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The Pebble Beach Pro-Am has its swagger back

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The pros like to stop and admire the sea lions frolicking along the rugged shore off the 18th tee at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but nature just might turn the tables this week.

The field is that good.

Who can blame the sea lions if they jockey for position on the rocks here to get a look at world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Jon Rahm and No. 3 Jordan Spieth.

The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am continues to get its swagger back in a big way, with some of the game’s biggest stars looking to put on a show as spectacular as what mother nature delivers here.

While this event lost some luster struggling to attract strong fields in down years over the last decade, it has bounced back strong with the support of the game's youngest stars. This will mark the third straight year the world No. 1 will tee it up here, but the first time in more than a decade that the top three players in the world rankings are all here.

Rory McIlroy may not be among the top three, but he gives the event another boost, making his first start in this tournament. He’s No. 8 in the world, with designs on returning to No. 1.

Throw in former world No. 1 Jason Day and four-time AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am champ Phil Mickelson, and there is plenty of star power to spread around the three courses hosting the first three days of play.

Somewhere in the cosmos, Bing Crosby is crooning “Stardust.” It would be a nice week for a clambake with Bill Murray, Ray Romano, Toby Keith, Jake Owen, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and CBS NFL analyst and former quarterback Tony Romo among those in the pro-am competition.

“You can’t not love this place,” said Gary Woodland, who will try to win back-to-back titles after claiming the trophy at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last weekend. “This place is unbelievable.”

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The PGA Tour’s best will be looking to deliver the West Coast Swing yet another good show.

“Anytime you get a chance to play against the top three players in the world, it’s a fun week,” said William McGirt, winner of the Memorial in 2016. “We don’t get to do it that often anymore. There are so many tournaments. With the four majors, The Players and three World Golf Championships, regular tour events that have been around forever get hurt, because of the scheduling. So this is great it’s happening here.” 

Maybe it’s fitting Doral doesn’t host a PGA Tour event anymore. The old adage that the year in golf doesn’t begin until Doral wouldn’t hold up any longer. Today’s stars aren’t using the West Coast swing to get warm in a run up to the Masters. They hit the year hot with Johnson, Rahm and Jason Day among the big names getting on the board with victories in January.

The intensity only builds this week with Spieth looking to rebound from a missed cut in Phoenix last week. He is defending the title he won last year. It also builds with McIlroy making his first PGA Tour start of the year after coming off second- and third-place finishes on the European Tour last month.

Johnson will be doing more than trying to win this event for the third time. He will be trying to hold off Rahm’s bid to take the No. 1 ranking from him.

Rahm can overtake Johnson if he wins this week and Johnson finishes 45th or worse.

“I think I’m in a really good place,” Johnson said. “The game feels really good. I’ve got a lot of confidence in it, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.”

Johnson and Spieth are the favorites here, and the PGA Tour has paired them together for the first three rounds. Johnson will play with NHL great Wayne Gretzky as his pro-am partner once again, while Spieth is with country music singer Jake Owen.

In 10 starts in this event, Johnson has two victories among seven top-10 finishes. Spieth’s scoring average on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am venues is 68.8, the best over the last 30 years by anyone who has played at least 10 rounds. Johnson is second, at 69.3.

Still, Woodland showed the increasing depth of the Tour, overtaking Rickie Fowler, Rahm and Mickelson on Sunday to win in Phoenix.

“It seems like every week you have more and more guys able to win,” Woodland, 33, said. “And then you have guys like Justin [Thomas] and Jordan and Dustin that seem like they can win five times a year. You’re battling, it seems to me, more guys every week, and it seems like more guys are younger.”

And that’s making the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am feel young again.