First PersonFebruary 13, 2019

The joy, fear, and occasional humiliation of playing as an amateur in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Even three-putting on national television is one of life’s great experiences at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. This year was my seventh time as an amateur in the field. On 18 at Pebble on Saturday, I kept my first putt on the pro side, so it looked like it might go in, but under rainy conditions the putts still roll out and I missed my three-footer coming back.

My friend Jim Nantz in the tower, searching for something nice to say about me, noted that my tee shots are so straight that I’m known for never losing a golf ball. (I once played seven straight days on a buddies trip to Scotland using the same ball from start to finish.) But when you think about it, the praise is actually a knock. It only means I’m so short off the tee, I can’t hit it far enough to lose it. As Peter Ueberroth said to me at one cocktail party, “Our drives are so short, we can run out and catch them.”

How’d I get an invitation? Serendipity. On a Saturday in late October, my cell phone rang and it was Bill Perocchi, the CEO of Pebble Beach Company, and he asked me if I could play. If you ever get one of those calls, yes is the answer. Yes, sweet mother of pearl, yes. Then a leather-bound invitation arrives in the mail with Clint Eastwood’s signature. You send in your check and you’re in. Most invitees stay at The Lodge, which is every bit as grand and cool as it sounds. You can’t wait.

Related: The golf handicaps of your favorite celebrities

The first week in February arrives, and you fly into San Francisco, drive the two hours to Del Monte Forest, then take 17-Mile Drive to Pebble Beach. Even the directions are cool. I like to arrive on Sunday and go to church at the Carmel Mission, where Junipero Serra was the club pro. The mission looks like a backdrop from the movie Zorro. Dine at Casanova, of course, the best restaurant in Carmel.

Every night is a party. On Monday, it’s at Mission Ranch, the hotel complex owned by Clint, Carmel’s former mayor. The highlight of the week for my wife Beth was getting her picture taken with Clint. At 88, he’s the tournament host and looking pretty good. It’s a strolling dinner dance with music by Clay Walker (an 11 handicap) and various celebrity walk-ons.

On Tuesday night at the Hospitality Village by the old polo grounds, Golf Digest hands out the Arnie Awards for golfers who give back. Davis Love III, Darius Rucker (7) and Jim Nantz got this year’s Arnies. All the amateurs show up—so every golfing CEO in America and Bill Murray (16) are there—because it’s when we find out who our pro partners will be. A chosen few get picked by pros in advance, but most of us don’t know who we’ll be playing with until that night, when you also find out which courses you’re playing on what days. This year I got Dru Love, son of Davis, as my partner and the so-called “celebrity rotation,” which means Pebble Beach on Saturday when the CBS cameras are on (Monterey Peninsula Country Club Shore Course on Thursday and Spyglass Hill on Friday). To tell you the truth, I made one request of Tournament Director Steve John: “Just don’t put me on Pebble on Saturday.” Thanks, Steve.

After the pairings are announced, there’s another party at the Beach Club hosted by a bunch of great guys, including Stu Francis (3), Chuck Schwab (10) and Chris O’Donnell (6). If you notice a pattern here, the amateurs who get invited all have low handicaps. That’s the way Bing wanted it. So you don’t complain about the tees being only 20 yards in front of the pros, even when the fairways are saturated by a week of rain. The courses play long and you love it.

You can sign up for practice rounds with the Players App downloaded on your phone. I played in the rain and wind on Monday with new Cypress Point president Dick Barrett (6), ex-49er Harris Barton (10) and Heidi Ueberroth (14 that was better than my 11). We played in about four hours, quite a bit faster than the six hours it takes once the pro-am starts. I played a practice round with Davis and Dru Love on Wednesday morning (pictured above).

Monday afternoon, I signed in officially and collected my credentials and goodie bags—at the AT&T, the goodies required four bags. Part of the deal is you get $900 credit for special pro-am merchandise in “Bing’s Pro Shop.” Beth went shopping for our daughters. My favorite goodie is a ceramic commemorative decanter, this year in the shape of a golf bag.

Tuesday morning, I went to a Leadership Forum on Diversity sponsored by Chevron, whose CEO Mike Wirth interviewed AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Lynn Swann. PGA Tour pro Cam Champ came by and spoke eloquently. There I ran into PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan (6), whose father Joe at 75 was caddying for him. In other trivia: Mike Wirth was caddying for his wife Julie, whose handicap was 4 and clearly low Wirth.

So the tournament begins and you play three rounds in the same foursome. Dru and I were paired with U.S. Golf Association CEO Mike Davis (4) and pro partner Curtis Luck, the 2016 U.S. Amateur champ. “Luck” and “Love” said our walking scoreboard. We played behind Andy Garcia (7) and in front of Larry Fitzgerald (8).

A 25-year-old who went to Alabama, Dru was great to be with. He struggled a little because it was his first time playing any of the courses, but hung in there, helped me read my putts, kept his sense of humor, and was always good company. He’s the third generation of Loves I’ve played with, starting with his grandfather who was an outstanding teacher in the Golf Digest Schools. Bonus trivia: Dru’s full name is Davis Love IV—the Dru coming from quadruple.

The job of the amateur, I’ve found, is to do three things: 1. Don’t step on your pros’ putting lines. 2. Don’t talk when the pros are hitting. 3. Help at least four strokes a day. It’s better-ball net. If you can cut your pro’s score by four or five, it’s a decent round. Only 25 teams out of 156 make the 54-hole cut. It took 18 under par to make it this year. We only missed it by 14 shots. And that was despite the excellent caddying by Nick Galante, a successful racecar driver who doubles as my Pebble Beach caddie. His goal is one day to play in the pro-am as a celebrity athlete. My money’s on him doing it.

Tips for the week:

  • Start a routine of fitness training and golf lessons at an indoor range three months in advance. Thanks to Joe Ostrowski and Jason Jenkins at Golf & Body in NYC.

  • Pack like you’re going away for a month. You don’t know what the weather will be. Summer in Pebble Beach comes for 30 days in September.

  • Expect Crosby weather. Bring two pairs of shoes to alternate. Keep a pair of rain gloves in your golf bag. The most important advice I learned from my pal David Owen: Buy a pair of clip-on suspenders for your rain pants so you’re not always pulling up your drawers.

  • Take a day off from playing. I skip Tuesdays. It’s too much for a New England golfer in winter to play every day for a week. All the veterans will tell you this.

I figure there are three levels of rising pressure: playing in front of a tour pro; playing in front of a gallery, and playing in front of the TV cameras. You know they’re coming when you’re at Pebble Beach. Starting on about 15, you notice the cameras perched in the towers moving as you walk around the greens. Oh, no. I don’t want to be humiliated. I remember one time hitting a good wedge to 10 feet and later hearing that Gary McCord said on CBS, “That sounded a little thin, like he caught it on the bottom groove.” When I see Gary at the CBS/PGA Tour cocktail party on Wednesday night, I say to him, “C’mon, Gary. Gimme a break this year.”

“I thought you journalists wanted truth in reporting,” he replies.

“I prefer anonymity,” I say.

So that’s what I’m thinking, when I hole my third putt on Saturday at Pebble Beach on national television: This is one of life’s great experiences!