The stars are aligned for 2010 to be one of the best AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Ams in recent memory. Among the factors that have led to so much excitement in the sea air: a new course, a better spot on the calendar, and the impending U.S.Open at Pebble.
The Pro-Am will always be one of the most glamorous stops on the PGATour because of the Pebble Beach mystique and Hollywood-inspired amateurs, but in recent years many top pros have not shown up. One reason has been that the European PGA Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic occupied the same slot on the golf calendar, and top international players couldn’t resist playing there because of the bloated appearance fees, which are not allowed on the U.S. PGA Tour.
In 2010, the Dubai will be played the week before the Pro-Am, eliminating the conflict. And with Desert Classic sponsors having run out of money in the economic downturn, most of the top globetrotting players are expected to turn up at Pebble to scout a course that four months later will host the U.S.Open. This is imperative for touring pros who haven’t visited Pebble in a while because virtually every hole has been tweaked to enhance the course’s myriad challenges. Among the most notable changes are new back tees on some of the toughest par-4s. The 9th hole can now play 40 yards longer, number 10 has been stretched a whopping 50 yards and the 13th has grown by an additional 45 yards.
Pebble has always been the quintessential second-shot golf course: Generous off the tee, but its tiny,well-protected greens demand both precision and daring. Now tee shots have to be longer and much more accurate thanks to new fairway bunkering, most notably on the 3rd, 4th, 14th, 15th and 18th holes.
Pebble’s most dramatic change has occurred on the gorgeous par-5 6th hole. Before, players could mindlessly bash away from the elevated tee. Now a new bunker complex has significantly pinched the left side of the fairway, forcing drives to be placed much closer to Stillwater Cove. The removal of trees, shrubs and shaggy rough on the edge of the cliffs means that errant drives can easily careen into the ocean.
For all the improvement, Pebble still retains its essential charm and character. But the 2010 Pro-Am will have an entirely new feel thanks to the return of the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. From 1947 through 1965, MPCC’s Dunes Course was part of the rota of the Crosby Clambake, until it was replaced by Spyglass Hill. When Cypress Point ended its run as a host venue in 1990, Poppy Hills joined Pebble and Spyglass in the three course rotation. Poppy Hills was never fully embraced by the pros due to some quirky design elements and a glacial pace of play largely resulting from five par-5s. Adding MPCC’s retrofitted Shore Course has created much excitement among the Pro-Am competitors.
When the idea was first floated last fall, 2006 champ Arron Oberholser said, “I think it would be absolutely phenomenal. Can you imagine having the Shore Course, Spyglass and Pebble? It would be epic.” Indeed, it should be.
Another little wrinkle that’s new for 2010 is a reduction in the size of the Pro-Am’s field, from 180 pros to 156. (24 corresponding amateurs have also been jettisoned.) This will result in an improved pace of play and less wear-and-tear on the soft greens, the latter being a factor that has often been cited to explain the absence of some top pros, including Tiger Woods.
Golf’s biggest name was planning his first return to the Pro-Am since 2002 until his life was left in shambles following a late-night car crash the day after Thanksgiving. Woods subsequently announced an indefinite leave from competitive golf.When he will return, and if he can recapture his old form, are golf’s most pressing questions. It is virtually certain Tiger won’t be back for the AT&T, and in the absence of the world’s number one player, Phil Mickelson will be looking to assert his dominion. The three-time champ at Pebble (’98, ’05, ’07) will come to the AT&T seeking not only another trophy but also the chance to establish himself as the early U.S. Open favorite.
Our national championship is the tournament Mickelson most wants to win, but as he once observed, “I love the Open, it just doesn’t love me.” That’s a nod to five career runner-up finishes, including heartbreaks on the final holes in 1999, 2004, 2006 and last year, when he was trying to win one for his wife Amy, who was battling breast cancer. With Amy’s condition improving, Mickelson can begin 2010 with a clearer mind and a revitalized putting stroke, thanks to his work late last year with Champions tour oracle Dave Stockton. Phil may need a U.S. Open, but right now golf needs him even more, to supply a new plotline and provide some inspiration to dispirited golf fans. Pebble is the ideal place for both.