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How would you score playing a pro’s tee ball?

From the archive (May 1991): Or what could he do off yours? How an 18-handicapper almost destroyed Mark O’Meara

Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.

The alternate-shot portion of The Match II—especially when Peyton Manning was playing Tiger’s drive and Tom Brady was playing Phil Mickelson’s drive—gave a glimpse into the fantasy of every golfer with a sub-90-mile-per-hour swing speed: What could you do off a pro’s tee ball?

The mind races at the idea of bombing 300-yard drives, routinely hitting par 5s in two, reaching the odd short par 4. It’s a variation on the theme of what a tour pro would shoot on your home course, but it puts you in the tour pro’s shoes. In early 1991, I was looking to explore this idea and found the affable Mark O’Meara as a willing co-conspirator.

Mark was known as user-friendly in pro-ams; he mixed well with amateurs and seemed to raise their games a notch when he played with them. A good indicator was that he’d won three AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams at that point—in 1985, 1989 and 1990. He was both a pro’s pro and an am’s pro. O’Meara was the obvious pick for this proposition—you would play off his tee ball, and he would play off yours, and we’d see how the scoring would go.

Then the question became, who would be you? What writer could be so average, so short off the tee, so utterly inadequate in his masculinity, yet with a winning sense of humor and outsize ego to put it all on the line? Then I remembered an article I’d read by Contributing Editor Peter Andrews about Pebble Beach, coincidentally, in which he described in delicious detail how tour pros play the iconic eighth hole at Pebble. After a towering tee shot, the expert would nip a crisp iron over the cavernous abyss to a green “the size of a double bed surrounded by bunkers,” and then he added: “I love reading about stuff like that, just as I love reading about men who have won the favors of Catherine Deneuve. It may not be immediately useful to me, but it does have a certain anecdotal value, and I am delighted to know that it can be done.” We’d found our Everyman!

But Catherine Deneuve? A younger man at the time might have said, say, Demi Moore. But Andrews was a golfer with a mature swing. This story appeared in the May 1991 issue. O’Meara would go on to win two more AT&T’s, in 1992 and 1997. Peter did not. —Jerry Tarde

***

I don’t think there is a phrase in the English language I despise more than “Drive for show and putt for dough.” This is an aphorism invariably propounded by thin-lipped moralists who go jogging at dawn, hold business meetings before 10 in the morning, and tell you, “A messy desk is the sign of a messy mind.” These are people who have never in their lives expressed a thought that was not trite or banal. And yet they rule the world simply because they are awake early in the morning thinking about matters that should not concern them.

What in heaven’s name is the point of standing up at the tee, if it is not to bust something long? Who among us toiling in the trenches of golf do not believe that if only we could get some decent distance with the driver, we could really play this game? Golf manuals have been written beyond calculation (and this magazine is no better than the rest of them) telling us the key to low scoring takes place around the greens. This, however, supposes we can get to the green in the first place. They don’t tell us that. This is because they are long and we are not. They talk about chipping and putting in an airy manner while you and I, like Dickensian waifs, have to stand outside in the cold with our noses pressed against the windowpane watching the great and mighty amuse themselves with the short game.

When anyone asks me what I shoot, I generally tell them I score in the 80s when I’m playing well. This is very close to a lie. In my last 20 scores, I have done so three times. If memory serves, and I’m all too afraid that it does, I have broken 80 seven times in my life. All of those scores were on the two courses I play the most, and only three of them took place when anyone of importance was watching. Nevertheless, in my heart of hearts I am convinced that with only a few measly extra yards off the tee, assuming 50 yards qualifies as measly, I could be a regular 70s shooter.

Recently, Golf Digest offered me a chance to find out if this were so. The editors arranged for me to take my 18-handicap down to Florida and play a round with Mark O’Meara in which Mark would hit his tee shot before I played the hole from there on in. By the same token, to see if the pros really need all their famed distance, Mark would play my tee ball into the cup. The results, like those of the last Congressional election, were interesting but mixed.

In picking O’Meara for my partner in this escapade, the magazine chose well. Mark is one of the solid men on the PGA Tour. The possessor of a good, uncomplicated swing, he is generally playing well somewhere on the globe, having won events in America, England, Australia and Japan. More important, Mark has the reputation of being one of the most considerate professionals in pro-am events. He is consistent and has a kind heart, two things any playing partner of mine needs to have in abundance.

We played at Isleworth Golf and Country Club outside Orlando. It was a perfect venue for our event. The course is an Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay creation that insinuates itself through a housing complex where a prospective buyer willing to be content with something in the low seven figures can find himself quite comfortable. The swift greens are superb, the heaving fairways are curried to a bright sheen, and the rough is cropped to the length of Marla Maples’ eyelashes. That’s my kind of golf course.

Mark and I played from the middle tees, which cut the track from 7,097 yards to a manageable 6,279. This 818-yard reduction was a bonanza for me, but for Mark, who has earned more than $3 million playing the tour from the tips, it proved a bit bothersome. The match was like a mixed Pinehurst event, except this time I was the one playing in pedal pushers.

