D.A. Points Prevails and 10 Things We Learned at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2011

D.A. Points Prevails and 10 Things We Learned at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am

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    This time last year, Paul Goydos, Bryce Molder and Alex Prugh absolutely loathed the 14th hole at Pebble Beach after they all scored dreadful nines, effectively closing the door on their chances of winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

    But a year later, on the same exact hole, a door opened for D.A. Points.

    The no-name native of Illinois pinged a gap-wedge from the fairway that, with a little luck and gust from the golf gods, skipped off the top of the green-side bunker and rolled into the cup for an extraordinary eagle.

    Then, between sinking a 30-foot, bending birdie putt on the next hole and the relaxed atmosphere created by comedic playing partner Bill Murray, Points coasted to his first PGA Tour victory.

    Unfortunately, the AT&T Pro-Am did everything golf fans despise—it confused us.

    Phil Mickelson, a major champion, the highest ranked player in the field and one of the favorites to win, was unable to make a late charge as a bevy of relatively unknowns crawled up the leaderboard. Dustin Johnson, who has won this event each of the last two years, barely made it to the weekend, struggling to an even-par, T55 finish.

    All this on the same weekend that Tiger Woods tanked terribly in his final round at the Dubai Desert Classic after starting Sunday within a stroke of the leader.

    In 2010, parity nestled its way into the fabric of the PGA Tour, sending golf fans into their version of the twilight zone. So far this season, Byrd soared at Kapalua, there’s already been two first-time winners (Vegas, Points) and Mark Wilson has won twice. What else did we learn from Pebble?

Phil Mickelson Is On a Charge in 2011

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    Did you know that so far in 2011, Lefty has played in three PGA Tour events, earned two top 10 finishes and shot over par just once in 12 rounds?

    Mickelson looked dialed in at Pebble Beach, finishing T9 after rounds of 71-67-69-71. Along with his astounding length off the tee (he averaged 297 yards), Mickelson’s iron play was phenomenal, launching him to T1 in greens in regulation among the field.

    His second round 67 was a picture perfect, bogey-free 67, followed by another exceptional round of 69 with four birdies and just a single bogey. Unfortunately, Mickelson’s identical first and final rounds of 71 prevented him from putting pressure on the leader and finishing higher.

    But this is all progress for Phil, who is already en route to a more consistent season than 2010, when he went into a bit of a hapless tailspin after his victory at the Masters. With the way he’s been playing, put your money on Phil next week at the Northern Trust Open, held at the Riviera Country Club in Palisades, CA, where he’s won twice in his last three appearances.

Tom Gillis Who?

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    Tom Gillis kind of looks like a “Tin Cup,” Roy McAvoy-esque driving range pro. Except Gillis is a real golfer with real skills and he showed just how effective they were with a stellar T3 finish at the AT&T.

    Gillis shot four consecutive under-par rounds, 67-68-70-70, showing off his consistency and impressive resilience in a competitive field on a deceptively difficult golf course.

    The 42-year-old has never finished better than T58 in a major championship, never won on the PGA Tour and earned his best official finish on the professional circuit with this sensational, surprising third place finish.

    Regardless of his rather uneventful past, he played lights-out at Pebble. He ranked T5 in birdies for the week with 20, T2 in driving accuracy (hitting the fairway 81.8 percent of the time) and T1 in greens in regulation.

    Whether or not Gillis is a late bloomer remains to be seen, but he will always have this shining moment to look back on, when he came within a few strokes of winning at one of the most renowned golf courses in the world.

Steve Marino Making Strides Toward Solid Season

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    In 2010, Marino competed in 17 events and finished in the top 10 a mere three times.

    But this season, in just four events, Marino already owns two top 10 finishes, a T2 at the Sony Open and most recently a T4 at the AT&T.

    Marino’s stats this week say it all: 15th in driving distance, 13th in putts per green in regulation, third in greens in regulation and T2 in driving accuracy.

    Through his first two rounds, Marino shot an amazing 13-under-par. Though he struggled in his last two rounds with a 71 and 74, he still managed to a earn a solid finish that could be the spark to another top 10 when he tees it up next week at the Northern Trust Open, where he finished T5 last season.

Aaron Baddeley Putt-Ing It Together

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    It’s no surprise that Aaron Baddeley averaged 28 putts per round this week (ranked fourth), considering that over the last five seasons, he’s never finished outside of the top 11 on the PGA Tour in putting.

    He made noise this week with a T6 finish because, finally, it wasn’t just his putter that was on.

    Baddeley had an unshakable rhythm at Pebble Beach, posting four under-par rounds to finish nine under-par at the AT&T. But to be frank, the 29-year-old Australian has underwhelmed, underperformed and proven unreliable with just a pair of victories and three top 20 finishes in the majors over his short career on the PGA Tour.

    The key difference for Baddeley this week was his ability to hit greens, which set up his confident putting stroke. He found the greens in regulation more than 70 percent of the time and ranked T7 in the field. If he can maintain his touch on the greens while emphasizing the importance of hitting greens in regulation, this will not be the last time we see a high finish from Baddeley.

Hunter Mahan's Got Game

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    This week at Pebble Beach, Hunter Mahan proved why he’s one of the fastest growing players on the PGA Tour with a final round, six-under-par surge to finish T2 at the AT&T.

    It was classic Mahan—after day three, he didn’t look like he’d pose much of a threat, but then stormed out of the gates Sunday to breathe down the neck of the final round leader.

    This is why Mahan has been a standout among a myriad of rising young talent on Tour, why he’s been essential to the American Ryder Cup and President Cup teams and why he won twice last season.

