Thursday, February 8, 2007
THE WHALING STATION
The green at the third-hardest hole at the hardest course in the tournament, the 595-yard first, is raised—as if Spyglass Hill needed a proper platform for its bogey sacrifices to the golf gods. That elevated position allows for sweeping 360-degree views that include a look at everything that transpires at the tricky par-3 5th, as well as pine-framed peeks at the 6th fairway. Meanwhile, the truly unique sausage-shaped 4th green and the 2nd tee are just paces away. And as a bonus, there are often whales to admire offshore. A Thursday morning here with the top pros and goofiest amateurs goes a long way toward a great weekend of golf-watching. (For full tournament pairings, see pdf, this website)
THE TOP SHELF
There are several beautiful reasons that a perch atop the grandstand at the back of Pebble’s number 6 is superior: It not only peers over the 6th green and its dramatically sloped approach, but offers pristine views into Stillwater Cove, and, with just a swivel, a look at perhaps the most photographed golf hole on the planet, the transcendent 7th. It does require some commitment, however—this mini-peninsula of manicured perfection is a hike from the clubhouse, and reserving the top rung requires getting an early jump.
CLUB 15 AT PEBBLE
George Lopez couldn’t have crowd-surfed at just any hole. Here they sit a dozen deep, and with good reason: There’s the 15th tee right in the gallery’s lap, and an overview of the beguiling 14th green and the challenging uphill approach behind it, plus a limitless landscape of green-and-blue beyond. But the by-invite-only Club 15 members, wearing their matching Club 15 gear, start arriving before dawn on Saturday for another golf-course gift on top of all this: cocktail-fueled camaraderie. The rowdy hundred-some-person crew installs its own bar and has a stockpile of cigars, tees and beers to coax the amateurs into some interaction. It frequently works.
THE POPPY GOLDEN TRIANGLE
The most easily-overlooked course of the Pro-Am’s beautiful trilogy has a blockbuster spot that’s also very accessible. Move just past the clubhouse area and tap into a selection of Poppy-patented undulating areas: The 18th’s fairway and green, the greens of the 9th and 7th, and the first tee, near where finishing golfers must sign their scorecards (read: Autograph Alley). Scott Seward works for the Northern California Golf Association, which headquarters at Poppy. “Right at the clubhouse you can see a ton of golf very easily,” he says. “More golf than just about anywhere else in the tournament.” The biggest foursomes hit Poppy Friday.
THE SPYGLESS GAUNTLET
Along this unforgiving stretch, amateurs can be found cursing the meddlesome pines one second, only to thank them for making their shameful pick-up less visible the next. The tee box for the downhill par-3 12th (with water on the left), the green for the double-dog leg 14th (called “Long John Silver” for its length), the super-short downhill par-3 15th (also water- guarded) and the fairway of the 16th (arguably the toughest par-four on the Peninsula)—all lie within a very short sand-wedge. That makes it as easy to track several packs of golfers as it is to inhale the Del Monte Forest air. And its excellence reminds onlookers that Spyglass would likely host a major if it could only accommodate the people.
THE GRANDEST STAND
Here is where it happens: on the two most famous holes on the most famous public course on the big global golf ball. While modern-day corporate reality has cheapened the richness of this golf mecca—company skyboxes now obscure the views of the 18th tee from the 17th grandstand—this is still as pretty a place to watch golf as anywhere. The critical tournament-deciding drama that happens at Pebble’s 17th and 18th is simply icing.
Apparently Phil likes it here. He’s won the Pro-Am twice, most recently in 2005, when he wrestled mighty Spyglass to the fairway with a course-record 62. Only a guy named Jack Nicklaus and five-time champ Mark O’Meara have been awarded more Waterfords. But Phil, at $2,079,620 in winnings, enough to rank as number three all-time at the AT&T, has nearly a million more to show for it than O’Meara ($1,206,435). After an origami fold on the 72nd hole of last year’s US Open sent Mickelson into a tailspin of self-doubt, he is itching to gain some crucial early-season momentum this weekend.
Which of these names doesn’t belong: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller, John Daly? Surprise—it’s Arnie—as he’s the only one of these champions who hadn’t won two majors before turning 30. Of course, Daly—thanks to his catalog of painfully bizarre relapses, broken marriages and choke-at-the-major stories—sticks out in his own right. But it’s those very episodes that endear him to the masses. Plus he still crushes the ball like a beer can and can show surprising touch, all in pudgy panda-bear packaging.
