Dave Faries here, recalling the time I almost stepped on Steve Young’s golf ball at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
His approach shot on 18 had skittered off the green and came to rest against the temporary wall supporting the television broadcast booth. I really didn’t expect a ball to be in such a spot as I maneuvered through a sea of photographers looking for a vantage spot to watch a little golf before heading back through the tunnel to resume my interviewing duties.
Fortunately, a course marshall warned me in time. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer finished his round without officials having to consult.
I’m not really certain how PGA Tour officials rule on accidental interference. I do, however, know how they decided on the request by some of the tour’s top players to skip this year’s Pro-Am in order to participate in the Asian Tour’s Saudi International, set for the same weekend, Feb. 3-6. And their ruling has the golf world on edge.
A statement released just before the holidays reported that “With conditions, the PGA Tour has granted all conflicting-event releases to players for the Saudi International.”
The list of golfers requesting releases and thus heading to Saudi Arabia is impressive. World top tens Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau and Louis Oosthuizen are lined up to compete in the Saudi event. Pro-Am favorite and five-time Pebble Beach winner Phil Mickelson is as well, along with Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell, Patrick Reed and rising stars like Matthew Wolff.
Both the event and the decision to allow a slew of stars to participate are controversial, and not just because of Saudi Arabia’s dicey human rights record (noting that the regime “prefers bonesaws to bullets,” USA Today Golf Week’s Eamon Lynch suggested naming the event The Dismemberment Invitational “would be a tough hospitality sell”). It is said the kingdom paid six and seven figure amounts to select players if they would bail on Pebble Beach. And the government’s Public Investment Fund is not only backing the event, but also set up LIV Golf Investments, lured former world number one golfer Greg Norman to head up the group and poured hundreds of millions into the Asian Tour in a bid to create a “Super League” that would topple the PGA Tour’s dominance.
The Saudi Invitational’s website appears to rub it in, breaking the field into categories such as “US Stars,” “European Stars” and “British Stars.” In your face!
So what are these “conditions” set by the PGA in an effort to save the sport? According to the December statement, “The tournament will be played the same week as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, so players will be required to support that Tour staple going forward.”
Here’s how that requirement works. Golfers who took part in the Pro-Am at least once in the last five years must return to the Monterey Peninsula “at least once in the next two years.” Those who habitually skip the Pro-Am will need to participate “at least twice in the next three years.”
Several tour professionals have likened themselves to independent contractors, free to show up where they wish to compete—without the paperwork. Who outside the tour knew there were such things as conflicting-event release forms?
The PGA Tour Player Handbook & Tournament Regulations (not on the New York Times Best Seller list, I checked) indicates players are subject to a 15-event minimum each season. At that point they earn three possible conflicting-event releases. Yet there are tournaments, such as the four classified as majors, the Ryder Cup, the Olympics, as well as for foreign players who opt to take part in a “home” event that do not require releases.
So what does this all mean for the 2022 edition of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am? Well, it’s still a talented field. Already committed to play the courses of Pebble Beach are the likes of Daniel Berger, Jason Day, Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Charl Schwartzel and others in the tour elite—hardly diluted in terms of competition.
And the stars are aligning. Don Cheadle intends to play. Mia Hamm, too. Huey Lewis and Ray Romano never miss the tournament. Chef Thomas Keller is back, as is Steve Young and many others.
More importantly, since the Pro-Am is a fundraiser for the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, there’s a number that rivals what the Saudi government is pumping into the Asian Tour. This year the foundation will surpass $200 million in local charitable giving.
So play for pay? I plan to welcome warmly those tour professionals and celebrities who commit to an event for a good cause. And I’ll pay more attention when Steve Young lines up his shots.