Playing In A Pro-Am

You don't have to be a big-dollar client. And a good time is a sure thing

I step up for my opening tee shot in my first-ever pro-am and whisper what must be the silent prayer uttered by every golfer who ever stood in my shoes: "Please, Lord, no whiffs. Let there be contact. Let there be sound." Adding to my jitters is the fact that the eighth hole at Prestonwood Country Club outside Raleigh, N.C. -- the opening venue for our fivesome that includes 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody -- is hardly an easy start. While just 123 yards from the blue tees, this par 3 plays to a daunting island green.

I swing. My hopes soar as I hit my 9-iron as solidly as I ever have. Then they sink as fast as my ball, which lands with a splash in the lake behind the green. Thus marks my humbling introduction to the world of corporate pro-ams, where executives and other amateurs rub elbows and trade shots with tour pros.

Of the 140-odd PGA Tour, Nationwide, LPGA, and Champions Tour tournaments, many offer one- or two-day pro-ams on the Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday leading up to the main event. Granted, at some of these, the title sponsor holds most of the playing slots, and gives them to its top clients and employees. "I preach to my employees the importance of building strong bonds with our customers. And the customers who come down for the pro-am all have such a wonderful experience that they look forward to getting asked again next year," says James H. Goodnight, chief executive of SAS Institute Inc., the privately held software company that sponsored the Champions Tour event in which I played.

But many sponsors also reserve a few slots for sale to individuals or businesses, a practice that helps them defray as much as 20% of tournament expenses. The entry fees vary widely, depending on the tournament and the tour. Oh, and don't expect to be paired with a star such as Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer. Sponsors lock up the big names for their own foursomes.

If you're shut out of the major pro-ams, for $1,500 to $2,500 you can buy a slot in the little-publicized Saturday Series. These 18-hole outings let amateurs play with younger PGA Tour pros who missed the cut on Friday and hope to earn enough in appearance fees to cover their travel expenses for the week.

Most pro-ams emphasize camaraderie and fun rather than serious competition. At the SAS Institute event in early September, we play a modified "best ball." In this format, the amateurs in each foursome play the single best tee shot as their second shot, then play their own ball. The pro simply plays his own ball the whole round. The best single score for each hole after adjusting for handicaps (a golfer with a 12-handicap, say, subtracts a stroke on each of the 12 toughest holes) is the score for each team.

On the PGA Tour, stars treat pro-ams with dread -- something they do only because PGA Tour officials insist that the 40 best golfers in each tournament play in the pro-am or risk being disqualified from the real tournament. On the Champions Tour, every pro must play. For many pros, the pro-am can be hazardous. Fuzzy Zoeller recalls standing behind an executive as he swung a 5-iron from 150 yards out. Somehow, the ball shot straight back through the man's legs -- and hit Zoeller flush in the chest. The executive turned and sputtered, "Is that going to hurt?!" -- to which a stunned Zoeller replied, "I don't know. I've never been hit like that."

Similarly, Pacific Investment Management Co. investment guru Bill Gross recalls how he almost took Tiger Woods' ear off after toeing a fairway wood right just as Woods was approaching a green 200 yards ahead. "I tried to yell, 'Fore!' -- but only got to 'Fo -- ' when Tiger turned around, and my ball passed within a half-inch of his left ear," Gross says. While Woods never mentioned the incident to Gross, months later, Woods' sometime swing coach, Butch Harmon, called out to the bond manager by name when Gross went to the coach's golf school in Las Vegas. "I asked Harmon, 'How do you know me?' and he said, 'You're the guy who almost killed my man, Tiger."'

For their part, most pros ask only that amateurs know basic course etiquette: Don't walk in other players' putting lines, play quickly, don't hit out of turn. At pro-ams like the SAS Championship that use the best-ball format, pick up your ball once it's clear you won't beat the scores of your playing partners. Other than that, tour pros advise amateurs to lighten up. "Look, you have to know you're probably never going to play your best in a pro-am. Nobody does, so just accept that going in," says Dave Barr, a Champions Tour player who won the Royal Caribbean Golf Classic last February.

At the "pairings party" the night before the tournament, my foursome draws Coody. While the 66-year-old West Texan doesn't contribute any birdies to our team score that day, he quickly endears himself by joking around with our group, telling one of my partners, "What are you doing with that iron off the tee? Go get your driver!" Better yet, Coody doesn't pass up a chance to help us read our putts, and his caddie rakes our traps after any of us hits from a bunker.

Coody even offered strategy that wasn't obvious to us: When I redeem myself for my opening tee shot by hitting on the next par 3 to within eight feet of the hole, Coody suggests that, since my 15 handicap is the lowest in our foursome, I putt first. That way, the two players with handicaps above 18 -- who get to subtract two strokes on this difficult hole -- can see how my putt breaks. If I putt in for a "birdie two," it's a net score of one with my handicap. But if either of my high-handicap teammates putts in for birdie, he gets to subtract two strokes for a "net zero." Sure enough, when my putt breaks a little more to the left than I expected, Matt Pannier, a managing partner at Unisys, uses this knowledge to drain his putt. We walk off with another "net one" -- prompting fist bumps and high fives.

Reality sets in when we check the leader board leaving the 18th hole and see that our team score, 11 under par, won't cut it. In fact, we're third from the bottom. And when Hurricane Isabel washes out the second round, we're left with no chance at redemption. So...I wonder where the Champions Tour plays next week?

By Dean Foust

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