BlogPrelude to the WM Phoenix Open

by Sal Johnson

From the AT&T Pebble Beach

Tough week at Pebble Beach. Between the caliber of the field and the weather. There were just 21 in the top 100, and more than half the field was ranked outside the top 300. The highest-ranked player in the field was #10, Matt Fitzpatrick, and the biggest marquee name was #16, Jordan Spieth. To end the discussion on the quality of the field, last year the AT&T had the 38th best field of the 47 PGA Tour events in Strength of field. In 2021 it ranked 41st. Honestly, this is not something new. The AT&T has always suffered in getting a good field. A combination of it being a pro-am in which players are paired with two amateurs and playing three different courses is some of the problems. On top of all that, the weather on the Monterey peninsula isn’t promising. What they got this year with cold, wet, and windy conditions is more the norm than the perfect weather they got on Monday morning, finishing the final round. So do we believe all of these articles on the doom and gloom of the AT&T Pebble Beach? Not at all.
AT&T has been the sponsor of this event since 1986, and with Honda dropping sponsorship after this year for that event in Palm Beach, AT&T will be the longest sponsor of a tournament on the PGA Tour. AT&T is an iconic company that is very careful in how they spend money (maybe not with the purchase of Direct TV). AT&T knows that the event at Pebble Beach is an iconic event that will never be done again in golf. The event is played on one of the most dynamic pieces of property in golf, one that every golfer dreams of playing and loves watching golf on it. On top of that, how better to pay back a good customer than having him play in the Pro-am portion, what a great reward. In a way, AT&T is getting a real bargain compared to other companies for the same money in sponsoring golf tournaments. So the thought of AT&T leaving is a non-starter, and we will see AT&T around for quite a while.
So despite all of the negatives for players and the event having a poor field, we can trust that it will be played for many years to come.

Was Rose a surprise winner?

Yes, Justin Rose hasn’t won since the 2019 Farmers, but it’s not like he has played poorly since. Rose, 42, has been a fixture on the PGA Tour since 2003. He won the U.S. Open in 2013, the first gold medal in the Olympics in 2016, and 2018 won the FedExCup. Rose was a fixture in five Ryder Cup matches, and because Rose was a fixture on the European Tour always played in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, he never played at the AT&T. The first time Rose had ever played at Pebble Beach was in the 2008 U.S. Open, shooting 79-72 to miss the cut. Rose didn’t play in his first AT&T until 2016 when he finished T-6th. That was the first time we realized he could win a Pebble. Many will forget that Rose shot 65 in the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open to lead and shot 70-68 to go into the final round just a shot back of the leader Gary Woodland. He played in the final round with Woodland and floundered to a 74 to finish T-3rd, six shots back of Woodland. After that, Rose suffered nagging bank problems, making him realize that maybe the best was behind him.
Rose’s win came as he was 42 years and six months old. Now winning the AT&T in your 40s has happened ten times since 1970. Rose joins a list of Phil Mickelson, who was 48 when he won in 2019. Just a few months before his 47th birthday, Johnny Miller surprised everyone, including himself, winning the AT&T in 1994, the last of his 25 PGA Tour victories. Others in their 40s were Steve Lowery, Payne Stewart, Peter Jacobsen, Mark O’Meara, Gene Littler, and Vijay Singh.
As we said in the beginning, it’s not like Rose has played poorly. In 2020 he was T-3rd at the Charles Schwab Challenge and 9th at the PGA Championship. In 2021 he was 7th at the Masters and T-8th at the PGA Championship. Last year he was T-4th at the RBC Canadian Open and T-6th at the Farmers. This year Rose was T-9th at Houston and going into Pebble, Rose was T-26th at the American Express and T-18th last week in the Farmers. The win couldn’t have come at a better time. As of this week, Rose was not eligible for the Masters, an event he has played 17 times every year since 2011.
So the question is, is Rose still a viable pick in the future? I would say yes. He shows a knack for playing well on challenging courses and always finds a way to make cuts.
A funny thing is how Rose always seems to tinker with his equipment. This week, he played with a new set of Cobra Irons with a softer shaft.  Rose didn’t switch to the new irons until Tuesday afternoon, making his win even more off the wall.  The thought that in under 48 hours, Rose could get acclimated to the irons is foreign to most pros, who take weeks and months to get used to new equipment.  One other shocking development that Rose told the media after the win when he was doing his schedule for the west coast swing, Rose was supposed to start his season in Hawaii at the Sony Open.  But when it got time to travel to Hawaii, Rose felt his game wasn’t ready and decided to switch Pebble for Hawaii.

A couple of other nice items, Rose was the player who called a rules official on Saturday to the ninth green at Monterey Peninsula because his ball wouldn’t stop moving in the winds.  Because of that, officials had to stop playing on all three courses even though the problem was just on the 9th and 15th greens at Monterey Peninsula.  One other trivia question that will stomp people in the future, Rose is the first Englishman to win a PGA Tour event at Pebble.  Yes, in the 76-year history the AT&T has been played at Pebble, Rose is the first English winner.  Going a step further, there have never been an Englishmen to win at Pebble in the six U.S. Opens and one PGA Championship and Tour Championship.