    At Pebble, Mahan resembled a well-oiled machine with every aspect of his game working smoothly. He’s always been an accurate driver off the tee, but he seemed to truly find his stride on the greens this week, sinking 21 birdies, the third most in the field.

    With his T2 at Pebble, Mahan grabbed his second top 10 of 2011 after finishing T6 at the Farmer’s Insurance Open two weeks ago at Torrey Pines.

Nick Watney Is Primed To Win in 2011

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    The Nick Watney of 2011 is looking a whole lot like the Matt Kuchar of 2010—as consistent as Tiger’s red shirt on Sunday.

    Through three events this season, Watney has finished T6, T5, T6. Not too shabby for the 29-year-old California kid, whose game looks revamped since beginning the season at the Farmers Insurance Open two weeks ago.

    Make no mistake, Watney will win in 2011.

    He’s been averaging 28 putts per round, which for a player like Watney—whose strength has always been his iron play—bodes well for his season. This week, he also contributed to one of the most significant stats a golfer can aspire to—final round scoring average. Currently, Watney ranks second in the stat (66.0), shooting 63, 68 and 67 on Sunday in his last three outings.

    You can learn a lot about a player based on how he finishes a tournament, especially when you view his final round in relation to his previous three days. Watney opened the event with descending scores of 68 and 67, looking primed for a high finish. Then a 75 in his third round seemed to take him out of the hunt, as the swirling winds of Pebble frustrated his game.

    However, Watney battled back Sunday, making seven birdies against just two bogeys to finish T6.

It's Official: Padraig Harrington Is a Mess

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    Just when it looked like Padraig Harrington had regained his stride, shooting terrific opening rounds of 69 and 68 at the AT&T, he reverted back to the mediocre play that has cloaked the three-time major champion in shame since 2008.

    What’s up with Paddy?

    Is it swing mechanics? His putter? Is it all in his head?

    Harrington’s disastrous plummet from golf stardom is exactly what makes this game so perplexing. But it is also what rallies golf fans behind a struggling past champion when he displays glimpses of his once electrifying skills, which came alive at the outset of this past week's event.

    Unfortunately, Harrington’s ghastly 73-78 weekend took him out of contention when he committed five bogeys, a double and triple bogey, against just two birdies over his last 36 holes. It seems that even the offseason didn’t cure whatever is ailing the Irishmen. However, those first two days of solid play at the AT&T are a positive step forward and need to be at the forefront of Harrington’s focus as he moves forward with the season.

Dustin Johnson, Don't Fret

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    Dustin Johnson never broke 70 at the AT&T, posting rounds of 71-71-70-74 to finish even-par for the event and T55. But if we learned anything about Johnson in 2010, it’s that he doesn’t over-analyze or worry about his setbacks.

    For Johnson, what he did the day before or on the previous hole is history, a mentality that has clearly paid dividends for Johnson, who won twice last season, earned a spot on the Ryder Cup team and was launched into upper echelon of professional golf.

    He was consistent this week, except he was consistent on the wrong side of the scorecard. If you watched Johnson compete, his game was simply not in sync.

    He smashed his driver 320 yards on average (ranked first in the field in driving distance) and looked relatively comfortable with his irons (ranked T17 in greens in regulation), but could not get his putter rolling. Johnson ranked T53 in putts per round, 29.8, yielding just 18 birdies against D.A. Points’ 23 over the week.

    Noticeable struggles in his short game were ultimately what kept him from making a leap this week. Johnson carded an uncharacteristic 10 bogeys, as well as a debilitating double bogey in the middle of his third round. Don’t expect too many over-par scorecards from Johnson for the rest of the season, who already owns two top 10’s in 2011.

D.A. Points: Who Knew?

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    Who knew that Pebble Beach, the grueling 2010 US Open track, would produce a first-time winner in D.A. Points? Well, while no one may have foreseen Points’ impressive performance, he earned one of the most esteemed victories on the PGA Tour for his first, and surely not his last, time.

    Points’ posted rounds of 63-70-71-67 to finish 15-under-par for the week, two ahead of Hunter Mahan. If you didn’t guess, Points led, or was near the top of, most stats this week—T1 in birdies with 23, T2 in putts per round with 27.0, T7 in driving accuracy and T17 in greens in regulation.

    Should we have seen this coming?

    Last week in Arizona, Points finished T18 with four consecutive rounds in the 60's and the week before finished in solo fifth at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. In 13 rounds this season, Points’ has shot over par just once.

    His miraculous play may have something to do with a new found consistency that’s permeating every element of his game. Whereas last season he ranked in the top 100 in just two stats, he currently ranks in the top 50 in 10 stats, including some telling categories like scoring average (68.7), putts per round (28.3) and driving accuracy (33rd).

    Points needs to locate exactly what aspects of his game are working and continue honing them in order to become a constant factor on Tour. But for now, Points can revel in his first professional victory on Tour.

Northern Trust Open Prediction: Put Your Money on Phil

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    Not only does Mickelson's game look absolutely deadly right now, but he has a truly impressive track record at Riviera Country Club, including two victories in the last three seasons.

    The other key reason Phil has my vote this week is the current context of the golf world, which seems to be leaving Lefty in the dust. The talk has been centered around the new Big Three—Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods.

    Phil isn't getting any younger, he knows that, which is why he wants 2011 to be the year he accomplishes his most coveted goal as a professional golfer—the world No. 1 ranking.

    He appears immersed in the aggressive, go-for-it mindset that has won him countless tour events and major championships. Next week at the Northern Trust Open may be the catalyst for his surge to the top.