Sport : Golf

Life's a beach for Watney

4th February 2013, 10:25pm

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Nick Watney: One of Ben Coley's selections

Nick Watney: One of Ben Coley's selections

Ben Coley previews this week's this week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and makes Nick Watney one of his selections.

Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson headline a strong field for this week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am as the PGA Tour returns to California.

Spyglass Hill - like Pebble, a short par 72 - and Monterey Peninsula, which is a short par 70, share hosting duties for the first three rounds before those who survive the cut return to Pebble Beach for a (hopefully) Sunday to remember.

While the addition of celebrity partners and the format itself have made for the odd surprise, the roll of honour includes some top-class golfers and multiple winners are commonplace, suggesting that it takes a certain type of character to do well here.

Experienced professionals often do well but Johnson advertised that you don't need to have been around the block and back again to excel, although more often than not those to have won or come close at Pebble had offered a clue somewhere in the past.

For me, the big advantage we have as punters is the positioning of this event on the calendar right now.

I say that, because there are obvious and strong ties between this event, next week's Northern Trust Open and the Farmers Insurance Open that was dominated by Tiger Woods a fortnight ago.

The latter event is comfortably the most likely guide to finding the winner in my view, and the fact that plenty of these players have been to Phoenix and back in the interim is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.

Why? Because what may look a modest Phoenix performance could well be dramatically improved upon by certain players now that they return to a coastal track with small, poa annua greens.

Simply put, Torres Pines and Pebble Beach are cut from the same cloth and I'd consider form in the Farmers to be of far greater relevance than form at TPC Scottsdale.

That's evidenced by 2011 winner D.A. Points, who was fifth in the Farmers, confirmed his game remained in good shape by finishing 19th in Phoenix, and then won here at Pebble.

In 2006, Aaron Oberholser was sixth at the Farmers and sixth here with just a modest Phoenix effort in-between. A year later he'd win the title at Pebble Beach.

Bill Haas did something similar, too. He finished fourth in the Farmers last year, 19th in Phoenix, and then returned to small, poa annua greens in victorious style, albeit at Riviera.

Of course, it just so happens that the most likely winner of this event is the man who won at Scottsdale, and if Mickelson hits the ball like he did last week then it'll take some performance to stop him defending his title.

And while 7/1 may appear short about an enigmatic golfer, don't forget that this guy has won back-to-back titles more than once and almost did so last year when losing a play-off at Riviera.

That being said, while I'd have backed Mickelson at 10s I'm not prepared to accept quotes on offer and my spotlight falls elsewhere.

Instead, I'm looking for a player who did well in the Farmers, kept things ticking over at Scottsdale and is primed for a return to form here.

Step forward Nick Watney.

A switch from Titleist to Nike seems to have been relatively seamless for this five-time PGA Tour winner, who was born and raised in nearby Sacramento - this is "as close as it gets" to a home game.

Given where he grew up Watney was understandably delighted to win at Torrey Pines back in 2009, and victory here would represent a superb double.

And the evidence in the formbook suggests he's got every chance of landing it and anything around the 20/1 mark looks more than fair to me.

Watney was tied for fourth in the Farmers Insurance Open, when failing to really progress at the weekend, and the same can be said of last week when he started well before settling for a share of 43rd in Phoenix.

It's quite possible that the prospect of his beloved San Francisco 49ers playing in Sunday night's Super Bowl provided too much of a distraction and I fancy him to follow that trend of getting back on track here at Pebble Beach.

Watney has made seven cuts here on the spin here with a pair of top 10 finishes, and with the emphasis on crisp iron play with these small greens to aim at I'm hugely encouraged by the fact that he's currently third this year for greens in regulation.

The 31-year-old is on an active streak of 12 cuts made and has won two of those starts, and with a return to poa annua greens likely to fuel a return to the solid putting he demonstrated at Torrey Pines, I like his chances.

Next on the list is Steve Marino, who I consider to be very much overpriced at 66s or bigger.

Yes, we're talking about a player who is yet to win on the PGA Tour and yes, he's on the mend following an injury, but with fourth-placed finishes on each of his last two trips to Pebble Beach he stands out like a sore thumb.

