News & Opinion

Pebble Beach Pro-Am reclaims its mojo

Several years ago, while covering the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, I made a customary scan of the leaderboard – seeking a marquee name, an inspiring comeback tale, a compelling story of any kind – that produced absolutely nothing. Zero. Zilch.

That moment, frozen in my memory, was emblematic of an embarrassingly lean stretch for the once-prestigious tournament. PGA Tour journeymen such as Steve Lowery (2008) and D.A. Points (2011) won the AT&T, reinforcing how it had become an afterthought to most top Tour pros.

Not anymore.

This week’s field includes the top three players in the world ranking: Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth. Former world No. 1s Rory McIlroy and Jason Day also will tee it up in the Pro-Am, which begins Thursday on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

Phil Mickelson, a four-time AT&T champion and three-time Masters winner, will be there. So will previous Masters champs Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, plus top-25 players Matt Kuchar (ranked No. 19) and Patrick Reed (No. 24).

Or put another way: Pebble matters again. 

This was no easy feat, given the crowded 21st-century golf landscape. All tournaments covet big-name players. All big-name players covet their time off, and they generally avoid events with sketchy weather, bloated fields, high-handicap amateurs and painfully long rounds.

AT&T officials couldn’t do much about the weather, but in 2010 they shrewdly swapped Poppy Hills (unpopular among Tour pros) for Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course. They also trimmed the field from 180 pros and amateurs to 156 of each, and made a conscious effort to land better amateur golfers.

Along the way, the average round – once approaching six hours – peeled back to slightly more than five. Before long, many top players signed up, lured in part by the chance to play with their celebrity friends. 

The chatter about the event’s outdated pro-am format began to evaporate. 

“I’m a huge fan of this format,” tournament director Steve John said. “I think this is what golf is about. You read about buddy trips all the time. This is a buddies’ tournament, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.”

John, no fool, went out of his way to accommodate Tour pros’ requests for an amateur partner. Watson wants to play with actor/producer Mark Wahlberg, a friend? Done. Justin Rose would make his AT&T debut if he could have singer Justin Timberlake as his partner? No problem.

Bing Crosby is beaming somewhere, because this blend of sports and entertainment is exactly what gave the old Crosby Clambake its identity in the first place. 

John also pointed to the enhanced player experience in recent years, a nod to the need to modernize facilities. 

“Our player village is so cool,” John said. “They can come here and eat, and nobody is going to bother them. The range is private, mostly because there’s no space for bleachers.

“Players know they’re going to sign autographs and interact with fans on the course, but we have spaces where they can have a safe haven. And we’ve totally upped our game on the caddies, and given them space with good food. We’ve checked both those boxes.”

Most boxes are checked now. If you want to see Bill Murray wisecrack his way around the course, he’ll be there. And if you want to see the world’s finest golfers, that’s an option once again. 

Oh, and by the way: This week’s forecast calls for sunshine and temperatures in the high 60s, every day.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick