Column: Pebble Beach Trades Heritage For $20 Million Elite Status

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — The sure sign of a glorious day at Pebble Beach is when even the players stop to take pictures. Justin Thomas couldn’t resist on the 18th tee, a view that illustrated why Robert Louis Stevenson called it the “most felicitous meeting of land and sea.”

The stronger connection to Pebble is Bing Crosby, the host of the original clambake whose name was part of the tournament from 1937 until the PGA Tour went corporate in 1986.

His name will come up this week only because of what’s known as “Crosby weather.”

The forecast is for rain and general misery — this can happen from time to time — and so Thomas picked a good day for his photo on Monday while playing with Rickie Fowler.

Sadly, the mention of Crosby weather is the only link to the past.

Even when AT&T became the title sponsor in 1986, the tournament never lost its heritage. Pebble had another version of a “felicitous meeting” when it brought together the key elements of the corporate and celebrity worlds and combined them with the best in golf.

The trouble of late was getting the best in golf.

And now the PGA Tour thinks it has the best of both worlds. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is a signature event with a $20 million purse and the best field it has had in a long time.

Instead of 156 players (it used to be 180) spread across the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula, there are only 80 players over two courses (Pebble and Spyglass).

The amateurs — 80 of them, including Tom Brady and Josh Allen — are playing only Thursday and Friday, and then they go home. Gone is the celebrity rotation on Saturday at Pebble, a delight for the spectators but tough to stomach for golf fans who wanted to see real golf.

Justin Timberlake one year grabbed a guitar and delivered an impromptu performance on the tee at Spyglass Hill. Bill Murray’s antics were endless, occasionally tiresome, but rarely dull. Geoff Ogilvy understood the value. Players who paid attention realized they were making connections with amateurs who shaped the economy.

It was a tradition for more than 80 years that has been minimized to make Pebble Beach, minus the scenery, look like every other signature event — small field, elite players, big money.

This was the dream of the PGA Tour — imagine a tournament at Pebble Beach without all the hit-and-giggle of amateurs, a collection of golf’s best. The tour can’t control the weather, and that will be lacking this year.

Everyone eligible is playing — Tyrrell Hatton was a late withdrawal when he took his talents to a Mexican resort to play for Saudi-funded LIV Golf — leading to descriptions as this field being the best in Pebble history.

That depends upon how it’s measured. Go back 40 years to find nine of the top 10 on the money list, along with a field that included Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin and Curtis Strange, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin, Lanny Wadkins and Mark O’Meara.

This is a different world, with different players with different motivations. And it’s different money.

Thomas is playing the AT&T Pebble Beach for the first time in 10 years, before his rookie season, when the purse was a mere $6.6 million. The good news is he gets to play Pebble on a Sunday for the first time (he missed the cut in 2014 and at the 2019 U.S. Open).

For Thomas and so many others, such as Fowler, it became as much a scheduling issue on a strong West Coast swing as six-hour rounds and the possibility of Crosby weather.

Sleet covered the greens not long ago. Rain wiped out the 1996 tournament and led to a seven-month delay in 1998 — the second was in January, the third round in August. Most famous was 1962 when one round was postponed by snow, prompting Jimmy Demaret to say, “I know I had a lot to drink last night … but how did I end up in Squaw Valley?”

Thomas played 18 holes with Fowler on Monday in under four hours, with a side bet for birdies (Thomas made 10) and plenty of chipping and putting on every green. Thomas recalls a practice round in 2014 taking that long for nine holes.

This is a nicer pace. The flip side is a short field, leaving out players who for years loved coming to Pebble Beach for all it represented, amateurs and celebrity shows included.

The tradeoff is getting all the best players at the most beautiful spot in golf.

There are four sponsor exemptions, which raised plenty of eyebrows when three of them went to players who serve on the PGA Tour board — Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Peter Malnati (the other went to Maverick McNealy, a local player whose father co-founded Sun Microsystems and often played in the pro-am).

Malnati, for as much grief as he is taking, has been a regular partner of Don Colleran, the retired CEO of FedEx Corp. and a fairly important PGA Tour customer.

It should be a good week. The stars are out, even if the sun might not be.

The hope is this doesn’t go the same way as Doral, for more than 40 years an integral part of the Florida swing. It had its own culture, loud and festive with local flavor, pure Miami. And then it became a World Golf Championship and looked like all the other WGCs — buttoned up with plenty of starch.

Within a decade, Doral was off the schedule, most of that related to Donald Trump’s ownership of the resort and difficulty finding a sponsor.

Pebble isn’t going anywhere. It might even look better. But it won’t be the same.