PEBBLE BEACH — When Steve John was forced to announce that fans would not be allowed to attend this year’s 75th AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, it devastated him.
Yet, when he followed that news two weeks later with the announcement that celebrities and amateurs would not be permitted to compete alongside the pros because of the on-going pandemic, it left him numb.
“Everything changed,” said John, the Monterey Peninsula Foundation CEO and tournament director. “The goalposts kept moving. I understood and totally got it. But that final decision hurt.”
John, who hadn’t set foot on the greens at Pebble Beach since an inspection on Monday, called it awkward to be standing alone along the 18th hole Saturday as the final golfers strolled in.
Normally, he would glance up and see bleachers surrounding the famed 18th hole filled to capacity, with galleries lined up four and sometimes five deep along the ropes.
“It just felt weird,” John said. “Great golf is taking place. But you lose the whole vibe when there’s no fans or amateurs. The interaction was missing. That’s been the beauty of this tournament for 75 years.”
Despite calling audibles over the past two months leading up to one of the Peninsula’s biggest events, wondering each day what changes would be forthcoming, John felt all the planning that went into the tournament with safety at the forefront was executed.
Sure, there was the emptiness of not having fans or seeing celebrities parading around the courses. And those who were allowed to roam around were asked to maintain social distancing and wear masks.
But clearly, the golf didn’t suffer, with Patrick Cantlay setting the tone with a record round on Thursday, and one-time champion Jordan Spieth holding a lead going into the final round.
“There were some great storylines,” John said. “Several of the names on the leaderboard are getting a new lease. It was exciting, as it always is, to watch the final round on Sunday.”
And the charities, perhaps the most significant part of the event since it began 75 years ago, will again benefit from the generosity of sponsors and the celebrities who didn’t take part.
Having raised over $176 million for charities in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties over the years, that number will go up as most charities remained a part of the tournament.
“It will be a significant number of dollars going to charities,” John said. “Our partners stayed on. This is not a normal golf tournament. The amateurs left their entry fees with us. It speaks volumes. They get it.”
Perhaps for the first time in months, John and officials of the event can take a deep breath and get a good night’s sleep.
Other than a player testing positive for COVID-19 before the tournament started, and two volunteers testing positive, the tournament had no other serious issues.
“COVID was always at the top of our plate as far as the food chain is concerned,” John said. “But when we removed the amateurs and most of the volunteers, that was about 1,000 people. That reduced our concern. But it didn’t relieve it.”
As confident as John could be, he was still on pins and needles. The planning phase is adjusted by the day, even hour, leading up to and during the four-day event.
“I wasn’t worried about the tournament at all,” John said. “The PGA had contested 30-plus tournaments since the pandemic. It was always the what-ifs that are out there, COVID or not. We just keep planning and re-planning.”
John felt hosting the Pure Insurance Tournament in September without fans at Pebble Beach helped them prepare for the event, albeit on a much smaller stage.
“We at least had an idea on how to run this under a pandemic,” John said. “It allowed us to fix whatever we felt didn’t work. But until we all get the vaccination, the virus is in control.”
California has not allowed fans for any collegiate or professional sporting event since the pandemic forced a stay-at-home order in mid-March.
Yet, with cases dropping dramatically in California and Monterey County, John can’t help but wonder if fans could have attended had the event been a month from now.
“If we were to get in red (virus-safety tier), we could have had 25 percent capacity,” John said. “But we couldn’t move the tournament dates. There’s no weeks off on the tour. We embraced the decision and made the best of it.”
John believes several PGA TOUR golfers declined to come this year because their amateur partners were not able to compete alongside them.
“I know some of them are not here because their partner is not here,” John said. “It’s a different week on the PGA Tour. That shed light on what our tournament means to these players. It’s a fun environment. It warms the heart.”
Several celebrities have already indicated to John that they’ll be back in 2022. In fact, six showed up with little notice on Wednesday to take part in the “Every Shot Counts Shootout,” which raised $1.6 million for charity.
“Steve Young asked if he could just drive down and be a scorekeeper on Wednesday,” John said. “Bill Murray drove up from LA. This tournament is about having a great time and raising money for charities. Let’s hope this situation is a one and done.”
Contributed by local news sources