From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

In Search of the Perfect Pro-Am

I would rather play Hamlet with no rehearsal than golf on television.

Jack Lemmon

The perennial pro-am player is in many ways a strange animal, and definitely not an endangered species.

It has always amazed me, for instance, how many stiff and staid captains of industry are prepared, even eager, to make fools of themselves in public on the golf course, a situation they would never allow to occur anywhere else. Men of dignity and business acumen when sailing through the corridors of power with a flock of underlings and yes-men in their wake become semiparalytic when overcome by 1st-tee nerves. Yet they will fall over each other in a furious dogfight behind the scenes to ensure a featured pairing alongside Jack Nicklaus rather than some unknown rookie, although they are fully aware of the almost certain consequences. Five thousand people will be clustered around the 1st tee to watch Nicklaus crunch the ball, while the rookie will probably start in total obscurity from the 10th tee in the company of his current girlfriend, either toting the bag or pulling the trolley, and a couple of close friends. Of course any chance of our hero hitting even a halfway decent first drive evaporates under Nicklaus’s baleful glare, while those five thousand spectators, many of them incompetent golfers themselves, will chuckle and rub their hands with gleeful sadism as our man dribbles his ball along the ground, just reaching the ladies’ tee. Naturally he could have taken the pressure off himself and played an enjoyable, uncluttered game alongside the rookie in question.

But as a perennially masochistic pro-am player myself these past thirty-odd years, I know only too well that, deep down in my heart, for reasons that defy logic, playing in pleasant obscurity is not what I crave. If I am going to suffer a round that will take the best part of six hours to complete, I want to rub shoulders with the best, and later show off the mandatory photograph of our illustrious group, dulymounted, to my children and grandchildren. I’ll probably tell them how well I played, for good measure!

A pro-am will not necessarily be a pleasant experience, even if you happen to play the best golf of your life. A thankfully small minority of famous professional golfers have gained well-deserved notoriety for their scornful disdain of their amateur hacker partners, on whom their very living really depends. This shortsighted, brainless bunch is very much outnumbered by those who are only too aware of the value of pro-ams as a powerful public relations exercise.

I have since become a friend, admirer and commentating colleague of Tom Weiskopf. But this most magnificently elegant of world-class players did not earn his nickname “Terrible Tom” for nothing. In early 1968 I was the pro-am guest of the long-defunct National Airlines at their tournament at the Country Club of Miami to inaugurate their service between that city, their home base, and London. I arrived several days in advance and worked diligently on my game, then played to a respectable 5 handicap. Poor Tom came down from the snows of Ohio, having just completed a compulsory period of army reserve training. His game was very short of its awesome best. And for eight glorious holes I outplayed him into the greens, constantly hitting my second shot or tee shots much closer to the hole. Imagine my chagrin when, on the 8th green—with my ball five feet from the hole and on Tom’s line but his ball twenty feet farther away—he hissed: “Putt your *** ball and get out of the *** way.” I promptly three-putted, quickly fell apart, and did not speak to Weiskopf for five futile years, having written about the incident in the Financial Times and Golf Worldmagazine (UK). To Tom’s eternal credit he apologized by inviting me to his intimate dinner party at the Marine Hotel, Troon, to celebrate his Open Championship victory of 1973—a memorable evening indeed—and we have laughed about the incident several times since.

Two more types of perennial pro-am players continually amaze me. The first jealously guards a low handicap although his first swing tells his professional partner he has no earthly chance of playing to it or even anywhere near it. As one world-class professional golfer told me recently, “Before the end of the round, as his game becomes more and more unglued, this type of player will always look you squarely in the eye and say, ‘I can honestly tell you this is the worst round I’ve played in ten years, ’ or something to that effect. Can you imagine how many times he has to tell that story, and how many times I’ve heard it before?” The vanity of this type of amateur golfer is obviously monumental.

But I infinitely prefer his sadly deluded type to the cheat, or in American parlance “sandbagger, ” who checks in with a 16 handicap, and from his very first practice swing shows his professional he is unlikely to drop more than half a dozen strokes to par. He rarely, if ever, does so. Of course some high-handicap golfers enjoy magical days in the sun, and they are very often professionals at another sport, who are not mortally afraid and totally unhinged by playing in front of sizeable crowds, and who possess obvious ability at all ball games—natural athletes. To me nothing is more enjoyable than being in the company of an obvious hacker who is playing way over his head and basking in the consequent euphoric glow. Goodness knows, such euphoria is destined to be very short-lived.

