Dustin Johnson will tee it up in the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Thursday as the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
Whether he finishes the tournament on Sunday still atop the world golf rankings is one of the main storylines this week. Johnson won the year-opening Tournament of Champions in Maui but has since watched No. 2 Jon Rahm steadily pick away at his cushion.
The Spaniard had a chance to dethrone Johnson two weeks ago before a Sunday slide at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Rahm played in the final group at the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Sunday before enduring another rough Sunday.
Rahm will tee it up for the fourth consecutive week at the Pro-Am, and he can take over No. 1 with a victory if Johnson finishes outside the top 45.
“It’s just how it goes. I haven’t played,” said Johnson, whose only tournament since the Tournament of Champions was a tie for ninth at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. “He’s playing really good right now, so, yeah, I mean if he would have passed me, he would have passed me. Could have probably got it back this week if I won, so …”
It was a typically even-keeled response from Johnson. And history indicates he has a strong chance not only to retain his No. 1 ranking this week, but also of emerging with the Pebble Beach title. Johnson has two wins in the event and four other top-five finishes.
The Pro-Am format features rounds on three courses over the first three days: Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. For the pro-am, the format is net best ball of the 156 pro-am teams. After the first three rounds, the top 60 pros and ties and the top 25 pro-am teams qualify for Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach.
“I just really enjoy coming here,” Johnson said. “I enjoy the courses, they’re a lot of fun to play. This event is a special event. You get an amateur partner, you play with one other pro and his partner, it’s just a lot of fun. Especially if you have a good partner and you have a good group. It’s a lot of fun out here, especially when the weather is like this, it doesn’t get any better.”
Johnson finished in solo third place last year, five shots behind winner Jordan Spieth.
Spieth enters the week trying to answer questions about his slow start to the 2018 season. He is still No. 3 in the world, but he began the year at No. 2. He finished ninth in Maui and tied for 18th at the Sony Open in Hawaii, but then missed the cut in Arizona last week as his normally trusty putter let him down following a three-week break.
His last missed cut came in May 2017, and Spieth proceeded to tie for second in his next event and won two of his next five.
There are several other interesting plot lines to follow. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy will make his 2018 PGA Tour debut, paired with Phil Mickelson at Spyglass Hill on Thursday. McIlroy slid to No. 8 following an injury-plagued 2017 and has not played on the Tour since the BMW Championship in September, but he has two top-three finishes in Europe already this year and has earned rave reviews from his peers during practice rounds this week.
One of the big reasons he chose to make his return to the Tour this week was the opportunity to play with his father in the Pro-Am.
“It’s good to be back in the States and playing again,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I’m feeling healthy and I don’t think I could have picked a better week to come back over here. It’s obviously beautiful. It’s been a nice few days of preparing, seeing a couple of golf courses that I’ve never seen before. … I’m excited to be back, I’m excited for this year.
“The last time I sat in an interview room on the PGA Tour, I wasn’t feeling too good about myself, but I’m really happy to be back and looking forward to starting a busy run over the next few weeks leading up to the first major of the year (the Masters in April).”
Also in the field is Australian Jason Day, who picked up his first victory since 2016 at Torrey Pines two weeks ago. Australian Adam Scott will make his 2018 debut, while No. 17 Paul Casey of England also makes his 2018 Tour debut after tying for ninth in Abu Dhabi.
There are so many marquee names in the field, it’s almost easy to overlook Gary Woodland, who is coming off his third career Tour victory last week. Woodland vaulted to No. 26 in the world and seventh in the United States Ryder Cup standings, but he insisted that it is still far too early to be focused on that and that he still has a lot of fine-tuning to do with his game.
Even so, he is encouraged by the victory last week, and he finished in the top five of this event last year following two missed cuts.
“You cannot not love this place,” Woodland said. “This place is unbelievable. Probably the most scenic golf course we play all year. Maybe the most scenic golf course in America. So there’s obviously a lot of history, a lot of tradition here.
“It’s nice to come back, especially with the momentum I had last week and hopefully have another really good week.”
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media