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The Undercover Tour Pro

What's right (and wrong) about pro-ams, from a major champion

July 2014

I've been ranked in the top 10. I haven't had great results since I won a major, but my game's coming back. The Champions Tour is still a long way off for me, but I'm not so naive that I don't realize who's paying me to play golf. The PGA Tour wouldn't have $8 million purses if not for the companies that sponsor our tournaments. That's why I approach pro-ams with lightheartedness instead of dread. I'm in the minority of players in that when I say I don't mind our mandatory Wednesday ritual, I actually mean it.

To start, the amateurs' outfits make me laugh. This is their big day, and they're bringing all their fashion guns. Some people dress ironicallyI know right away by the pants who's going to be enjoying a few beers, or five, during the round. Some are dressed to kill, or at least maim, like the 2-handicap mono-branded from head to toe as if he, too, has an endorsement contract. You get this a lot: the guy who has won his club championship a few times and wants nothing more than to beat you. Doesn't matter that he's up at least a set of tees. If he can make a few birdies and match your scorecard for nine holes, or even a six- or seven-hole stretch, his buddies back home will never hear the end of it.

My favorite pro-am partners are ladies. No, I'm happily married, thank you very much. The women are my favorite because they don't take themselves too seriously, and their handicaps are usually spot-on. And golf isn't their go-to conversation starter. I've played with close to a thousand pro-am partners in my career. Of the few dozen who have become true friends, people with whom I stay in touch, the majority are women.

On Wednesdays we often play fivesomes, a team of one pro with four amateurs counting one net score per hole, so if people don't pick up when they're out of the hole it can turn into a death march. Monday is the same format. It's optional, so the pros are mostly young guys eager to learn the course and collect around $1,000 for participating. For amateurs without corporate connections, Mondays are a smart option. I think a lot of fans don't realize they can call the tournament office and get a spot for as little as $1,750.

The big tickets, of course, are events like the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The associated fees vary widely depending on whether you're a celebrity or an invited sponsor, but amateurs can pay as much as $18,500. During a practice round there, I watched the CEO of a major company, whose name you'd recognize because it's on his products, putt to every single painted dot that indicated where a cup was going to be cut. We were practically dragging him to the tee.

Another year, I was tied for the lead early in the tournament. I hit an approach long and try to bump an 8-iron chip back up this steep, closely mowed bank. The chip doesn't have enough steam and settles back at my feet. I make double. Walking off the green, my amateur partner runs over and says, "I've been a member here for 15 years. You always gotta putt it from there."

I say nothing, just nod.

Next hole, I airmail the green again. All hyper, my am says, "I should've told you that plays a club short!"

Next hole I snap it left. The guy is speedwalking toward my drive. Now, I always go out of my way to give tips, make the amateur's day, but this is the real competition, and I'm getting a little hot. I say, "Listen, buddy, I appreciate you being a 12-handicap, but my caddie and I have a fantastic yardage book, and we do this for a living every week."

That was an exception to my behavior. I host a charity event, so I hear feedback on which players are congenial and which are on their cellphones the entire round. The player who requested his own cart and made an amateur ride alone -- he's not invited back next year.

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