Pebble Beach: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

The first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is in the books and there is as much dismay that the forecasted rains instead produced the nicest day of the week as there is at who is leading the tournament.

It’s early, but Scotland’s Russell Knox shot 6-under, 64 at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. He had his Tour card last year, but he was only able to get into 23 events because he came in from the Web.com top 25. And then he was only able to make 12 cuts and 2 top 10s.

The bad news was that he dropped down to number 143 on the Money List into “conditional” status. The good news is that one of the top 10s was in the last tournament of the year at Disney. That got him into the Sony Open in Hawaii this year, but he missed the cut.

And so now he’s left lurching around in limbo hoping that enough people take the week off so that the numbers reach down to 143 and he can get into the field. The flip side is that with the 2013 season ending in September so that the 2013-2014 season can kick off the new format, players will be playing more in order to make the Playoffs in the shorter season.

And so that leaves people like Knox to Monday qualify and play on the Web.com Tour while he is waiting for his number to come up. Only two things save him in the short run, another top 10 to get him into LA next week or a win to gain a two-year exemption. Longer term, making enough money when he does get in to earn his card by the end of the season.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Hunter Mahan who also shot 6-under; a 66 on Pebble Beach. At No. 26 in the world rankings, he has the world by the tail. He also played in just 23 tournaments, but that was because he was on his way to winning $4.0 million and didn’t need any more than that. And his win at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson means a three-year exemption.

And so he has the luxury of working on his game without pressure. When I spoke to him in Phoenix last week, while I thought his swing looked good, he said it didn’t feel that good. He was engaged in the quiet search for “swing feels” that will let him know that he’s getting closer.

When you get this good and this high in the pecking order, some might be tempted to think about what their career might end up looking like. Not Mahan:

That’s always an interesting question.  I try to think about it myself and I just over‑complicate it usually, trying to go to this imaginary next step and try to do this.  I think what I want to do is make it very simple on myself and just try to get better every day and not worry about the results and not worry about taking that step and not worry about where my World Ranking is and all this stuff.

Just to get better and try to compete every single week and compete on every single shot, and really give every single shot my utmost and full attention and not think about the past; think about the future and what I can do to get better.

And that will take care of itself, you know, because I think it’s harder to just break through a barrier and win a major. Everyone wants to win a major.  You know, you’re not making history there.  I think I have a lot to improve on and that’s what I’m trying to do, and I think I’ve made great strides…so I’m excited about my game and what I can do right now.

When you get to a certain level in the game, you are no longer at the effect of your swing, you effect your swing, or at least it feels more like that. Padraig Harrington’s chronic tinkering with his swing is a good example of someone who has transcended the struggle. To him, it’s a fascination now. Mahan’s excitement is evidence that he is on that same path to freedom.

And as always, freedom is the watchword for the Knox and Mahan because the pack is hot on their heels: there are 6 players at 5-under, 9 players at 4-under including Lee Westwood and Brandt Snedeker and 17 players at 3-under. And with few notables in those numbers, they will all be emboldened to play aggressively…and they all can.

The rains have finally materialized and will continue until mid-afternoon. With the temperatures not reaching 50 until 2 PM and the winds gusting 10 to 20 mph, it could be a difficult and unpleasant day.

The Golf Channel has the broadcast from 3 PM to 6 PM ET.

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