency. He hits the fairway 65 percent of the time (19th on Tour) and hits the green over 75 percent of the time (good for 11th on Tour).

    His putting has always been the dagger in his back pocket. The last thing you want is to face off against Sned on the greens. His sensational putting accounts for averaging over five birdies per round, which ranks him first in Birdie Average on Tour and second in Scoring Average (69.2).

    But it's not like Snedeker just has to show up and he's guaranteed a solid finish. There are no guarantees in golf, just like there's no guarantees in life. But Snedeker is a crafty player. He's mechanically sound from tee to green, imaginative under duress and continues to thrive in the face of pressure. He'll have his work cut out for him this week in a stacked field on a challenging course.

Not: Camilo Villegas

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    It's all well and good that Camilo Villegas looks more like a male model than a golfer, wearing tight-fitting shirts that emphasize his bulging muscles. But it means nothing at the end of the day if he's all style and no substance.

    That's just what he's turned out to be.

    Villegas is playing some of the worst golf of his career. The young Columbian played in 25 events last season and made just 15 cuts, none of which resulted in top-10 finishes. He's played so poorly over the last year and a half that he was forced to compete in Q-School to retain his 2013 Tour status, which he failed to attain despite a valiant effort.

    Now he's playing on sponsors exemptions, but it's still not yielding results. A mediocre T47 to begin 2013 at the Humana Challenge was followed by a missed cut down in La Jolla, CA, at the Farmer's Insurance Open.

    There's no single solution to Villegas' struggles, which span from the mental game to mechanical hurdles in his swing. But one glaring issue that requires serious attention is his short game. Villegas ranks 164th in Strokes Gained-Putting on Tour. It's never been the strongest part of his game, but now it's clearly sunken to a point that it's permeating the rest of his game.

    At the core of the issue is that when Villegas putts, it looks rigid and forced, like a robot performing a task. There's nothing natural or free-flowing about his putting stroke and until he finds a middle ground between the mechanical elements and his own touch he's going to remain on the outside looking in.

Hot: Dustin Johnson

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    Already a winner in 2013 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Dustin Johnson can become the first player to two wins this season with a victory at Pebble where he's shined throughout his career.

    Not only has Johnson won this event twice (2009, 2010), but he's finished in the top 10 in six career starts (2008, 2012), including his T8 at the US Open in 2010. Something about this course  fits his eye. Between his outrageous distance off the tee (ranked 19th on Tour at 300 yards on average) and precise iron play (currently 10th in GIR) Johnson's been able to take advantage of Pebble's short yardage (shortest track on Tour) and the brutally tough task of hitting the notorious small greens.  

    Johnson's undeniably one of golf's top players today. He was sidelined for a few months last year due to injury, but followed a strict recovery and workout regimen and regained his strength. When he returned, the results at first were mixed, but at the end of the season earned four consecutive top 10s in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

    Expect Johnson to lead the pack this week up north.

Not: Geoff Ogilvy

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    Two missed cuts in three events this season doesn't bode well for Geoff Ogilvy, once a major champion (2006 US Open) and today a major disappointment.

    Ogilvy began his season on a high note in the desert at the Humana Challenge, posting four consecutive rounds under-par, including a pair of 65s, good for a T27 finish. After a horrible bout of inconsistency in 2012, a season in which he recorded just one top 10 finish, it appeared this 2013 debut might kick-start his revival.

    Instead, he plummeted.

    Back to back missed cuts were largely due to his struggle to find greens in regulation, a stat he currently ranked 125th in on Tour. His inability to establish a rhythm with his irons is translating to even poorer play on the greens, where he ranks a disastrous 144th in Strokes Gained-Putting.

    The truth about this sport is that as crucial as driving and irons are to success, you do your scoring on the greens. That's not news to Ogilvy, who's an established international golfer and major champion. This week's rebound, and a successful season in general, is contingent upon regaining his comfort on the greens, which can hopefully ignite the rest of his game.

Hot: Padraig Harrington

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    The Irishman has had success at the AT&T in the past, posting top 20s in three of his last five trips at the this event, including a career best T7 last year.

