News & Opinion

Why this week’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am could be best ever

Pebble Beach No. 7 hole
The seaside No. 7, a downhill 106 yards, stands out as one of the most memorable holes at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links.

Amid all the misery of COVID-19, the absence of amateur hacks at scenic Pebble Beach should be a shot in the arm for TV viewers

Fresh off playing before the largest galleries in the COVID-19 era, the PGA Tour heads to iconic Pebble Beach, where half the field will be missing. It’s a short-term case of two extremes, signifying the political and cultural differences in what has become a long-term problem.

The state of California basically remains in lockdown. Arizona, meanwhile, saw fit to admit 5,000 spectators per round last week at TPC Scottsdale. Regardless of how you felt about the influx of fans from a safety standpoint, it was nice to hear some real, live cheering, especially as Jordan Spieth continued lengthening his surge into contention Saturday afternoon.

This week, the bubble returns. And thank goodness for the splendid isolation that will characterize the 2021 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which should prove far more appealing to viewers without the celebrity factor around to slime down the telecast. It could be one of the few gifts the pandemic has given us: a weekend at Pebble in the dog days of winter, without the usual CBS barrage of Bill Murray/Ray Romano that leaves many of us yearning to go shovel snow.

I’m no tour pro, but there are thousands of things I’d rather do than watch lousy golf on network television. In its finite wisdom and weakening grasp of what ardent golf fans want to see, CBS has continued to cheapen its Saturday presentation with oversized doses of hit-and-giggle, unwilling to come to terms with contemporary viewing habits or one very obvious competitive dynamic.

This is not your grandfather’s Crosby Clambake.

The big boys usually play for at least $7 million a week nowadays, which makes it serious business more than a laughing matter. Not to play the role of frog in the punchbowl, but gimmicky golf is far more suited for late in the year, the period once occupied by the so-called Silly Season before another batch of official, mega-money events was added to the Tour schedule.

Do Romano’s antics really affect the competition? Probably not, but a fair number of big-name players – Tiger Woods being the biggest – routinely have skipped this event over the years due to the hassle that comes with a pro-am format. The 5½-hour rounds can become unbearable. Add a 20-mph breeze off the Pacific and temperatures in the low 50s, and it’s enough to leave a tour pro thinking he’s better off hanging out in his $10 million home that week.

This time, and perhaps this time only, we’ll see nothing but real golf played by real players. The best in the world, which is why we turn on the television to begin with, although CBS can gently rationalize its Saturday celeb-fest by pointing out that it’s just one day. Three hours of silliness in a year that will serve up hundreds of hours of worthwhile performers hitting fabulous golf shots.

It’s a lame argument. Showcasing clowns at Pebble Beach is like staging a collection of drunks on Broadway. Not only is it unappealing, it’s almost disrespectful. We’re talking about one of the finest courses on the planet. An American treasure, a place at which the game should be contested in its highest form for 72 holes, not 54, and if they want to work Spyglass Hill into the mix, that’s fine.

Spyglass is one of few venues that can occupy a marquee with Pebble Beach and not look ridiculous. That’s another nice thing about this year’s tournament. By turning the pro-am into a no-am, a third course isn’t needed, meaning the fellas will take three laps around Pebble instead of two. An extra scoop of ice cream after a superb meal, although some of us will have to loosen the belt to accommodate such a treat.

Two weekends ago, CBS began its final-round coverage at Torrey Pines with a lengthy segment on Patrick Reed’s free-relief episode on the 10th hole a day earlier. Each former tour pro now employed by the network offered his thoughts on what he’d seen. Not only was it timely and provocative TV, it was a dramatic change from how the telecast might have opened under former producer Lance Barrow. A sign that things might be different under new boss Sellers Shy, who obviously brings a new set of sensibilities to the product than the man whom he replaced.

To think that CBS will ditch the celebrity overkill at Pebble Beach next February lands somewhere between wishful thinking and a serious reach. Those decisions almost certainly come from people higher than Shy, the idea being that aging sitcom actors or 1980s movie stars generate a larger audience and do more good than harm to the network overall.

It’s an outdated premise, an unsavory nod to self-promotion at the expense of a vast majority of those who turn on the TV to watch what should be one of the best non-majors on the golf calendar. For one week this year, we got lucky. As for future years, we’ll need to get even luckier.

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