A golf tournament is largely defined by which pros it attracts…even the 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Yes, the famous golf courses are in many ways the stars of the show, and celebrities from Hollywood and the sports world are enough to keep certain casual fans entertained, but part of what has always made the Pro-Am a great sporting event is its champions. From Ben Hogan to Byron Nelson to Jack Nicklaus to Johnny Miller to Tom Watson to Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods, the best of the best have produced victories that highlighted their careers, and their eras. To keep the top players coming back, Tournament Director Steve John has focused much of his efforts on improving the pros’ experience. No tourney is more logistically complicated, a situation exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure. Two new changes for 2014 will make important differences: Pebble Beach Golf Links’ recently opened driving range and an adjacent 17,000 square foot player hospitality structure.
“It’s a massive upgrade for us,” says John, in his third year as the CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, the nonprofit that organizes the Pro- Am and also the Nature Valley First Tee Open. “Everything is going to be easier and more comfortable for the players.”
The range—at the site of the old equestrian center—addresses a longtime tournament weakness in that there were not good facilities for pros to work on their games. Some 360 yards long and dotted with bunkers and target greens, the new range looks as nice as any actual (inland) golf hole on the Peninsula. Two short game areas and a huge putting green round out the new practice facilities. Steps away will be the temporary clubhouse, where players and their families can congregate to dine and unwind. In years past, the makeshift hospitality area was a small, relatively Spartan space, but John has found the Taj Mahal of pop-up clubhouses, with a 21-foot glass wall and endless amenities. Importantly, players can also park on-site instead of having to be shuttled through the Del Monte Forest. They can also now park at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, which makes life simpler. John notes that in the past couple of years, the tournament has reduced the field size and favored amateurs with lower handicaps, both changes combining to significantly increase pace of play. “What we’ve tried to do is remove any possible reason why someone might consider not playing here,” he says.
Positive word-of-mouth among the players is one reason Graeme McDowell is returning to Pebble for the first time since his triumph at the 2010 U.S. Open. The amiable Northern Irishman is among the most popular figures in golf.
“It’s really cool that he’s coming back,” says John. “He’s been missed around here.” When Mickelson announced last fall that he would be reducing his schedule, there were jitters across the Peninsula, but the four-time tournament champ will once again be around to headline the field. His heir apparent as a golfing gentleman/ crowd favorite is Jordan Spieth, the reigning rookie of the year, who is 20 going on 40. Last year, Spieth began the season with no status on tour, but the AT&T gave him a precious sponsor’s exemption, allowing him to make his second start as a pro. This young Texas gentleman was paired with one of his heroes, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Spieth finished a solid 22nd to kick-start his year, and he remains grateful for the opportunity that he was afforded. Expect him to be a tournament regular more or less forever.
Romo and fellow quarterback Aaron Rodgers have been two of the biggest names in the amateur field in recent years, but each of their football seasons was compromised by injury, so when it comes to teeing it up at Pebble, they will be game-time decisions. But Bill Murray is coming back, and really, what else do you need?
While player comfort will be a hot topic at this year’s tournament, the fan experience remains paramount, and there are some nice new wrinkles. Last year, the focus was on the 17th hole, with the addition of new bleachers behind the green and a double-decker sports bar that proved to be a popular gathering spot. This year, the iconic 18th hole gets the treatment. Bleachers have been brought closer to the green and will now surround it more completely, creating an intimate fan experience. Behind the stands will be tall, spiffy new hospitality suites.
“It’s going to give the hole a stadium feel,” says John. “It will be fun for the players and fans and it’ll look great on TV.”
With AT&T having recently renewed its sponsorship for 10 years, the event is on firm financial footing, allowing John and his dedicated team the chance to focus on the little details. They continue to add up to something big for this revitalized tournament. “Word of mouth is a powerful thing,” John says.
In the last couple of years, Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood returned to Pebble after long absences. This year it’s McDowell’s turn. John is hoping the trend accelerates. “When the players see the range this year, see the hospitality area, the fantastic conditions of the courses, we’re hoping they tweet or text about it,” he says. “However they put it out there, we want everyone on tour to know this tournament is better than it’s ever been.”
The 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament runs February 3-9. For more information, go to www.attpbgolf.com.