    But in addition to the momentum and comfort he'll have this week, there's been an unmistakable rhythm and boldness to Padraig Harrington's game this season. He's attacking pins, rarely leaving putts short and it's the type of aggressiveness that's reminiscent of his epic 2008 season when he captured a pair of major championships (the British Open and PGA Championship).

    He's off to a fast start in 2013. Across the pond he earned a solo fourth-place finish at the Volvo Golf Champions event, followed by a top-25 finish at the Abu Dhabi Championship, one of the year's most competitive international fields. Harrington began his PGA Tour season last week in Phoenix where he shot four consecutive rounds under par, including a sensational third round 63, ultimately leading to a T9.

    The precision of his game is yielding fewer mistakes and more viable opportunities to make birdies. He's like a pitcher who realizes in the first inning that his curveball has some extra snap to it. In Phoenix alone he made 22 birdies over his four rounds, as well as an eagle. That'll happen when you hit greens in regulation 70 percent of the time.

    Pebble will demand accuracy off the tee, but most importantly strong ball striking, which has been one of the hallmarks of Harrington's game.

Not: Jim Furyk

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    Jim Furyk hasn't play a single event in 2013 and yet belongs to be on the "not hot" list this week more than any other player. Though Furyk's a gritty and resilient veteran, there's no denying he committed some seriously confidence-shaking mistakes in 2012 that he may never fully recover from.

    Furyk squandered leads in three prominent tournaments last season, first at the Transitions Championship, then at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and finally on one of golf's biggest stages, the US Open.

    Despite the eight top-10 finishes he earned in 2012, Furyk would trade all of them for one victory.

    If those three blunders on the verge of victory weren't bad enough, he made critical mistakes down the stretch of this year's Ryder Cup as well. On the final hole of what may very well be his final Ryder Cup, Furyk brutally missed a six foot putt that would've won the match for the Americans.

    He needs a strong finish week to begin rebuilding his confidence, but we won't know how he's dealt with these hurdles until he strikes that first tee shot on Thursday.

Hot: Hunter Mahan

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    No player on the PGA Tour has as robotic and unnatural of a swing as Hunter Mahan. But hey—it may not be pretty to watch, but it's working.

    Mahan has made three consecutive cuts to start 2013, highlighted by a T15 at the Farmer's Insurance Open, one of the most competitive fields so far this season. He's also coming off four consecutive rounds under-par last week (67-67-67-69) at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (T16).

    Don't expect Mahan to route the field this week, but a top-10 finish is definitely within his grasp. He's posted top 20s here in four of his last seven appearances, including a solo second in 2011.

    Whereas in recent years his putting was his Achilles' heel, ranked 112th in Strokes Gained-Putting last season, he's currently ranked in the top 20 on Tour. That's a huge leap, and more importantly, a boost to his confidence with the flatstick.

    It may just be the key to unlock another strong finish.

Not: Sean O'Hair

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    At first glance of Sean O'Hair's swing, you might wonder if he was Ben Hogan's protege.

    He's as mechanically sound as the fundamentals of golf would allow. But at the same time, you're looking at one of the sport's biggest underachievers.

    Once a young up and comer with the hype to be 'the next big thing,' O'Hair is now 30 and 0-3 this season in cuts made. That's right, three up and three smack down. Not exactly how you want to get your year off the ground.

    The problem is, O'Hair's game wasn't even on the ground, it was buried in the defeat of last year's underwhelming performance. Despite a few glimpses of brilliance in 2012 at the Wells Fargo Championship (T15) and Greenbrier Classic (T7), O'Hair missed four cuts and managed top 25s in just seven of his 19 events.

    So far this season, his game is once again in  disarray. He's pummeling the ball off the tee (10th in Driving Distance at 303-yards), but rarely hits the fairway, currently 153rd in Driving Accuracy. Since he's not finding the fairway, he's not giving himself viable opportunities to knock it tight, just 81st in GIR.

    His most glaring issue of all may be where it counts most—the greens, where he's a horrific 175th in Strokes Gained-Putting. It's like an optical illusion to watch O'Hair. Everything looks like it should work optimally, but turns out awfully.

    If he can straighten out his drive and manage to minimize his mistakes on the greens this week he may leap a few hurdles that can ignite his season. So far, though, nothing's gone O'Hair's way.

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