This is what it was like playing in the Pure Insurance Championship alongside legends and top juniors
The Champions Tour’s Pure Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links is no ordinary event. It's especially unique because of the format. There is a Champions Tour title stake as usual, but each tour player also plays as part of a team with a junior golfer from The First Tee.
There is also an amateur division in which 80 two-person teams get partnered with a different Pro-Junior team each round. This year, Hally Leadbetter I represented Golf Digest as the only all-woman team in the field.
Unfortunately, we didn’t make the cut, but I still learned plenty while I was there.
Nothing prepares you for Pebble Beach
Before heading out to Pebble, I prepared by watching our 'Every Hole At' videos and highlights from the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open, but there’s not a video out there that will prepare you for what it feels like to be standing on the massive cliffsides viewing the miles of open ocean for yourself.
While it's beautiful, the course is also tough, which is why pros and juniors spent hours practicing and preparing in the days leading up to the event. Don't let the words Pro-Am fool you. The pros and juniors that play in this event take it very seriously.
Just look at the winning scores. Alyssa Stewart of First Tee, Greater Dallas, won in the girl’s division by eight strokes at 28-under. She was paired with pro Justin Leonard, who was runner-up in the overall event. Meanwhile, Brayden Casolari of First Tee Pine Mountain won the boys division at 21-under while paired with Brian Gay.
These kids are good
When I say these kids are good, I don’t mean they’re good for kids. I mean they are good, full stop.
To play in the event, each junior sends in an application and is selected based on their playing ability, personal growth and life skills that they’ve developed throughout their time in the First Tee programs.
To give you an idea of the competition, the average handicap of the juniors in the field was a .8. But they’re not just competitive on the course. The average GPA of the First Tee players is a 3.9.
On top of all that, these juniors all had presence. Of course they had good etiquette, but when it came to their social skills, I was blown away.
I watched as the juniors confidently introduced themselves to tour players, tournament officials and amateurs from the event. They thanked every volunteer they met and kept a positive attitude throughout the week–all while balancing the stress of playing on TV.
A smooth swing is a powerful swing
After watching Champions Tour players for five days, I am a lot less concerned with chasing speed, and you should be too. We were paired with 2009 PGA Champion Y.E. Yang, one of the leaders for driving distance and total driving on the Champions Tour, and we were struck by how silky his swing was. There was no loss of control. It never seemed like he was trying to kill it. His motion was just so naturally smooth and fluid, yet he bombed it down the fairway.
It’s a nice reminder for those of us who obsess about increasing our speed in order to increase our distance. Amateurs—myself included—often forget how important it is to hit it in the center of the clubface. It doesn’t matter how fast your swing speed is if you never catch it in the sweet spot.
And this isn’t exclusive to Yang or even just Champions Tour players. One of the juniors we played with, Nora Yang, was a machine with her driver. Her swing was consistent and smooth on every strike—something I’ll be trying to copy this offseason.
Short game will always be king
One of the other things I noted watching pros for five days was how much time they spend practicing on and around the green. Over their career, they’ve developed such an in-depth understanding of the short game that they could fix your chipping in 20 minutes—and that’s exactly what happened to me.
We were joined by Alex Cejka and Stuart Appleby during our practice rounds, and I was lucky enough to get a few pointers just ahead of the tournament.
On day one, my distance control seemed to be off with my wedges. After a couple of poorly executed chips from the greenside rough, Cejka came over and explained that I was using too much of my lower body on my short game shots, a common fault that I slip into when I’m nervous. He said that having too much lower body action was causing me to sway or bob up and down.
“Setup with 80 percent of your weight in your front foot,” he said.
Keeping your weight forward quiets the lower body and stabilizes the lead leg, which Cejka says is key around the green.
“The lead leg is the pivot point,” Cejka said, “as you rotate around it, focus on getting your sternum in front of the ball.”
I noticed that rotating around my lead leg allowed me to deliver my club more consistently and thinking about getting my sternum forward kept me from using too much of my hands throughout the shot. Because the changes were simple, I was able to make them almost immediately. And by the end of the round, I was feeling so confident in my chipping I was able to be more precise with my landing spots and more accurately predict how the ball would react out of various lies.
During our second practice round, Appleby, who is top 20 on the Champions Tour for scrambling, gave me a piece of advice that helped everything fall into place.
He suggested that I stand a bit closer to the ball. Standing too far away from the ball occasionally caused me to bring the club inside, which forced me to make a bigger swing on the way back and decel in the downswing, resulting in the ever-frustrating chunk.
At first, it felt like I was right on top of the ball. But, after a few practice shots, I was delivering the club more consistently than ever. Not only did it feel better through impact, but my caddie also noticed that my chips sounded more solid when I hit them.
Overall, the Pure Insurance Championship is an incredible event. I can't say enough good things about it and it's obvious that the First Tee is helping to transform these kids not only into good golfers, but good people. It’s fair to expect a number of the juniors who competed to go on to play golf at a higher level. I'm excited to see their journey.