News & ToursApril 23, 2008

Fields: Nothing to Fear About Playing in a Pro-Am

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Flying down to the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, the smart play for a golfer of questionable ability with a long winter behind him and two days of pro-am golf ahead of him would have been to read Hogan or Snead, Harmon or Haney--to hope immersion in the fine points of the game would smooth all the rough edges.

I opted for the entertaining choice, the late George Plimpton's 1968 classic The Bogey Man, the account of his travails in three PGA Tour pro-ams back when woods were wood and the Crosby was the Crosby. Plimpton was an 18-handicap with a golf club but scratch with a typewriter. Better to laugh a little bit, I thought, than risk catching one swing thought too many.

When I got on the ground in coastal Georgia, I could have searched for a large bucket of practice balls, but sought to gather a couple of stories instead. One of the first people I ran into at The Club at Savannah Harbor was John Buchna, who has caddied for Joey Sindelar for 25 years. That's a lot of pro-ams, a lot of nervous amateurs, a lot of shots you don't usually see on Sunday afternoons.

"I've seen them hit scoreboards," Buchna said. "I've seen them hit cars out in the middle of a lake. I've seen them hit shots that end up behind them. If you top a ball just right,  the spin moves it in the wrong direction."

I would love to hit a few fairways, make a few pars, avoid having a to swipe at a ball lodged head-high in a tree, as Plimpton did.

If you cover golf, you don't pay much attention to pro-ams until you find yourself playing in one. In reporting on the Champions Tour since 2001, I've had the chance to play several informal rounds with senior pros. David Eger, Mark McNulty and Graham Marsh kindly put up with me during a round at Del Monte GC prior to The First Tee Open a couple of years ago.

Another year at that event, I got to play Pebble Beach with Peter Jacobsen and his junior partner in a practice round. Dana Quigley, Jim Thorpe and Jack Fleck were amiable partners in outings. My only sour experience was one round with an old pro who spoke as few words over 18 holes as I hit good shots, which was to say not many at all.

That won't be an issue over the next two days. Lonnie Nielsen is our pro today, followed by Jerry Pate on Thursday afternoon. I just hope Nielsen doesn't remember my leaving him out of a preseason top-30 ranking a few years ago (as one of his fans let me know). And I hope Pate doesn't recall the drive I pushed halfway to the Statue of Liberty as he played along for a hole or two during a round at Liberty National two years ago.

But as John Jacobs told me Tuesday, the pros don't care what the amateurs shoot. There isn't a bad shot they haven't seen. There was the fellow who was so nervous on the first tee in Tampa a couple of years ago that he couldn't get his ball to rest on a tee. "I teed up his ball for three of the first six holes," Jacobs said, "but he played pretty well after that."

Hope was high at the pro-am draw party Tuesday evening. "Have some fun, make some birdies," master of ceremonies Andy North told the audience.

The first command was within reach. And so were the shrimp.

--Bill Fields

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