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Bunker Shots Celebrity Weekend

Blasting into the week ahead, from memories of the old clambake to another noteworthy Champions Tour debut ...
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

Summing up a strange start to the PGA Tour season:

•       With Tiger Woods disappearing after tabloid media pursue stories of marital infidelity, Phil Mickelson wonders whether he was slandered by insinuations that his dalliance with a legal golf club constitutes cheating.
•       Bubba Watson wins a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with the help of a remarkable trick shot into a bucket through an open door at the home he’s renting at the Bob Hope Classic. He loses the tournament by a shot, however, after laying up at the 14th hole in the final round because he thought the shot to the green was too difficult.
•       Ben Crane may have become the first PGA Tour pro to win a tournament without knowing it. He putts out at the 72nd hole of the Farmers Insurance Open but doesn’t realize he has just won until a fellow player congratulates him, because Crane doesn’t look at leaderboards.
•       Hardly anyone in Los Angeles realizes that Steve Stricker has just won the Northern Trust Open at Riviera because so few people attend the event. The fact that it’s Super Bowl Sunday might have something to do with it. So might the fact that PGA Tour officials substantially raised ticket prices in a recession.

With the arrival of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this week, prepare for stranger twists.

Bill Murray, Ray Romano and George Lopez await.

Stance: Murray’s the clown prince of celebrity golf. Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He may not be the best celebrity player in the event, but he’s the undeniable star of this format. Murray’s irreverent humor can be counted upon to irritate the sensibilities of golf’s old guard. His fans love that. The best celebrity player might be Thomas Gibson, the actor who plays special agent Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner in the CBS series “Criminal Minds.” Eddie Merrins, the teacher to the stars at Los Angeles’ Bel Air Country Club, calls Gibson a serious player. Singers Michael Bolton and Huey Lewis, musician Kenny G, actors Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle and Chris O’Donnell, and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Tony Romo also are scheduled to play.

Takeaway: Three of the top-10 players in the world rankings will be teeing it up with No. 3 Mickelson, No. 5 Jim Furyk and No. 8 Padraig Harrington in the field. With the U.S. Open scheduled to return to Pebble Beach this summer, it’s surprising more stars aren’t playing, especially from overseas with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship bringing so many of them over next week to play in Tucson, Ariz. Sergio Garcia, however, will be making his 2010 PGA Tour debut. It’s just Garcia’s third appearance at the tournament. If Garcia’s going to make the U.S. Open his first major championship title, he needs all the extra work he can get at Pebble Beach. His history isn’t anything special there. He tied for 35th in 2000 and tied for 59th in 2001. He tied for 46th when he teed it up at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach nine years ago, finishing a mere 27 shots behind the record-setting winner, Woods.

Bunker shot: Mickelson’s high hopes for the new year didn’t take flight in his first two starts. With speculation he might move up a spot to No. 1 by summer should Woods remain in exile, Mickelson’s going the other way, dropping to No. 3 on Monday with Stricker moving up a notch. History, though, is in Mickelson’s favor this week. He has won the Pebble Beach Tour stop three times (1998, ’05 and ’07). More than that, he has won on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing eight of the last 10 seasons. If Mickelson’s going to win, he might have to fend off Dustin Johnson, who won the rain-shortened 54-hole event at Pebble last year. The defending champion looks more than ready after finishing tied for third at the Northern Trust Open on Sunday. There’s another star to keep your eyes on this week. The Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shores Course joins Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach in the rotation after 33 years away, replacing Poppy Hills. The course features spectacular views of the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline.

Avantha Masters

The European Tour’s highly successful Middle East swing ends with the turn to India and the DLF Golf and Country Club in New Delhi.

For the first time in three weeks, the European Tour’s field won’t boast more top-10 players than the PGA Tour event the same week.

In fact, the Avantha Masters won’t boast a top-10 player at all. Actually, there isn’t a top-50 player in the field with so many of the European Tour’s best players getting ready to play a long spell in the United States with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the WGC-CA Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Masters scheduled over the next eight weeks.

Stance: Seven of the top 11 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are from Europe. They’ll get the chance to show their lofty status is justified in a stretch of American events beginning with next week’s Accenture Match Play Championship. Want to know what all the fuss over Germany’s Martin Kaymer is about? The sixth ranked player in the world is already set up at his American base in Phoenix and plans to remain in the United States until May. He plans to play the Match Play, the CA Championship, the Shell Houston Open, the Masters, the Quail Hollow Championship and The Players before returning to Europe for the BMW Championship in Wentworth, England, May 20-23.

Danny Lee’s pro career isn’t going the way he imagined after he became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur and the youngest player to win a European Tour event, but he’ll be looking to turn that around this week. After failing to advance through first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last fall, he took his game to the European Tour, where he has made just one cut in five starts this season. He’s still just 19 but carrying a heavy load of expectations.

Bunker shot: Jeev Milkha Singh will revel in the spotlight in his homeland as the highest ranked player in the field at No. 59 in the world rankings. The three-time European Tour winner makes his start on a personal high after the birth of his first child, a son, less than two weeks ago. He wrote in a personal diary for the Middle Eastern Gulf News that he had tears in his eyes at the birth. His wife, Kudrat, was hospitalized for observation with trouble late in the pregnancy. The couple endured heartbreak in a previous pregnancy. “Having gone through the pain of losing our baby once, you can well imagine how even the slightest of negative news affected us,” Singh said. He’s the story this week in India.

Ace Group Classic

Tom Watson gives the Champions Tour a hard act to follow after he beat Fred Couples in a duel in Couples’ senior circuit debut in Hawaii in the season opening event.

Watson won’t be playing the Ace Group Classic at The Quarry in Naples, Fla., after yet another impressive finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last weekend, where he tied for eighth, but it’s a good field in the season opener on the American mainland.

Stance: Couples makes his second Champions Tour start knowing it takes work to beat the old guys. He lost his debut to Watson despite shooting 64 in the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship. Watson beat him by a shot with a birdie-birdie finish and a 65. Bernhard Langer, Jay Haas and defending champion Loren Roberts will be looking to deny Couples again as they seek to confirm their status as the Tour’s top returning players.

Lee Trevino turned 70 in December, but he will be an attraction this week, if more for his rich stories and dynamic personality than his ability to contend. Ditto for Gary Player, who will turn 75 in November.

Bunker shot:
Paul Azinger joins the Champions Tour this week in his debut after turning 50 on Jan. 6. The 12-time PGA Tour winner and 1993 PGA Championship winner can rival Trevino and Player with personality but fans will be turning out to see how much game he’ll be bringing to his new start. He’s part of a promising wave of new blood this season, joining Couples and Corey Pavin as rookies. Mark Calcavecchia (June 12), Kenny Perry (Aug. 10), Tommy Armour III (Oct. 8) and Ian Baker-Finch (Oct. 24) turn 50 later in the year. Fred Funk will also draw attention with his return to golf this week after right knee replacement surgery in November. He’s annoyed his name’s hardly mentioned among players to beat this season.