The hazards of being a first-round leader

Since 1970, 943 different players have either led or co-led 3,929 times after the first round on the PGA Tour. Of those, 3,929 times that a player led or co-led after the first round, 445 times those that led or co-led went on to win on the PGA Tour. In the 14 events on the PGA Tour this year, two players went on to win, Tony Finau at Houston and Jon Rahm at the Sentry T of C. In 2022 seven first-round leaders/co-leaders went on to win (Cameron Smith (Sentry Tournament of Champions), Tom Hoge (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am), Joaquin Niemann (The Genesis Invitational),
Sam Burns (Valspar Championship), Jon Rahm (Mexico Open at Vidanta), J.T. Poston (John Deere Classic), and Tony Finau (Rocket Mortgage Classic)).
In the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach, journeyman Hank Lebioda shot a 63 at Monterey Peninsula to lead. Lebioda graduated from Florida State in 2016 and turned professional. That year he played in 11 PGA Tour Canada events, finishing 33rd on the order of merit, and in 2017 he played in 7 Canada events and 14 PGA Tour Latinoamerica events, winning one Canada event (2017 Mackenzie Investments Open) and finished runner-up twice on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Tour. At the end of the year, Lebioda made it to the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying event finishing T-30th, giving him status on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018. He played well in 2018 on the Korn Ferry Tour, with one runner-up finish and three top-ten finishes. He finished 25th on the Korn Ferry Regular Season money list, which gave him a PGA Tour card for 2019. He has played on the PGA Tour every year since 2019, and despite only finishing in the top-125 on the FedExCup list just once, in his other three years, he went to the Korn Ferry Tour finals and was able to regain his playing privileges for the following year.
In his PGA Tour career, Lebioda has played in 102 PGA Tour events making 52 cuts. In his 102 starts, his best finish was T-3rd at the 2020 Bermuda Classic, in which he shot 63 in the final round to finish six shots back of Brendon Todd. Along with that top-ten, he has another four top-ten finishes, so he hasn’t proven much in his four years on Tour other than the ability to find a way to stay on Tour. Another distinction that Lebioda would like to forget is that he still hasn’t played in a major or a World Golf Championship in his six years on the PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour. The biggest event he has played in was the 2022 Players Championship, when he finished T-63rd.
Now the player with the distinction of having the most PGA Tour starts without ever playing in a major championship is Dave Stockton, Jr., who was a regular on the PGA Tour between 1994 and 2003. Stockton, Jr. played in 276 events without ever playing in a major or a World Golf Championship. The most distinguished event Stockton, Jr. ever played in was the three Players championship. Next up on that list is Antonio Cerda, who, between 1973 and 1989, played in 271 events. You may recognize other names on this list, like Bill Calfee, Pat Bates, or Glen Hnatiuk, but if you look at active players, those on the PGA Tour right now, Lebioda has that dubious run at 102 events.
Going into the AT&T, Lebioda was not in great form. He had missed the cut in his last seven PGA Tour starts, and despite his putting improving, Lebioda has not been able to take advantage of his improvements. But at the AT&T, everything messed up for Lebioda. He got to play in perfect conditions at the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula, and with nine birdies and just a single bogey shot his PGA Tour career-low first-round score matching his career-low score on the PGA Tour. Lebioda couldn’t match what he did in the first round, but with rounds of 72-71-72 finished T-15th, his best finish on the PGA Tour since he finished T-15th at the 2021 Houston Open. Lebioda won’t be able to play in Phoenix or L.A., and his next event will be either the Honda Classic or the Puerto Rico Open.

How bad is Maverick McNealy’s injury

One of the favorites at Pebble this week was Maverick McNealy, who in DraftKing games, was taken by 26% of the players. Those who took McNealy were disappointed when he withdrew from Pebble after nine holes in the third round. He cited a left shoulder injury, the first time McNealy had withdrawn from a PGA Tour event. McNealy was one of the favorites due to playing well this year. He was T-7th at Pebble and has made the cut in his last seven starts finishing in the top-31 in all of them. McNealy grew up on the 15th hole of Pebble but wasn’t allowed to play at Pebble until he was 16. In four starts, he was T-5th in 2020 and runner-up in 2021.
Little is known of McNealy’s problem. This is the first time we have heard of any injuries since he has been on the PGA Tour. As of Monday, he is still planning to play in Phoenix. Still, buyers beware of McNealy for the time being.

We are still wondering what is up with Jordan Spieth.

The significant change for Spieth in 2023 is his new form of transportation. Spieth has bought a motorhome to travel around the country with his family. But his game has been anything but good. At Pebble, he made par on his final hole in the third round to make the cut on the number. He missed the cut despite having the first-round lead in his previous start at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Every part of Spieth’s game is questionable right now. He is 163rd in Driving Accuracy, T-72nd in Greens in Regulation, and Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green 166th. Even putting is not up to his good standards, as he is 97th in Strokes Gained Putting. One of the stats that Spieth has always been strong in is making birdies and eagles. In 2023 he is T-81st in Par Breakers. The west coast swing has always been strong for Jordan, but already he is lacking, and I don’t give him much hope at Phoenix or the Genesis.

Two to watch in the future

I was very impressed with how Keith Mitchell and Denny McCarthy play. Mitchell, who plays his best on Bermuda and in the wind, played great at Pebble shooting 67-68-70-64. His game looked crisp as he was sharp from tee to green, putted well, and scrambled well. This is a favorable combination as he gets into gear with the Florida swing just a few weeks off. As for this week in Phoenix, he was T-10th last year, and his game is sharp enough to challenge.
As for McCarthy, he is one of the best putters on tour and very good at getting it up and down. His improvement in 2023 is his iron play. In 2021 he was 154th in Greens in Regulation, was 131st last year, and 84th this year. The thing we like is that McCarthy is getting more consistent, already in 2023, he has only missed one cut in ten starts. We will see what happens in Phoenix and Genesis, two events that McCarthy has struggled with in past years.

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