Traditionally packed with stars and boasting one of the best courses on the calendar, the allure of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am has still undeniably faded in recent years. This portion of the PGA Tour schedule quickly grew crowded thanks to the organic growth of the WM Phoenix Open and other must-play stops like Riviera. The emergence of the Saudi International in 2019 was also a factor; scheduled opposite Pebble, the event plucked a number of the best players in the world, including Pebble mainstays Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. In 2018, Pebble’s OWGR field strength was 392 for the week. After the Saudi event launched in 2019, that number declined sharply, dropping all the way to 202 in 2023. That’s a brutal tumble for one of the Tour’s longstanding events, and a shame considering Pebble Beach remains a must-see venue. This year the Pro-Am is one of the Tour’s newly designated Signature Events, which has boosted the tournament back to its rightful place as one of the best stops in pro golf. Between a revamped format and a much stronger field (the OWGR number: 350), it should be a return to form. Here are four things I’ll be watching this week:

The gravy spot

This year’s event falls into a perfect place on the calendar: the weekend between the NFL’s Conference Championships and the Super Bowl. That means minimal TV competition, and with an atmospheric river barreling down on the West Coast and winter still in full effect elsewhere, plenty of people will be stuck indoors. Granted, that brutal Pacific weather forecast will mean fewer FOMO shots of sunny Pebble Beach, but it could make for some chaotic, wild golf viewing on the weekend.

A welcome new format

There are big changes here. First, the tournament says goodbye to Monterey Peninsula Country Club, consolidating play to Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. The field size is also reduced, making for a field both leaner and stronger. Maybe most notably for viewers at home accustomed to a weekend of celebrity antics intermingled with serious competition, the Pro-Am portion of proceedings will wrap up after 36 holes instead of extending through Sunday. These are great developments for hardcore golf fans, as the tournament should feature more serious competition with a bigger portion of the event playing out at one of the country’s finest venues. (Spare a thought, though, for all the D-list celebrities accustomed to plenty of annual network television run.)

Most of the best

We’ve hit this a bit already, but it’s worth the detail here: this week features the PGA Tour’s best players. Headlining the event are Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland, and Jordan Spieth. Unfortunately, the PGA Tour roster continues to bleed talent, with LIV poaching more names ahead of the season, Jon Rahm chief among them. Rory was asked if a win would be cheapened given the number of top players not out there anymore, and he replied that it would be, saying: “Yeah, I’d like to win here and stand up with a trophy on 18 green and know that I’ve beaten all of the best players in the world, so yeah.” Rory feeling the need to preemptively add an asterisk to a potential is one of the true shames of the split setup men’s golf is currently facing.

Crooked exemptions?

The PGA Tour’s Signature Events feature limited fields, no cuts, and an increased number of FedEx Cup points for the taking. That makes them a potential windfall for any player able to gain entry to the fields. These players have a clear advantage when it comes to retaining both their cards and their place in Signature Events going forward. Even with these factors in play, the Tour decided to allow sponsors to give four exemptions. At Pebble, those slots are going to PGA Tour Policy Board members Webb Simpson, Peter Malnati, and Charley Hoffman, with AT&T ambassador Maverick McNealy taking the final spot. These free exemptions probably shouldn’t exist for Signature Events given the potentially outsized repercussions for the entire PGA Tour ecosystem that could come with a good week of play from one of these guys. I don’t really think sponsors care about the spots, anyway. They still have to perform, yes, but all four have a unique opportunity to cash in and secure future status despite not actually earning their place in the field.

This piece originally appeared in the Fried Egg Golf newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.