Jordan Spieth, the 22-year-old who is currently ranked #1 in the world in men’s golf, is having a big impact on the game. Through his association with AT&T he is in a position to have a rejuvenating effect on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Spieth is at once profoundly normal and a very special young man. Ever since he came to the attention of the larger golf world, in 2010, Spieth has moved the needle in a way that few in the world of golf have ever done. That year he played in his hometown PGA Tour event, the (then) HP Byron Nelson, on a sponsor’s exemption – he was 16 years old and a junior in high school – and not only made the cut, but contended on the weekend, eventually finishing T16.
In interview situations Jordan Spieth is unvaryingly polite, unaffected, and humble. When he refers to his efforts on the golf course in the third person, he isn’t using the royal “we”, he is referring to his team, which on the course consists of himself and his caddie, Michael Greller, and off the course expands to include his family, and his sponsors.
Spieth is the kind of young man any parent would like to see coming to the door to pick up their daughter for a date – even without his insanely healthy bank balance.
His climb since the 2010 Byron Nelson event has been spectacular, to say the least, rising to a crescendo in the last two years with a second-place and a win in the Masters, and a win in the 2016 U.S. Open. The sport’s pundits group Spieth with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Australian Jason Day in a modern-day “Big Three”, but a look at the current Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) numbers show that Spieth is in something of a class by himself.
The algorithms and methodologies which are used to calculate the OWGR are often subject to second-guessing, but a simplistic look at the “Average Points” column in the OWGR will show that the difference in ranking between Spieth and McIlroy is nearly 55 times the difference between McIlroy and Day. Some of this can be attributed to the vagaries of schedule, with Spieth having played more events in the same period than either McIlroy or Day, but even taking that into account, the distance that Spieth has put between himself and his two closest pursuers is indisputable.
In the context of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Spieth is in a special position. His position as a player who is sponsored by the tournament’s presenting sponsor means that he is certain to be in the lineup every year, and his status as the game’s #1 player means that his presence shines a spotlight on the tournament which has been lacking in recent years.
The star power of the celebrities participating in the Pro-Am has dimmed somewhat since the “Crosby Clambake” glory days, and the growing percentage of well-heeled and/or well-connected businessmen (as opposed to genuine celebrities) in the tournament’s amateur field has not only dimmed the public’s interest in the event, but has been a factor in a reduced level of interest from top-tier professional golfers.
With the tournament playing foursomes, on three different courses, play has historically been slow. The amateurs shell out a substantial amount of money for the privilege of participating, and a combination of unfamiliarity with the courses, the desire to get their money’s worth, and a reluctance to embarrass themselves (especially on Pebble’s tricky greens) leads inevitably to slow play. A reputation for 5-1/2 to 6-hour rounds, and the possibility of being paired with a vanity-handicap high roller who couldn’t play to his advertised index on a pitch-and-putt, has played a significant part in keeping many of the pickier top-tier players away from the tournament in recent years.
That trend has shown something of a reversal this year, with six of the Top 10 players in the world, and 12 of the Top 25, in the field. It’s a synergistic effect, with celebrities specifically asking their pro-golfer friends back to the tournament (case in point: actor Mark Wahlberg lured his good buddy Bubba Watson back to Pebble this year after an absence of eight years), and the presence of celebrities in general attracting even more of the better players.
Spieth was asked about the resurgence of the event in a press conference on Wednesday, February 9, the day before tournament play was to begin at the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am:
Q: “Seems like you appreciate the history of the game. And this tournament, obviously, has a deep history, As the Crosby it was very prestigious, and then it went through a stretch where not many top players came. Why do you think it’s kind of become relevant again? And how important is it to the TOUR, given the unique format, that this tournament does sort of thrive going forward?
JORDAN SPIETH: “I think a lot of it has to do with the different celebrities that come back and how they speak about it. I think that has a significant impact, honestly, on us as PGA TOUR players. This was a tournament where I received an exemption four years ago when I didn’t have any status anywhere. It was my second professional start. And it’s really close to my heart. So you don’t have to convince me about this place.”
“But as far as grabbing deeper fields, I think a lot of it has to do with guys like Jake (country recording artist Jake Owen, Spieth’s pro-am partner). Guys like these other incredible celebrities, musicians, sports stars, actors […] that come here can attract (players), ‘Oh, you know what, maybe this is going to be a lot of fun’, versus longer rounds and a different feel playing with amateur partners when it happens a couple other times on the PGA TOUR. So, I think that the celebrities actually have kind of helped build this tournament.”
The participation of the #1-ranked player in the world is going to draw other top players, who, in the new order of FedEx Cup and OWGR points, are loathe to let another player get a jump on them in each season’s race to the top of the rankings. Spieth’s association with the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am bodes well to be a long-term relationship, given his affiliation with AT&T and his affection for the tournament. As long as he stays at or near the top of the rankings his presence at Pebble Beach will be the candle that draws the other high-fliers on the Tour to the Monterey Peninsula every February.