Many of my most enduring memories of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am are only vaguely connected to the game of golf.
The crowd alongside the No. 15 tee at Pebble once passed comedian George Lopez above their heads, as if they were water and he were body surfing. Another time, those same spectators – many wearing white “Club 15” T-shirts – greeted actor Ray Romano by shouting, between staccato claps, “We love Ray-mond!” It momentarily seemed like a college basketball game.
Last year, as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers strolled down one fairway at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, about 10 fans stood in an orderly line on the patio of a nearby house. “Hey Rodgers!” they yelled in unison. “Discount Double-check!” Then they all did his championship-belt touchdown celebration, which he also uses in TV commercials. He broke into a wide grin, laughing.
Two years ago, in the opening round of what would become his breakthrough victory in the pro-am competition, actor/ comedian Bill Murray jokingly grappled with former San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Harris Barton after they putted out on one green. Murray then abruptly backed away from Barton and shouted in mock anger, “Hey, that’s holding!” The gallery roared.
My point here: The Crosby-turned-AT&T is just plain fun. It’s not the most awe-inspiring tournament (all bow to sacred Augusta National) or the most rugged test of golf (wait until the U.S. Open). But this week’s annual visit to the Monterey Peninsula owns a special place on the PGA Tour calendar and the Northern California sports landscape, given its distinctive blend of the sports and entertainment worlds.
This leads to my second point: The golf still matters.
One of the signature days on Tour in 2012, apart from the major championships, was the final round of the AT&T – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, side-by-side, navigating the storied links in contention. The electricity was palpable and riveting. Mickelson seized the moment, shooting 64 to whip Woods (who wobbled home in 75) and win the tournament for the fourth time.
Woods will not make an appearance this week, and that’s too bad (though not at all surprising). He doesn’t especially like the whole celebrity vibe, nor does he enjoy the sometimes bumpy Poa annua greens. Woods once watched a short putt hop, skip and jump wide of the hole, whereupon he turned to good friend Mark O’Meara and wearily declared, “I don’t need this.”
Woods didn’t return to the AT&T for 10 years.
That’s his prerogative, but it’s encouraging to see other big-name players surfacing at Pebble Beach in February. Mickelson always makes it. Padraig Harrington has become a regular. Dustin Johnson, who made his name in part by twice winning this tournament, loves the place. Early field lists for this week’s tournament included top-10 players Brandt Snedeker and Lee Westwood, plus Webb Simpson, last year’s U.S. Open champion at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
So, yes, it would be nice if Woods and Rory McIlroy put Pebble on their schedules every year. But the golf still can be captivating, and it absolutely can co-exist with the celebrity element.
Two years ago, David Duval stood in the short-game practice area above Pebble Beach, savoring a gloriously sunny day. Duval is often hard to read, hiding behind his wraparound shades and ever-stoic expression, but he showed an acute sense of history that day.
Duval understands how much Bing Crosby and his Hollywood friends helped the PGA Tour in its formative days – and that’s why Duval keeps coming back to the Monterey Peninsula every winter. He traced his devotion to watching the tournament on television as a kid, marveling at the mix of celebrities and golf.
“I’m barely old enough to remember this as the Crosby, and the interaction of Bob Hope down in the desert and Andy Williams in San Diego,” Duval said. “I believe these tournaments are important because the star power of the celebrities, bringing in their friends and colleagues, brought attention to what we do.
“Regardless of how slow the rounds may be, or how bad the weather may be, I just think it’s important for us as players to remember kind of where it started. There are some events you really need to play in, and this is one of them.”
Ever since then, I find myself rooting for Duval. He gets it.
The AT&T still faces practical challenges in attracting a strong field. Some players simply refuse to tolerate long rounds and potentially chilly, soggy weather. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate, though the early forecast for Thursday and Friday is encouraging (read: dry).
But tournament officials deserve credit. They made substantive changes in 2010, reducing the field size from 180 players to 156 (or 360 to 312, counting amateurs) and replacing Poppy Hills with Monterey Peninsula’s Shore Course. Those moves were popular with players, who now tackle a marquee rotation of Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and MPCC.
Great courses, picturesque scenery, some A-list celebrities – all in all, not a bad mix. Your loss, Tiger.