I could see from the start that things were going to be a lot different for me, but not necessarily easier. The first hole is a gentle affair, about 340 yards from our tees. I hit my standard 3-wood about 210 yards. Mark is not a super-long driver. Usually, he is in the 260-yard range, but he can crank it up when the conditions are right. This was one of those times. He blew his drive 70 yards past my ball. I left Mark with 130 yards to the green, and he left me with 60. Frankly, I would rather have had Mark’s shot than mine. Whatever assets my game may have, delicacy of touch is not chief among them. While Mark went to a simplistic par, I managed to steer a wedge barely on the green and then overthink myself into three putts. A bogey from playing the most glorious drive it has ever been my pleasure to deal with.

And so it went; Mark clicking off pars and birdies whenever I left him on anything Luther Burbank would have recognized as grass, and me constantly being offered the glittering prize, but able, only sporadically, to gather it in.

The second hole is a brief par 3 measuring only 137 yards. Mark and I both came down short. The difference was Mark left me directly in front of the hole, but I put him well left in some ugly junk. There’s not much junk at Isleworth, but I managed to find it. I got down in two for an easy par, and Mark struggled for a bogey. It’s going to bother me a lot if the short-game academicians turn out to be right.

I began to understand why Mark is such a good professional partner for an amateur player. He is unfailingly supportive and never critical. He offers suggestions when they are obviously called for, but he doesn’t try to change your game in the middle of the round. My swing has been favorably likened to the sex life of a hummingbird: swift, darting and indiscriminate. Mark told me not to worry too much about how quickly I maneuver the club.

“You can’t always blame speed when something goes wrong,” he said. “Speed just exposes whatever flaws there are in the swing. Concentrate on your mechanics. If your setup and movement through the ball are correct, speed, by itself, doesn’t mean anything.”

Mark is an apostle of restraint off the tee. “Don’t try to swing too hard with your hands,” he cautioned. “Use your body and let your hands be passive. They’ll come into the swing by themselves.”

Armed with Mark’s good advice, which at once brought a measure of moderation to my swing and still let me have at it with as much speed as I desired, I managed to hit the fairway on 12 of the 14 driving holes.

I learned a great many lessons this day, not all of them immediately useful. The fourth hole is something more than 400 yards. Mark and I both parred it. I hit a 7-iron 140 yards to the green, and Mark bore in a 2-iron from 220 yards. That it is possible to save par by hitting an iron 220 yards could be good for me to know in another life. Tell me then that length isn’t important.

I learned another lesson on the fifth hole, a par 3 that measures 203 yards to the cup. I showed some of my 18-handicap by putting Mark in a culvert, and he got me on the green perhaps 90 feet from the hole. We both got miracle pars, but I realized the obvious, which is one of my specialties. As far from the hole as I was, I had an amateur’s run at par, but it took a pro shot from Mark to have a chance. Oh, God, maybe those ghastly people are right.

You know how you always botch up a hole after hitting your best drive of the day? On the 497-yard, par-5 13th, I screwed up Mark’s best drive. He hit a screamer about 280 yards. Now I had one of my rare chances to be on a par 5 in two. I took that extra bit of upper-body coil and added a tiny bit of celerity to the swing and slurped a 5-wood some 60 yards. It was one of those times when you look at your playing partner and talk about how snarly the grass and how low the ground and one thing and another was, while he, his eyes like BBs, drum his fingers on the steering wheel on the golf cart.

Worse was to come. On the 376-yard 14th, Mark, who was rarely off the fairway, put me near a bunker with a steep uphill lie. In recompense for the leave, Mark nicely showed me a new shot for the situation. I’m sure the shot is a fine one, but it required movements alien to my body, and I whiffed. Nothing tricky, just a straightforward miss. From there, a triple bogey was child’s play.

Throughout the round I had to hit a lot of 50- to 70-yard wedges. Although that is not my favorite thing to do in golf, I could learn to love the shot if I were hitting to the green for birdie putts more often. Putting for birdies is something an 18-handicapper needs a while to get used to. Even I began to get the hang of it by the time we got to the back side. Mark left me about 70 yards short of the green on the 348-yard, par-4 16th hole, and I finally put a wedge close enough for me to make the birdie. Being farther back didn’t seem to bother Mark. He just hit the ball, beautifully to me, but not to him. Mark hadn’t played in several days and felt his game was off because of the layoff.

A small amount of statistical analysis might be useful here. I shot 82 off Mark’s ball, and he scored 75 off mine. In his round, Mark made two birdies and five bogeys. It was only when I hit wide of any reasonable target area that Mark was at a disadvantage. The lesson, I suppose, is that if you hit a tee shot both short and off line, it’s hard to make par no matter who you are.

If my shortness was not debilitating to Mark, was his length helpful to me? Oh, yes. I only had to cruise with my regular game to get that 82. Golfers are forever dealing with what might have been—but give me my whiffed stroke back and a couple of reasonable approach shots, and I’d have been in the 70s easy, which is where I belong.

Surprisingly, because this was an experiment in length off the tee, both our rounds turned for good and ill on the par 3s. Mark hit all four greens, and I was able to play them in one under par. Because I, inexcusably, missed three of the greens, Mark played the par 3s two over, and it took something close to Divine Intervention for him to do that. Are they right? Say it isn’t so.

I asked Mark what he thought was the meaning of our round, and he took a limited view.

“What it means,” he said, “is that I have to come back tomorrow and hit some balls.”