Singh is a money player. To wit: On the eve of this year’s opening PGA event, the first that would count toward the new Nascar-esque FedEx playoff qualifying, the No. 7 player in the world was asked what was more important to him—the playoff points or the weighty purse. A cackling laugh was his only response. At the Pro-Am, Singh’s impressive length off the tee and smooth all-course expertise made him one of only two champions, since the rotation brought in Poppy Hills Golf Club, to post all four rounds in the 60s, when he won in ‘04. But he’s probably more satisfied with the fact that he’s won more cash here than any other golfer—a coastal-cool $2.14 million. Singh comes in ranked number one on the money list so far for 2007.
For most PGA pros, Spyglass could just as soon be renamed “Badass,” as it’s the meanest patch of grass on the Peninsula. Apparently young Englishman Luke Donald is not most PGA pros. In the first round at Spyglass Hill last year, Donald had the second longest birdie-eagle streak of the season, torching 11 through 15 with a birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie blitz, and finishing at 10-under-par 62 to tie the course record set by Phil Mickelson.
The man with the swing as funky as his family name has quietly risen to number two in the world, making him a tournament favorite. (Number one Tiger Woods has allegedly taken to sitting this one out in a pout about imperfect course conditions, or as a break from making millions on the Tour, or both.) Furyk, in many ways, is much more an anti-Tiger than his would-be foil Mickelson, as he was never a precociously-talented amateur alphadog like Phil or Tiger, but has instead scratched his way to the top with assiduity and a sterling short game, honed by his lifetime coach, his father Mike.
There’s only so many ways to say it: Bubba smashes the ball. Tatoos it. Clobbers, crushes and creams it. His 323.1-yard driving average is tops on the tour. And the bomber from Baghdad, Fla. is only 28.
He’s done it all, from hugging hotties in every gallery to dancing with grey-hairs in sandtraps, from wearing loud outfits to quietly donating generously to local nonprofits like Hospice House and the Boys and Girls Club. Even as George Lopez builds on his growing popularity, at the AT&T Lopez is still a clown prince in King Bill’s Kingdom.
A few AT&Ts ago, G-Lo sank a long putt to save a scrambling par on Pebble’s 12th. He initiated a dance that had the announcers scrambling to describe it. (“Is he break dancing?”) As his spontaneous jig moved to the fringe of the green, he lept into an ambitious dance-off-style splits—needless to say, an atypical maneuver for a golfer, let alone any 40-something man. As the announcers moaned in sympathy at Lopez’s splayed landing, they figured he was done. But then, as Lopez masked a slight limp across the green to get dabs from his caddy, he peeled back toward the gallery and added a few other dance flourishes and an Irish-style heel-clicking leap. Take it as a sign: Right when you think Lopez is getting wild, he is really just getting started.
The star veejay doesn’t earn his adoring throng for the fluidity of his follow-through. The net result of his popularity amongst the hot-girl set? His entourage of youthful would-be golf fans has its own following. (As though other tournaments didn’t already have a hard enough time competing with the Pro-Am’s eye-pleasing views.) Interestingly enough, the “Last Call” host is actually a solid golfer, having made the leaderboard in tourneys past for playing an efficient 9 handicap.
“I’m obsessed,” Romano writes on his Web site, “with something I suck at.” He may be sandbagging a bit—Romano’s a legit 16 handicap, having logged plenty of time around the greens. As he told >>Golf Magazine: “People who saw me at the AT&T might have thought I’m like, ‘What’s this, a golf club? How do you hold this?’ But I’ve been playing since I was a teenager.”
Cutting over from the curl to the country club, the bronzed one makes his Pro-Am debut this year fresh off his eighth World Championship Tour Surfing Title. At 35. Translation: The man is an athlete. And he’s always been an avid golfer. In his recent autobiography, he ranked Cypress Point as his second-favorite golf course in the world. He’d love to hang a ten-under on the big scoreboard this weekend.
The NFL’s all-time career rushing touchdown leader used to change games. Now he’s changed his game, swapping spin moves for, well, a different sort of spin move—he won “Dancing with the Stars” this fall. It may help have helped Smith sharpen the crossover ability he needs to do something memorable at the AT&T. Other favorable timing elements are also at work: Number 22 is a Gator—the former NCAA All-American holds 58 school records at his alma mater, the University of Florida—and it’s been a pretty good year for them.