Playing with a tour pro is the most humbling experience a golfer can have (and the most inspirational)
What is my favorite part of being a golf writer? Suspect as it sounds, it has been the occasions—about a couple of dozen now after 30 years in the profession—when I’ve had the opportunity to play with tour pros.
Now, exposing your game and lack of chops to a player who you cover can be uncomfortable—not only inessential to the job but possibly counterproductive to credibility. And, I’ll confess, I’ve fallen prey to letting a small part of me look forward to these opportunities as a sad chance to relive never-quite-buried teenage fantasies of being a player myself.
But while I’m envious of the best, I’m not jealous, because I’ve been lucky enough to get inside the game in a way for which I was much better suited. My golf writing motivation is not the revenge of a nerd.
Honestly, my overriding feeling about the best players in the world—which admittedly can be a flaw in the other direction—is that I admire them. Not because they are great people, though I think a good many are. It’s because they can all, by definition, really play. And that gift and all that it takes is what continues to fascinate me.
To witness it up close, in a way that only a playing partner or caddie can see, for me remains a thrill. There’s the selfish motivation of acquiring some insight that will improve my own game, one I don’t fight because the basest human instincts tend to focus the mind. But the real pleasure for me is the chance to deconstruct a difficult thing—which I happen to care about inordinately—done well. Just as kids learn best when their subject is made fun, so do golf writers.
I’m on this riff because Billy Andrade, Bernhard Langer and Peter Malnati, three players it occurred to me I’ve had the good fortune to share rounds with, all triumphed over the weekend.
I’ve played with Andrade twice, at a 1995 charity event in Michigan and five years ago at Capital City Club in Atlanta, a course he helped renovate. With Langer it was nine holes in the pro-am of the 2007 Father and Son tournament. My round with Malnati was in the pro-am of the Web.com Tour’s Rex Hospital tournament in May. All three were days I will never forget.
What is it like to play with a tour pro? For me, regardless of whether it’s a Hall of Famer or rank-and-file journeyman, there’s always awe for a game that’s survived the sport’s most demanding arena. And there’s nervousness from knowing the player is assessing your performance as criteria for whether you are even remotely qualified to pass judgment on his brethren.
Andrade, Langer and Malnati were all kind (and in truth almost every tour player I’ve ever sprayed shots and yipped putts in front of has been). It helped that none of the three are bombers. Andrade and Langer are middle-distance hitters on the Champions Tour, while Malnati has gone from being one of the shortest hitters on the Web.com Tour to one of the shortest on the PGA Tour.
Then again, I’ve found that even when playing with huge hitters like Tiger Woods and Fred Couples, what’s most impressive close up is not the power, but the skill.
As you play the same course they are playing, what is most apparent about top players is that they avoid mistakes. They don’t flush every shot, but their misses are small. They are exceptional at the most important parts of the game: keeping the ball in play off the tee, hitting the right distance with their approaches, being deft with short game shots and holing out cleanly.
Langer, in particular, was fascinating to observe. After more than 40 years as a professional, the 58-year-old German has put together a purely individual swing from countless techniques and feels proved by trial and error worthy of keeping. Yet he hasn’t applied that rigorous process of distillation to his uncanny ability to compete and win. He just seems to know that’s the part he has the gift to do, and doesn’t question why. While he’s often considered the ultimate mechanical golfer, the strong feeling I got from playing with Langer is that he is closer to pure Zen.
Andrade is an extroverted New Englander who plays with energy, heart, intuitive athleticism and a knack for competition that has allowed him to have a long career despite being a below average ball-striker.
Malnati has an effervescent spirit that’s apparent on his blog, and especially in person (see Alex Myers’ story from yesterday). His high intelligence is made sharper by having his wife, Alicia, a Ph.D in educational psychology, as a trusted sounding board. Walking with him, I heard a player smart enough to handle the perilous task of making technical improvement while retaining the innate intangibles that allowed him to get on tour in the first place.
Andrade, Langer and Malnati all further confirmed what I consider to be an underappreciated reality. Playing at the highest level successfully takes just about all a player has, and often that isn’t enough. The very best give everything. It’s something that’s easier to see the closer you can get.