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Pebble's reverse psychology: Let ams lure pros

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The Crosby. The Clambake. The AT&T, or perhaps just simply, “Pebble.”

Call it what you want, this week’s PGA Tour stop has a rich history. It boasts some of the best views in golf and invites players to tee it up along the game’s most storied patch of coastline – outside of Scotland, anyway.

But in recent years, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am has been dogged by other perceptions: namely a stale list of amateur participants, many of whom hacked their way across this little strip of paradise. It meant six-plus-hour rounds for the pros, surrounded by fans who often came more for the celebrity sightings than the golf occurring inside the ropes.

It led to this becoming one of the weaker events of the West Coast swing, as players flocked to locales like Torrey Pines and Riviera but avoided Pebble Beach in droves.

That trend, though, has turned around in a big way this week. Jordan Spieth headlines a field that includes six of the top nine players in the latest world ranking, and the winner will receive 54 OWGR points – six more than the tournament’s previous high and a stark contrast to the 38 points Phil Mickelson got for his win just four years ago.

Spieth’s fourth straight appearance here comes as no surprise considering his ties to the title sponsor, but it carries more weight as the No. 1 player in the world. He attributes the deeper field not to the top-ranked pros, but to a revamped celebrity list that includes his pro-am partner, Jake Owen.

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“I think a lot of it has to do with guys like Jake, guys like these other incredible celebrities,” Spieth said. “I think that the celebrities actually have kind of helped build this tournament.”

Tournament director Steve John agrees. His team always strives to recruit the best field, but they hit paydirt this year by turning their usual process on its head.

“It’s the best field we’ve ever had, and I think it just speaks to what the tournament has become,” John said. “We work hard year-round to get the best pros here, but what happened this year was we actually went out and recruited the best celebrities, and they brought their pros.”

That tactic quickly paid off, as actor Mark Wahlberg persuaded Bubba Watson to make his first tournament appearance since 2007. Singer Justin Timberlake will team with Justin Rose in the Englishman’s first appearance at Pebble, while baseball all-star Josh Donaldson got his friend and fellow Auburn alum Jason Dufner to make the trip.

“We’ve been trying to keep the celebrity and athlete field fresh for years,” John said. “That’s always been the goal, but this year we just stepped on the accelerator.”

Granted, nothing has changed about the tournament format that led to many players skipping the event. Participants still must shuttle across three different golf courses, and they’ll play the first three rounds in foursomes with amateurs of varying skill. 

But players like Jason Day have experienced regular success here despite those variables. The Aussie sees the game’s elite crop getting younger and younger, and he believes that trend has led to a revised stance on this event from many of his peers.

“There was a little bit of flavor lost with the players, I think because the guys were older,” Day said. “And now we have a young group of guys that enjoy hanging around celebrities, enjoying seeing people or seeing celebrities in the tent and getting to know them and talk to them.

“Trying to get Tiger Woods and Phil and all those guys constantly going back a few years is a little bit tougher because they’re older and they have a schedule to keep and families and all that stuff.”

While this week’s field has unprecedented depth, all signs point back to Spieth as he makes his first start in the mainland U.S. since the Tour Championship. He and Owen have become a regular duo here, and Spieth has embraced the tournament’s unique format.

“Even if the rounds are a bit longer because you have foursomes, you’re still having more fun,” he said. “You’re getting to kind of in a way feel like you’re playing a team event while still kind of grinding yourself. It’s hard to explain.”

There are a myriad factors to explain why so many top players have congregated this week on the Monterey Peninsula, and each would weigh those factors differently according to his preference. But the net result is a field that could produce a star-studded finish for pros, amateurs and fans alike.

Plus, the scenery isn’t exactly a deterrent.

“Maybe it’s just these courses bring out the smiles in everybody,” Spieth suggested. “But we have them.”