I well remember being paired with Charles Heidseck in a long-gone American Express French Open pro-am. This elegant purveyor of fine champagne took his pro-am debut so seriously he went into a health farm for two weeks, did not touch a drop of his company’s product and took a lesson every other day. Hardly surprisingly Heidseck played well below his handicap in the company of an Irish professional who shall be nameless because he shot 86 in that pro-am and had the courage to return that score rather than tear up his card. The elegant Frenchman obviously drew inspiration from his partner’s travail!

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, several years later I played in the Heritage Classic pro-am at wonderful Harbour Town Links on Hilton Head Island. When we set out in early afternoon a score of 22 under par (par is 71) had already been posted, and I remarked to my partner that going out was hardly worthwhile in the face of such insurmountable odds.

To my astonishment one of my amateur partners replied, “Nonsense! We’ll beat that score. You’ll see.” Five and a half hours later we brought in a score of 23-under-par 48, and I fully understood why my partner had been so confident. Off an 18 handicap he had scored 75 off his own ball. Our professional, Lou Graham, the 1973 U.S. Open Champion and a true Southern gentleman from Tennessee, was so angry that he gave our sandbagger a stern lecture. And all we amateurs won was a box of a dozen golf balls!

My own pro-am experiences have embraced farce, tragedy, comedy and, on very few occasions, the ecstasy of victory.

My first “major” pro-am appearance was in the old, long-forgotten Bowmaker tournament at Sunningdale, England, in the company of the late, great Bobby Locke. I arrived hours ahead of my starting time, ever the neurotic, asked the caddie master for assistance, and was told my caddie was known as “One-Tooth Jock.” A giant, malodorous Scotsman in a too-long military greatcoat, cloth cap and laced-up boots emerged from the caddie shed, the solitary fang in his upper jaw hanging over his lower lip. We made for the practice tee, where I flailed away for what seemed like an age with no comment, just an inscrutable stare from my companion. And then I made my fatal mistake.

“Do you need lunch before we go at 12:52?” I asked Jock.

“Yessir, ” he answered with his first display of transparent enthusiasm. I handed him a five-pound note, took my putter and four golf balls, and told him to meet me on the 1st tee at 12:45 by the clubhouse clock.

Needless to say, despite several appeals over the public address system, Jock failed to appear. My confusion was complete. Eventually the legendary Arthur Lees, Sunning-dale’s professional at the time, sent out a brand-new set of clubs and accessories and, totally embarrassed, we set out. We were walking up the hill from the 7th tee when I first heard the raucous strains of “Glasgow Belongs to Me, ” a famous Scottish ditty, and Jock heaved over the horizon towards us, stumbling dangerously, my bag of clubs slung across his chest.

“Where the hell have you been?” I asked One-Tooth.

“Well, sir, ” he grinned frighteningly through a haze of Scotch whiskey fumes. “I set off with this group, sir. And after we had gone seven holes and nobody had asked me for a club, I realized I was with the wrong foursome, and came looking for you. . . .”

The best pro-am partner I ever had, bar none, was Gary Player. In the 1974 La Manga Campo de Golf resort’s pro-am played over seventy-two holes, the owner of that splendid southern Spanish facility, American entrepreneur Greg Peters, conceived the idea that the professionals should not record their individual score, but rather record that of their team’s best ball. It was a praiseworthy attempt to foster cameraderie between professionals and amateurs, and with the exuberant South African it worked like a charm. Each team played with a different professional every day, and we drew Player for the vital third round in 1974 or, as Gary calls it, “moving day.” So determined was Player to make the three of us play to the summit of our capabilities, he mostly ran from amateur to amateur to coach us on every shot. I don’t remember what phenomenally low total we posted as a team that marvelous day—I think it was 19-under-par 53—but it helped us to spread-eagle the field, and we won the event going away by seven shots with a record aggregate. And Player was the professional winner, hardly surprisingly. 

The euphoria I experienced that magical day alongside the great Gary Player is unlikely to be repeated. But I keep on trying and hoping. And I suppose that is what pro-ams are all about. They bring out the WalterMitty in all of us hackers.

Ben Wright

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