PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The pros and celebrities competing in the 2015 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am were long gone, taking with them much of the crowd. Day was turning to dusk. Empty grandstands cast long shadows on the Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Michael and Cooper Jacobs -- a father and son from Colorado -- and friend Sam Carpenter stood near the 17th green staring off into Stillwater Cove. "There is nowhere else I'd rather be in the world right now," said Carpenter, visiting from Fort Worth, Texas.
He was staying with the Jacobs, who were renting a house in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea for a month to escape winter. "We like the tournament and area so much, we've been coming the past five years," Michael Jacobs said.
Old-timers grumble that the AT&T isn't what it used to be. The intimacy of the old "Crosby Clambake" has been lost to the corporate leanings of today's PGA Tour. Top pros don't always come, although Phil Mickelson made a rare return in 2016.
To many golf fans, though, this is still the best tournament experience in golf outside the majors. When the sun shines, like it did in 2015, Pebble Beach turns on the charm like no other tournament venue.
Forget the drama on the TPC Sawgrass Stadium's island green during The Players Championship or the party on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale's Stadium during the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I'll take the magical cliffs of Pebble Beach every time.
"It's iconic," Cooper Jacobs said. "When you see it on TV, that does it no justice. When you are here, it feels so much bigger and better."
Have you ever dreamed of attending the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am? Did you know that tournament week might be the best time to visit the Monterey Peninsula for a golf vacation? That might seem to contradict conventional thinking, but hear me out:
Staying at Pebble Beach Resorts
It's a big misconception that Pebble Beach Resorts is always sold out tournament week. It's recommended that bigger groups book more than 30 days in advance, but last-minute reservations might be possible.
The rewards for staying at the resort are obvious. You're right in the middle of the action.
Anybody who books a room at the Inn at Spanish Bay or the Lodge at Pebble Beach during the tournament receives two complimentary tickets to the event. Parking on site is a huge advantage over fans who take the free shuttle from the public lot at California State University in Monterey Bay 12 miles away. Shuttles from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove and Monterey (home of Cannery Row) cost $20 per person per day.
The resort grounds are crawling with famous faces. Last year, my son and his friends landed a handful of autographs, including San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and San Francisco 49ers legend Ronnie Lott. I ran into Clint Eastwood, the most famous of the resort owners, in the parking lot early in the week.
Everything at the resort stays open -- the restaurants, the shops, the spa, the tennis courts. Imagine getting a table next to your favorite pro or celebrity in the legendary Tap Room.
"The public access blew me away the first time I came," said Michael Jacobs. "You can go into the Lodge and the Tap Room. In Denver, if there's an event at Cherry Hills (Country Club), you can't sniff the clubhouse. The access makes it attractive."
The only thing closed to the public is 17-Mile Drive, which allows more private moments for resort guests at Bird Rock or the Lone Cypress.
For those who want to play golf, the Links at Spanish Bay and Del Monte Golf Course are available all week. Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill -- two of the three pro-am hosts -- close the Monday of tournament week and reopen the following Monday, the day after the event.
Those who time it right can catch the final rounds on the weekend and stick around the following week to play both courses in tournament shape. Keep in mind, those rounds will probably be a bit noisy, as workers tear down the grandstands and other tournament infrastructure.
Tournament week schedule
Attending my first AT&T Pebble Beach last February opened my eyes to the fact that this isn't just a four-day tournament. It's a weeklong party. With three courses, it's impossible to sell out, according to tournament officials. Tickets range from $50-$60 daily passes to $125-$150 for the week. Recent attendance figures -- affected greatly by the forecast and the leaderboard -- have ranged from 90,247 fans in 2009 to a high of 160,324 people in 2012.
The fun starts Tuesday afternoon with the Chevron Shoot-Out. Last year's charity exhibition featured four members of the Giants and 49ers playing six holes against one another. Two hours before the event, Giants fans were already lined up at the 18th green begging for autographs from Posey, Javier Lopez and Matt Cain, who were playing a practice round together.
The 3M Celebrity Challenge -- showcasing six-man teams of celebrities handpicked by Eastwood and Bill Murray to play a six-hole match -- highlights Wednesday's schedule. Me? I avoided the scene and went to walk Spyglass Hill during a practice round instead. I found plenty of pros -- the Putnam brothers, Davis Love III, Kenny Perry and others -- and few spectators. I could have easily gotten Jorden Spieth's signature if I were a fan. He was out there almost by himself, preparing for the tournament.
Autograph seekers are wise to set up shop early at the putting green or behind the ropes beyond the 18th green during the charity events and practice rounds. During the actual tournament, autographs or cameras aren't allowed.
In my opinion, it's best to avoid the courses hosting the biggest names on Thursday and Friday. Walking Pebble Beach is more enjoyable during these early rounds because the crowds surge on the weekends. My one regret is I never got to check out the scenic Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
Video: Matt Ginella on the best courses to play in Monterey
The Monterey Peninsula during tournament week
Life on the Monterey Peninsula livens up during tournament week. Unfortunately, so does the traffic crunch during the morning and afternoon commute.
Celebrity sightings can happen just about anywhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea, especially in restaurants during breakfast (Katy's Place) or post-round drinks (the Hog's Breath Inn is a hotspot).
A quick check of GolfNow.com during the week last year showed tee times available at local favorites such as Pacific Grove Golf Links in Pacific Grove and the Bayonet Course and Blackhorse Course in Seaside, among others.
Amy Johnson, the innkeeper at the Carmel Country Inn, said there are usually rooms available at most local inns at least a month in advance. She indicated all the inns in Carmel-by-the-Sea work together to sell rooms. If you call a property that doesn't have availability, they will have a list of which properties do. Sell-outs are more likely if the pro-am falls near Valentine's Day and/or during Presidents Day weekend -- both circumstances applied last year.
Some inns charge "event rates," which cost more than normal, and require minimum stays, so do your homework. Following a local ordinance, all vacation homes for rent require a 30-day minimum stay. Suddenly that room costing $750-$1,000 a night at Pebble Beach Resorts doesn't sound so pricey after all, does it? It's the going rate to enjoy the spoils of the Monterey Peninsula when half of the country is covered in snow.