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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Star power at Pebble comes more from amateurs than pros

    Matt Fitzpatrick waves after his shot on the 10th green during the final round of the Tournament of Champions on Jan. 8 at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Matt York/AP Photo)

    Pebble Beach, Calif. — U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick is one of only three players from the top 20 in the world at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. It's lacking star power by PGA Tour standards.

    That's not what Fitzpatrick saw.

    He played nine holes of practice Wednesday at Pebble Beach with retired Welsh soccer star Gareth Bale. And when he scanned the pairings for the three-course rotation, he realized actor and producer Jason Bateman would be in the group behind him.

    Fitzpatrick wants to meet him in hopes of getting on Bateman's podcast, prompting the question of whether Bateman knows the U.S. Open champion.

    “Oh, I doubt it. I severely doubt it,” Fitzpatrick said.

    Back to Bale, who retired after the World Cup and loves golf so much that Jon Rahm was raving about his game during the pro-am at Torrey Pines.

    Fitzpatrick and Bale first got to know each other a few years ago when Bale's management team was recruiting Fitzpatrick's younger brother.

    “I ended up having a conversation with him and his manager and he jokingly said to me, ‘If you sign for my management company, I’ll not score three goals against your team,' my team being Sheffield United,” Fitzpatrick said. “Obviously, I didn't sign. I'm happy with where I'm at.”

    Bale, on loan to Tottenham at the time, scored three goals against Sheffield.

    “I just remember watching the game and he scored all three and I was laughing,” Fitzpatrick said. “Obviously disappointed, as well.”

    Such is the nature of this tournament, held amid the incomparable scenery of the Monterey Peninsula between the NFL's conference championship games and the Super Bowl, a thing of beauty to see for those coping with the worst of winter.

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen opted out of the Pro Bowl and is playing for the second straight year, hopeful of making the cut this time. His caddie for the week is one of his best friends, Kyle Allen, who started two games at quarterback late in the season for the Houston Texans.

    It's easier to predict Aaron Rodgers being at Pebble Beach in early February than whether he'll be at training camp in July.

    That part of the tournament — athletes, actors, singers, corporate figures who shape the economy — doesn't change. It's the PGA Tour players who seem to be in short supply this year, perhaps due to a pair of $20 million events at Phoenix and Riviera to follow.

    And perhaps that's where Pebble Beach is headed.

    Jordan Spieth has never missed Pebble Beach, playing it for the first time in 2013 before he had a PGA Tour card and a corporate relationship with AT&T.

    “I would fight for an opportunity for this to be an elevated event in future years,” Spieth said. “I'm not sure if the format would have to change or what would have to happen. I really think the opportunity to get the top 50, 60, 70 players in the world playing Pebble Beach and that being a PGA Tour event would be as successful as when the U.S. Open’s held here. I think that trying to go to the world’s best courses, when you have the opportunity, would be advantageous.”

    What gives Pebble such a rich heritage — the amateurs — could be the sticking point. The only time amateurs were not part of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am was in 2021 amid tight restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything was different that year.

    There have been ruminations about Pebble once every so often having no amateurs and playing all four days at Pebble Beach — instead of including Spyglass Hill and the Shore course at Monterey Peninsula. That might feel like a U.S. Open in February.

    Could it form a rotation with Phoenix and Torrey Pines? Is there a way to make it an elevated event and keep the amateurs involved?

    This is part of the puzzle the PGA Tour is trying to figure out for 2024 and beyond.

    Regardless of who plays, Pebble rarely lacks for memories, whether it's pure golf (Tiger Woods coming from seven shots behind with seven to play), pure entertainment (Bill Murray's antics) or pure danger.

    The latter would be Spieth last year on the eighth hole, when his tee shot ran through the fairway on the cusp of a cliff with a 60-foot drop to the rocks and ocean below.

    Keeping his balance, and against his caddie's advice, Spieth hit 7-iron and made par.

    “I think I saved a stroke,” he said. “Does the reward outweigh the risk? Not if you think the risk was dying. ... I think now, knowing my (14-month-old) son a lot better — he was really young at the time — I may not have hit that shot.”

    That might not be an option this year, anyway. While attention is on work to the eighth green that softened some ridges, the edge of the cliff now has rough thick enough to keep balls from rolling too far to the edge.

    “Yeah, it's not advised,” Spieth said. “I'm glad I ended up making a 4. Because if I made a 5 it would have been one of the worse decisions I ever made. Instead, it was just a bad decision.”

    At least he lived to tell about it.

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