PEBBLE BEACH — Steve John was a happy man driving to work Tuesday after learning that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had committed as a late entry to the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
“Twitter is blowing up about this,” said John, chairman of the Monterey Golf Foundation and tournament director of the AT&T. “Peyton's definitely going to create some ticket sales.”
The 2014 AT&T can use it. Manning gives a modest spike to an AT&T celebrity field that some view as tepid in the wake of comedian Bill Murray's absence this year. Murray, always a top draw, is filming a movie and is skipping the AT&T for the first time in five years.
John's excitement about Manning flies in the face of a notion that the whole celebrity pro-am format might be outdated and possibly endangered in the wake of the Humana Challenge — formerly the Bob Hope Desert Classic — completely dropping its celebrity format this year. That decision left the AT&T as the last PGA Tour event to include celebrities in its pro-am field.
Albeit indirectly, that raised the obvious question of whether the AT&T might consider dropping celebrities from its tournament and devise a pro-am comprised strictly of touring pros and corporate executives, as the Humana event has done.
“Never. It's not happening,” John said, emphatically. “I don't know what went into (Humana's) decision, but we're not changing.”
Actually, John does see change coming in the way celebrities are selected for the AT&T. With the exception of Murray, he would rather not recycle the same old personalities. He hopes to devise a revamped rotation format that adds zing to the celebrity lineup from tournament to tournament.
“We'd like to get the hottest names every year,” he said. “My goal is five new faces a year to offer more variety, which we hope is going to bring a new audience to this event every year. We don't want to get stale.”
Some of that change is in effect this year. The AT&T certainly features familiar celebrities such as actor Andy Garcia, pop saxophonist Kenny G and comedian Ray Romano, all three of whom have played for the past several years. But the field is spiced with newcomers as well, such as musician Kid Rock. Actor Kurt Russell, a popular addition two years ago, is back for a second go.
The tournament is also continuing a trend of adding more professional sports stars to its celebrity mix. Manning joins three other current NFL quarterbacks in the field — New England's Tom Brady, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City's Alex Smith — as well as former hockey great Wayne Gretzky, recently retired tennis stars Andy Roddick and James Blake, Giants pitcher Matt Cain, and 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater.
Old-timers who remember the Crosby Clambake might contend that's a pale celebrity contingent for a tournament which used to have Jack Lemmon and Clint Eastwood on its courses every year, along with Hollywood heavyweights such as James Garner, Glen Campbell, Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott and numerous other show-biz pals of the late Bing Crosby.
John, however, maintained that the celebrity portion of the tournament has not become a back-burner priority and that it continues to be the traditional lifeblood of the tournament. Even though celebrities now number around 30 in the 156-player amateur field, he said there is no set number on celebrity invitees and that the list could possibly grow. One of the issues he has cited in the past is finding A-list celebrities who can play well enough to navigate the tough Monterey Peninsula courses.
Murray, however, will have a standing invitation to play every year he can make it. It helps he has game, too.
“Bill has become an institution to our event, and the best part of that is he gets it,” he said. “Celebrities bring the dollars through the gates, and since we do this strictly for charity, they are essential to our goals both in terms of attendance and TV ratings.”
Of course, putting on a first-class PGA Tour event is also a priority, and at least in Humana's decision to drop celebs, that was a factor. Only one player in the world's top 40 entered that event in 2008, partly because of its unwieldy format and slow play. This year, without the celebs, the tournament drew nine players in the top 50, a decided improvement.
John, who took over as Monterey Peninsula CEO in 2012, not only is committed to maintaining the AT&T as a top-tier Tour event but also growing it with better fields. Clubhouse improvements and other amenities have been added, and others are in the works to make the AT&T more attractive to the pros.
That would include No. 1 player and No. 1 draw Tiger Woods, who won the AT&T in 2000 (as well as the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach the same year) but has only played once here since 2002 (in 2012). Fortunately, four-time champion and fan favorite Phil Mickelson is entered for the 20th consecutive year. Mickelson is one of seven players ranked among the world's top 25 playing this week.
“I want all of the top-ranked pros,” John said. “I want to remove all the reasons for them to skip this tournament.”