The Pebble Beach Pro-Am sells celebrities into golf’s new world order

Rory McIlroy birdied the final hole on Monday to beat Patrick Reed in Dubai, in a tournament full of conflict and controversy. Max Homa edged out Jon Rahm and Colin Morikawa, among other top players, to take the PGA Tour event on Sunday in San Diego.

Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have reliably made the mid-winter trip to the Monterey Peninsula, becoming the professional faces of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for the past 15 years.

Neither of those players will be coming to Pebble this week.

Let’s be honest: The professional field for this AT&T is woefully short on big names, in part due to the ongoing feud between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. The only top 20 players on Pebble, according to the latest world rankings, are Patrick Cantlay (No. 5), Matthew Fitzpatrick (10) and Jordan Spieth (16). And of those three, only Spieth resonates with casual fans.

PEBBLE BEACH, CA – FEBRUARY 11: Phil Mickelson of the United States plays a putt on the 18th hole during the final round extension of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 11, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California . (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Harry How, staff/Getty Images

So, the completely transparent tournament strategy: Celebrities, celebrities, more celebrities.

The 2023 edition will put Bing Crosby’s unique concept to the test. He long ago started Clambake as an unusual way to mix the worlds of sports and entertainment, decades before Greg Norman grabbed wads of shadow money from Saudi Arabia and turned the game on its head.

The best golfers have always emerged over the years—witness Mickelson’s five wins and Tiger Woods’ thrilling shot to victory in 2000—but AT&T-turned-Crosby stood out for his hardy, good-natured demeanor. Laughter, smiles, fun. Golf matters, of course, but in a different way.

It will now fall to Buster Posey, Garrett Bale and Justin Bateman, mostly, to keep the Pro-Am relevant in Northern California’s crowded sports landscape.

It’s a familiar complaint because AT&T has long struggled to attract professionals. Historically, they were sidelined due to erratic weather, long laps and uneven greens. Tournament officials shrunk the field, shortening the rounds. Mother Nature mostly cooperated. Some players are back.

Now the challenge has been increased by the PGA Tour’s battle with LIV Golf, which has drawn Mickelson, Johnson, Reed and other top players. All sense of propriety disappeared in a rare, spirited battle.

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