Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss the lack of stars at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Phil Mickelson’s year, the addition to the Swilcan Bridge, and more.
1. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which will finish on Monday due to a weather delay, is played at one of the world’s most famous courses and alongside celebrities, but it’s struggled to bring in marquee fields the past couple of years. This year, for example, it has just three top-20 players and about one-fifth of the field is in the top 100. What gives, can this be fixed, and does it bother you that one of the world’s best courses isn’t getting the love?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): Pebble gets plenty of love from its exorbitant greens fees. But this is a scheduling issue, a distraction issue and an elevated events issue. Players don’t seem to want to play anything more than three events in a row (or even three out of four). Players don’t seem to have huge desires for the 6-hour rounds with amateurs. It’s a different kinda event and it feels unsurprising that it earns a different kinda field.
Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): There are lots of factors here, and the new designated events schedule certainly doesn’t help. For the guys who skipped this week and have secured spots in those big-money designated events, that means they’ll play two of the next three weeks and four of the next five. That’s a lot of golf and something has to give. And while the celebrity angle is fun for viewers at home, the fact is most of the amateurs playing are more on the business side of things and not necessarily featured on TMZ every week — and PGA Tour players tee it up in pro-ams enough as it is. It is kind of a bummer, though, because it’s fun to watch some of the best in the world play courses that we can too. (Side note: The U.S. Women’s Open there this summer should be a blast.)
Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): Right, it’s currently in no-man’s land on the schedule, followed as it is by back-to-back designated events, and with the same-week Saudi International luring away potential Pebble commits with princely appearance fees. But Pebble’s woes extend far beyond just its spot on the calendar. Even in its heyday, it drew among the weaker fields on Tour, on account of the long rounds, unusual format and hullabaloo that at least some players have considered a distraction. The Monterey Peninsula’s highly unpredictable early-February weather hasn’t helped matters, either. Nor has Pebble’s less-than-perfect Poa greens. The easiest fix would be to designate the event, but as Jordan Spieth pointed out earlier this week, the ams-tagging-along-for-the-ride format doesn’t really lend Pebble to designated status; some kind of format shakeup would likely be required. So, yeah, Pebble’s in a quandary, and yeah, as Berhow says, it’s a bummer. No matter the conditions on site, for fans at home, it’s still always a treat to see the iconic links in high-def. The Women’s Open can’t get here fast enough!
2. Phil Mickelson made his 2023 debut at this week’s PIF Saudi International, called last year an “anomaly” but said this year he’s ready to play. “I’m optimistic to see a whole different outlook, a whole different game, a whole different competitiveness,” he said. Mickelson has also been much more active on social media, a far cry from what we saw from him last year. What does this tell us about Phil, and what do you expect from Mickelson in 2023?
Zak: Hahaha, yes, ACTIVE on social. Phil and I had some social media fun this week. I think it’s extremely telling. He’s going to keep it up, too. And if I had to guess, he’ll probably stumble a bit and piss some people off in the process. I expect him to play better than 2022. It’s a low bar to clear. I hope he contends in a LIV event. I think it’d be fun. I hope it doesn’t happen at the same time as an exciting PGA Tour finish.
Berhow: It seems like he’s reverting back to his pre-February 2022 form on Twitter, but at 52, it’s fair to wonder how competitive he’ll be on the course (he missed the cut this week, by the way). It will be interesting to see how he plays at the Masters. Remember, he wasn’t there last year, so that’s a whole new storyline we’ll get, too. Course familiarity obviously helps, but he doesn’t have a top 10 in his past six starts there.