He shot 68-68 across the first two rounds at Torrey Pines before falling to 15th with a poor weekend, but that can only have done him good as he continues his return to full fitness.

Certainly, he's putting well enough and having ranked sixth for ball-striking last time he played this event it's absolutely clear that the lines of all three courses suit what is a superb all-round game.

Marino was is a remarkable 11-under par on the par-fours across his last two appearances at a venue which enables some of his closest college friends to come and watch him, and nowhere is he more comfortable than at Pebble Beach.

Maybe this will prove too much, too soon and of course there are reservations about him in contention, but I felt he was a tad unlucky when chasing home Martin Laird at Bay Hill in 2011 and am confident he can win at some stage.

At the price, it's worth chancing that this will be his week.

Back towards the head of the market, Aaron Baddeley is narrowly preferred to compatriot Jason Day.

The case for Baddeley is quite straightforward and to be honest I rather expected him to be 40s or shorter.

One of the best putters on the circuit, Baddeley is always at an advantage on bumpy, hard to read poa annua greens, especially as he grew up learning his trade on them.

It's therefore not entirely surprising that he managed to win at Riviera two years ago, even if he had been in and out of form prior to that victory, and he could very well add this title to his collection.

Baddeley has finished in the top-six on his last two starts at Pebble Beach, and two starts ago was sixth in the Farmers to advertise that his game is in good shape.

A modest 65th last week will disappoint some given that he lives close to Scottsdale and has won there, but he's always been hit-and-miss in Phoenix and the extra distraction of hosting a PGA Tour Super Bowl party can't have helped. Besides, it just so happens that he was 65th in Phoenix last year before finishing fourth here.

The Australian ranks 15th so far this season in strokes-gained putting and with the incentive of climbing into the world's top 64 in time for the WGC Accenture World Match Play firmly in mind, I like his chances.Jimmy Walker is always one to consider in California, and he's a money-making machine on these greens, but on balance at the prices available I'd rather look to side with him in match bets and in his two balls.

Instead, I'll add a player who struggled alongside Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, Billy Horschel.

Horschel is a superb striker of the golf ball and the only barrier between him and vast success on the PGA Tour is his temperament.

Crucially, though, he's well aware of this and is working hard to control his emotions on the golf course, and he's starting to produce some seriously impressive results.

You have to go back 16 starts to last May for his last PGA Tour missed cut, and while he didn't quite earn enough to earn full playing rights for this year he took care of that in no uncertain terms by finishing fourth at Q-School, when a final round 69 suggested his ability to perform under pressure is improving.

So far this season he has cashed four cheques from as many starts and was right in contention at Torrey Pines before struggling at the weekend, which is perfectly understandable given he played alongside his hero.

It's impossible to understate how much of a big deal it is for some young players to tee up alongside Woods - just see how Rickie Fowler struggled in the first round of that same event.

Horschel missed his first two cuts here but made it through to the final round last year, and his progress since has been very strong.

In addition, while I don't want to read too much into form from November's Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational, won by Tommy Gainey, that Horschel finished just behind has to be something of a positive.

Horschel is driving superbly, firing at flags and holing putts and while there's still some doubt as to how he'll do in contention, it could just be that the relaxed nature of this event helps in that regard and the place part of the bet looks smashing value at the very least.

I find it absolutely shocking that Paddy Power went up with 200s about Josh Teater, but that's all gone and at shorter than 100s he's reluctantly left out of the staking plan.

Casey Wittenberg almost made it along similar lines of logic to those used for Horschel, but it's Kevin Na who completes my staking plan.

Having been fifth here last year and third at Riviera in 2011, it's clear that Na is a master on poa annua greens and at second in the strokes gained putting stats right now, he's rolling it beautifully.

I find it interesting that last year's fifth came after he'd shot 11-under in a return to form in Phoenix, and although Scottsdale clearly played easier last week the fact that Na shot -11 again sets him up nicely for this week.

His sole PGA Tour success to date came not too far away in Nevada and his superb short game is a massive advantage at Pebble Beach.


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