PEBBLE BEACH — Bob Green wrote about golf for The Associated Press for 27 years. The international news service and the writer were in their primes 40 years ago. The reporter wrote fast and accurately in a style no longer favored. His words were read globally. He knew the sport and the sport knew him.
Green died in 1998, but he came to mind this year at AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Green would likely agree among the important tools he had as a reporter was a large weekly collection of the 3×5 index cards.
With wife Iva at his side in press rooms, the Greens tabulated and double-checked players’ scores from hand-written totals posted in big numbers on cardboard, just like primary school teachers use in classrooms.
Watching the Greens work was something during my early years at the former Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. It’s been 40 years since I attended the first of 38 tournament editions. It’s all changed, more acutely this year because of the coronavirus and public gathering protocols.
Electric scoring replaced perfectly handwritten, color-coordinated magic marker tallies years ago. Tournaments results are distributed nearly instantaneously to news services.
Player interviews, once held in person in packed rooms with dozens of reporters and television crews, are now virtual affairs. A special request might be accommodated, but players’ quotes are transcribed and available on a media-only site.
Via a chat interface, reporters can ask players questions coordinated by PGA Tour media representatives. Tournament winners no longer make appearances in the media room.
A visit to Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course or other layouts used in the tournament through the years often meant one-on-one or small-group interviews with players. By luck or good timing or both, good stories just happened.
Last Friday, a network camera showed Phil Mickelson not-so-lightly hitting himself on the head twice with his putter en route to shooting an 80 and missing the cut.
Still, golf’s nuances were largely gone this year.
The absence of celebrities slashed human-interest coverage. Publications’ travel budgets continue to be minimal. The pandemic has stopped others’ interests. On Thursday morning, there were 10 media representatives, including four PGA Tour media staff members, in the press room for the tournament’s opening round. All wore makes, sat at individual tables, camaraderie at mandated social distancing.
In the earlier 1980s, Jack Nicklaus held a morning press conference at Pebble Beach in a room at the Conference Center, the same media facility used this year. Maybe 100 people packed into the room in tight rows of chairs, some standing in corners. A dozen network cameras were perched on tripods against the back wall.
Nicklaus called several of the reporters in the front rows by their first names. After a while, he noticed a young reporter in the back of the room with a small microphone and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The teenager was a student working for the low wattage radio station at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach.
The boy repeatedly put up his hand and retracted it, nervous to ask a question. Nicklaus noticed the reporter’s hesitancy. He stopped the press conference, walked to the back of the room and asked the boy face-to-face what he would like to know. It was an impromptu delight, unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
Ken Venturi, the deceased 1964 U.S. Open winner, was a CBS broadcaster for many years. He was raised in San Francisco and knew Pebble Beach as well as anyone. He spent the tournament in the television tower behind the 18th hole. In his last year at the AT&T, I sat with him for nearly an hour as he prepared for the day’s show.
The interview area was tight, full of cables, monitors and producers, all at close range. Venturi talked about broadcasting and his early days of success. He’d drive to Pebble Beach from the Bay Area and stop to buy pizzas to share with course workers. The interview wouldn’t happen today.
Scott Simpson, also a former U.S. Open winner still playing in the PGA Tour Champions circuit, talked during a one-on-one interview about his faith and the relationship with players who attend meetings before tournaments to share their beliefs. He invited me to attend one of the gatherings as part of a golf magazine article. Reporters weren’t allowed but an exception was made.
As a young pro, Harrison Frazar allowed me to follow him for a week at the AT&T for a golf magazine cover story. After rounds, I went to the house he rented for his family. Every night he tallied up his expenses for the day. I met his wife. Frazar talked about his special needs brother who sometimes traveled with him to PGA Tour events.
A few years ago, Arron Oberholser, the 2006 AT&T winner, sat with me in a golf cart in the television compound near Casa Palmero. He talked about making the transition from player to broadcast analyst and learning from producers how to speak to television audiences.
In 2018, Jordan Spieth gave a pre-tournament interview at Pebble Beach with his playing partner and friend, singer Jake Owen. Spieth’s appearance was part discussion of his previous year’s AT&T win. It was part of a commitment to AT&T, one of his sponsors, to promote the golfer’s new bobblehead figure.
It looked nothing like Spieth, who commented he was more handsome. Jason Day, the next scheduled media room guest, exchanged friendly barbs with Jordan from the back of the room. Jordan’s promotional character was distributed to 7,000 fans and the media. Several of the bobbleheads showed up on eBay, with one selling for $300 within a few hours.
And then there’s Bill Murray, the resident prankster. Early in his long AT&T tenure, Murray spent a late afternoon, just before darkness, on the putting green at Pebble Beach. He had a bottle of wine in his back pocket. When the actor-comedian made a long putt, he took an extended swig.
Murray’s antics started with a few onlookers, another well-timed fortunate moment for a reporter to observe. Before long, a sizable crowd gathered cheering Murray’s every move. The banter was pricelessly rich.
Maybe the private interviews and wondrous moments, all impossible now, will return.
But covering the AT&T this year was more about virtual 3×5 index cards. It was serious golf in a competitive, albeit, depleted pro field.
The Pacific Ocean, trees, fresh air and the paradise of Pebble Beach remained endearing. The thrill wasn’t gone. The lure remained, re-invented and stripped of unexpected joys.
Contributed by local news sources