Bastable: Wild week. This time last year, in the wake of Mickelson’s incendiary remarks to Alan Shipnuck, we thought we might never hear Phil freewheel again. Now, he’s back on Twitter, popping off more takes than Stephen A. Smith, and using interviews and press conferences to hint at revelations that will soon set him free, presumably via LIV’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour. His candor in such a public forum is surprising given it’s his loose lips that landed him in golf purgatory to begin with, but then again … Phil gonna Phil. He was never going to restrain himself in perpetuity. As for his game, as Mickelson describes it, he’s been honing his shot-shaping with coach Andrew Getson and hasn’t felt as good about his form since he won at Kiawah in 2021. It would be outrageously fun to watch Mickelson, now comfortably in his 50s, mount another charge or two at Augusta, but against the likes of Rory, Rahm and Cam, it’s also really hard to fathom that happening.
3. Welcome to WM Phoenix Open week, where the wildest stop on Tour might get even wilder this year. It’s one of the Tour’s new designated events, so the field will be better than ever, and Sunday’s event will finish right before Super Bowl LVII kicks off 30 miles down the road. Where does this year’s Phoenix Open rank among all of the other marquee events in golf this season?
Zak: It’s officially the sixth major. The hype is so significant. The investment is so genuinely directed toward excitement. It’s a course that tests players and puts them in a meat-grinder mentally at the finish. The golf isn’t the most interesting at all times, but that’s never been the focus. The Tour members call the Players Championship the fifth major because it’s a true player’s test. This is a fan-favorite far above all others. That’s worth something.
Berhow: It wasn’t that long ago when Phoenix had good but not great fields, but it was still a fun tournament based on the unique atmosphere. Now it’s got more of an established reputation and more headliners. Plus, it’s a fun course to watch on TV. The 16th gets a lot of love, but the drivable par-4 17th might be my favorite hole on the course, and it’s at a great spot during the round for Sunday drama. The majors and the Players, as of right now, are the only 2023 stroke-play events I’m more excited for than this one. It feels like the unofficial start of the golf season.
Bastable: It’s golf, but louder. I’m only sort of kidding, because LIV’s tagline, in fact, brilliantly encapsulates what the Tour has done in Phoenix — giving one of its events a distinct identity by loosening the rules around golf spectating and decorum. Can’t help but think that Greg Norman and Co. look upon the WMPO with deep envy.
4. Augusta National announced two big changes to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The first two rounds at Champions Retreat will now be broadcast on TV, and the cut to see who makes it to the final round at Augusta National will no longer be just the top 30 (which was decided via a playoff, if necessary), but the top 30 and ties. We’ll agree that both are great tweaks, but which do you like best?
Zak: The nixing of the playoff was a no-brainer. It not only felt unnecessarily cruel to deny them a competition round on Augusta National, but there’s also so, so much time to get that final round in. ANGC members often play after the final group of the Women’s Am, which always felt odd. We can push their tee times back 30 minutes or so.
Berhow: While of course it’s great we get more kids into the final round at Augusta (they all get a practice round there anyway), I love the fact that the first two rounds will be on TV. Champions Retreat is no slouch, and the players and their storylines can gain a little more traction before we get to the final day. That way we might be more familiar, and invested, in the field by the time the final round gets here. Good stuff.
Bastable: [whispers] When are we going to get all three rounds at ANGC?
5. One of the most famous bridges in golf was trending over the weekend as photos were snapped of a stone pathway leading up to the historic Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews’ Old Course. The St. Andrews Links Trust clarified on Sunday that the project, while not complete, has not touched the bridge and is to fix a spot that receives heavy foot traffic throughout the year. Your thoughts on the newest potential addition to the Old Course?
Zak: Get over it, folks! Your photos are going to look the same. Having seen the lines of people stomping around the bridge all summer long, this makes plenty of sense to me. It’ll look better every month that passes.
Berhow: I feel like it would be naive to think a little standard maintenance wouldn’t be needed here and there. I won’t lose sleep over this.
Bastable: The extension is a little jarring — it looks as if the bridge is melting onto the turf — and also diminishes some of the structure’s no-frills simplicity. But I’d also assume St. Andrews’ minders know far more about bridge maintenance than I ever will. If visitors really abhor it, there’s a simple fix: crop it out of your photos.