Shaking the Line Up

New Talent and Services at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

BY Alan Shipnuck • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Marc Howard

Just when you thought the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am couldn’t get any better, along came the 2016 version. One of the strongest fields of professionals in the tournament’s history enjoyed perfect weather for four days, and in the end it came down to the Prince of Pebble, four-time champion Phil Mickelson, battling a down-on-his-luck journeyman named Vaughn Taylor, ranked 447th in the world and going on more than a decade without a win.

The drama lasted until the final putt, when Mickelson missed a do-or-die 5-footer. That handed the victory to Taylor, who had been in such a crushing slump he was contemplating quitting the game. In front of a national TV audience, the victorious Taylor and his wife Leot dissolved into tears, and their close bond and palpable gratitude made for the feel-good story of the golf season. “I’m so thankful, so lucky to be here,” said Taylor, who had begun 2016 in golf’s minor leagues; he sneaked into the pro-am field at the last second as an alternate. “So many people have helped me get here. Oh, man, there were a lot of dark days and nights. I’ve worked hard but I couldn’t have done it without my family, my wife, my teachers, all my friends. It’s been a long time [since I’ve won]. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I worked so hard and just kept getting knocked down and knocked down. And I just can’t believe it actually happened.”

Taylor’s outpouring of emotion was a fitting end to a tournament that has become defined by feeling. A decade ago, when the Pro-Am was struggling to attract the PGA Tour’s top players, a common refrain from those who skipped the event (usually muttered off-the-record) was that they didn’t want to have spend a week with a stranger as a pro-am partner.

Now top pros are coming back for a very personal reason: friendship. Last year, pop superstar Justin Timberlake talked his buddy Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champ and reigning Olympic gold medalist, into playing Pebble for the first time and Rose had such a good time he’s back again in 2017. Similarly, when country singer Toby Keith announced he would play the tournament in 2016, his friend Steve Stricker, a 12-time Tour winner, decided to join him, teeing it up at Pebble for the first time in nearly a decade.

“It’s recreating the old Clambake feel,” says Tournament Director Steve John. “This event was founded by Bing Crosby as a gathering of friends and organically here the last couple of years that camaraderie has come back. Now the pros and the celebs are playing with close friends and they’re having a ball.”

John jokes that it was good luck that Timberlake, a strong 4 handicap, missed the pro-am cut by two strokes in 2016 because that ensured he’ll return with Rose for another attempt to secure an elusive Sunday tee time.

A couple of new faces will enliven the celebrity field. Future basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen has already proven to be a crossover threat with his star turn in the Spike Lee movie “He Got Game;” if Allen’s putting stroke is anywhere near as good as his shooting stroke he’ll do fine in his PGA Tour debut.

Sure to generate even more buzz is swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach, whose body of work will be on full display in the upcoming “Baywatch” movie. Rorhrbach has gotten a lot of mileage out of having competed in one golf tournament while an undergrad at Georgetown. Is she more than a pretty face on the links? We’ll find out.

Other celebrities in the field include Hollywood leading man Mark Wahlberg, TV personality Alfonso Ribeiro and Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young. Beloved tournament fixture Bill Murray is also expected to play, though with the famously mercurial actor no one is ever sure until he turns up on the first tee.

“I hope he’ll be here,” says Steve John with a chuckle. “You just never know with Bill. All indications are he’ll be here. We’ll see.”

Mickelson will once again headline the professional field. As with his hero Arnold Palmer, Mickelson is always gracious in defeat, and even after his wrenching 72nd hole miss last year, he said of Taylor, “I’m happy for him.”

The fine play at Pebble Beach helped propel the 46 year-old Mickelson to another memorable season. At the British Open, he lost an instantly classic duel to Henrik Stenson and then at the Ryder Cup he was the emotional leader of Team USA’s victory, capping his week with 10 birdies in a thrilling singles match versus Sergio Garcia. After a pair of sports hernia surgeries in the off-season, Mickelson will use Pebble Beach as an important measuring stick of his fitness.

Though Phil the Thrill still remains dangerous, and his contemporary Tiger Woods is attempting yet another comeback, the Tour has been reinvigorated by a new era of youthful superstars. Of the so-called Big Four, three of these young guns will be teeing it up at the Pro-Am: world number one Jason Day, 27; reigning U.S., Open champ Dustin Johnson, 32; and two-time major championship winner Jordan Spieth, 22. The only absentee is Rory McIlroy, and Steve John thinks the tournament has a good chance of attracting him in 2018.

Day, an amiable Aussie, won three big-time tournaments in 2016 and spent the final nine months of the year at number one, despite his season ending early due to a lingering back injury. He will be rested and motivated to recapture the lost momentum. Day also knows it will take superlative play to keep the ascendant Johnson from summiting the World Ranking.

In 2016, Johnson finally began to realize his awesome potential, overpowering the scariest course in golf—Oakmont—en route to his U.S. Open breakthrough. Johnson has a long history of playing well on the Tour’s West Coast swing, including two previous victories at Pebble Beach. If you’re looking to anoint a favorite to win the 2017 Pro-Am, he is it.

With a nod to how hard Johnson has worked this off-season, his agent David Winkle recently said, “I’ve always felt like one of these years Dustin would sweep the West Coast. I have a feeling this is going to be the year.”

Johnson’s driver has supplanted Spieth’s putter as the game’s most feared weapon, but the young Texan remains one golf’s most consistent performers, having won three times in 2016. Still, Spieth’s back-nine meltdown at the Masters defined his season, and ramping up for a shot at redemption at Augusta National will add more urgency to the first few months of his season. Expect a spirited performance from Spieth at Pebble Beach, a tournament that remains special to him because of the sponsor’s exemption that was extended when he was a rookie struggling to find places to play.

Rounding out the pro field is Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed, intriguing international players Shane Lowry and Emiliano Grillo, and charismatic bombers Tony Finau and Jon Rahm.

Beautiful courses and celebrity starpower have always defined the spectating experience at the Pro-Am, but in 2017, the tournament will offer two new ways to enjoy the action. Responding to fan surveys that cited a desire for upgraded amenities, The View will debut on a gorgeous site overlooking the 8th green. This swanky hospitality tent can accommodate up to 500 spectators a day. They will have access to a private bar and catering, and in the afternoons, live acoustic music will add to the ambiance. Tickets cost $200 a day or $600 for a weekly badge.

An even more exclusive experience is being offered at Palmer’s Club 18, named in honor of the late Arnold Palmer, a former Clambake champion and managing partner of the Pebble Beach Co. The Club occupies the top level of a twostory structure along the fairway of Pebble’s 18th hole. There will be a rooftop bar with endless views and premium food and spirits will be served. Tickets to the Palmer Club go for $4,000 for the week and include coveted on-site parking.

“This is the first time we’ve opened up this kind of venue to the public,” says Steve John. “In the past it was only for corporate entertaining. But if fans want to have the ultimate Pebble Beach experience, in the greatest setting in golf, this is it.”

Of course, those on a general admission ticket can have just as much fun. With a charming defending champ, intriguing group of amateurs and stacked lineup of pros, the 2017 Pebble Beach Pro-Am is set up to be another great week in a tournament with a long history of them.

As a victorious Vaughn Taylor said, speaking for so many, “This is a really, really magical place.”

The 2017 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am takes place February 6-12. For more information, please go to www.attpbgolf.com.

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