PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Assuming everyone plays by the rules, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am figures to be loaded with some of the biggest names in golf.
Just not this year.
Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, who have combined for seven titles at Pebble Beach, are playing the Saudi International. Johnson at least is the defending champion in Saudi Arabia, where he has as many victories — two — as he does at Pebble.
They are part of a strong cast ranging from Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele to Paul Casey and Patrick Reed, all in line for big appearance money.
Such is the allure of world travel — yes, it’s more about money than growing the game — and it’s been going on for decades. Twenty years ago, Tiger Woods was pulling in twice as much in overseas appearance money as he earned from winning the Masters.
Unusual about these circumstances is not just the unprecedented number of players going to Saudi Arabia. It’s the promise — or the threat, depending on what’s at stake and for whom — of what follows.
Greg Norman has been pushing for some iteration of a world tour since 1994. Now he has a company (LIV Golf Investments) involved in a recognized circuit (Asian Tour) with unlimited resources (Public Investment Fund).
And this week, he has a captive audience in Saudi Arabia to preach about greener pastures.
That audience features 20 PGA Tour members among the top 50 players in the world. Commissioner Jay Monahan grudgingly gave them and a few others, such as Harold Varner III and Bubba Watson, conflicting event releases provided they play Pebble Beach once or twice over the next three years.
Can they be trusted to live up to the agreement? To be determined.
Eleven time zones away at Pebble Beach, that felicitous meeting of land and sea, Monahan professes not to be overly concerned with what’s going on in Saudi Arabia.
“I’ll answer this as directly as I possible can: I’m not, and I can’t be,” Monahan said. “I just have to focus on what we’re doing. When you look at what we’re doing, it’s real. The players can see what it’s going to be for the next 10 years.”
The source of that money is a new media rights deal that began this year, and Monahan was quick to point out increases in bonus pools and prize money, such as a $20 million purse for The Players Championship and $75 million for the FedEx Cup, with $18 million to the winner.
“Whatever is going to happen that week,” he said of the Saudi International, “I look at what we have. It’s bankable. It’s real. And it’s now 50 years running, and you know what you have here. I feel good about where we are. I’m going to spend more time making sure we do everything we can to have a strong event for Pebble Beach.”
Pebble has seen stronger days, for sure.
Patrick Cantlay at No. 4 is the lone player from the top 10 in the world. Jordan Spieth, who has an endorsement with AT&T, is one of the top draws among his generation. A pair of former world No. 1 players, Jason Day and Justin Rose, are playing.
Also playing is Peter Jacobsen and Tom Lehman, both in their 60s.
Jacobsen is passionate about Pebble, which he won in 1995 (Woods was a freshman up the road at Stanford) and once described it as a convergence of corporate and entertainment, the backbone of modern golf. No matter the field, sometimes no matter the weather, it was a week to celebrate.
Now it’s a week to look over the shoulder.
Norman on Tuesday referred to “baby steps” by announcing the International Series, the 10 new Asian Tour events with $2 million purses.
Only two venues were announced. The Thailand event will be opposite Bay Hill, one week before The Players Championship. The England event is a week before the U.S. Open.
Other events are planned for China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. They will require more conflicting event releases. And while Norman says there are no geofences, there was no mention of an Asian Tour event in the United States.
It’s worth nothing the PGA Tour does not grant releases for tournaments in North America.
It’s one thing to announce countries and course. It’s another to announce players. And baby steps only become a giant leap if Norman can get enough of the best players for a “super league” to become a serious threat to the current structure.
When it comes to assembling the best players, consider who is not in Saudi this week and who has spoken out against a super league: Spieth, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and other top players who have not been as vocal.
The temptation of guaranteed riches is great, though it should not be assumed that anyone taking appearance money in Saudi Arabia this week intends to play a steady diet of the International Series (baby steps) or consider leaving their tours for a super league (giant leap).
Spieth could see the allure of big money overseas and the royal treatment top players get.
“But you come back over here and it will wear off after two weeks, in my opinion, because the PGA Tour is still that good with all the stuff they’re doing going forward,” he said. “I don’t see how you could come back and still wish you were over there.”
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