This is my 50th year of playing golf, and I just had the greatest experience a chopper like me could ever imagine. I hit the lottery three times in a week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. First, I got invited. Second, I made the cut. And third, I played in the final group on Sunday when my partner, Nick Taylor, whipped Phil Mickelson down the stretch to win.
Nick, age 31, ranked 229th in the world at the start of the week, is the stereotypical Canadian—great guy, great family—who plays golf with a cool, quiet confidence. Think Gary Cooper with Brad Faxon’s putting touch. He eagled our first hole in the first round and never lost the lead.
I want to tell you what it’s like to play alongside top pros under the pressure of TV cameras and big-time galleries—in Phil’s case, trying to extend a Hall of Fame career at age 49, and for Nick, having won only once five years ago and knowing a victory could change his life forever. We were in the middle of it—their amateur partners, Steve Young, the legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and me, whose last victory was in the fourth flight of a member-guest. (“I don’t feel like an athlete today,” Steve said on the back nine, as the winds off Carmel Bay hardened the greens and turned our lower bodies into cement.)
Steve and I agreed at the start that our main goal was not to win the team pro-am—that was locked up by two-time champion Larry Fitzgerald. We just wanted to stay out of the way, pick it up, and avoid embarrassment when going from fear to panic with nothing in between.
My friends Jim Nantz on CBS and Jaime Diaz on Golf Channel tried to make more of my assistance to Nick than was there— Jim referring to my “calming presence every step of the way” and Jaime saying I had a “Buddha-like influence.” I figure they were intimating I was in my pocket most of the time.
I saw my job as protecting Nick from the long needle of Mickelson, who I’ve known since his college days. Maybe I could at least deflect his trash talk. Even before we started, he was giving me grief on the putting green that we had the same three-striped balls and should be careful not to hit the wrong ball. After I drove off the first tee, Phil sidled over and said, “Good to know you won’t be hitting any bombs today. That’s about an 8-iron distance.” When we got to the ball, he shouted across the fairway, “I can get you a Callaway Mavrik—I think you’ll do better with one of them.”
I said, “Phil, I have a mph problem, not an equipment problem.”
“OK, I’ll bite,” he said. “What’s mph?” “Miles per hour,” I said.
“Oh,” said Phil.
My counterattack was to use an iridescent ball marker with a Winged Foot logo (scene of Phil’s worst U.S. Open collapse). When I told Nick later, he laughed and asked if Phil noticed. “Phil doesn’t miss anything,” I said.
The round seemed to move quickly, even though it took five hours. I never stopped to snack or drink; we were on the run. Nick ate only a PB&J sandwich he made in the morning. Our movie seemed to be on fast-forward for me, but Nick was always even-paced. I was rushing too much to be nervous. We talked a little, mostly me admiring his par-saving putts and his eagle from the bunker on 6 (when Phil’s head noticeably snapped back). One thing that amused me was how often Nick would compliment my straight driving.
After Nick made his one big mistake—a double-bogey 7 on 14—the lead dropped to two, and I could hear Phil saying to his caddie/brother Tim that he just needed three strokes: “We’ll get them one at a time. We can still do this,” he said walking off the 15th tee. Then Nick pitched in on 15 and birdied 17, and that was that.
There was a poignant moment as we waited on the 18th tee. I got a little emotional looking at Nick looking at the surf around us, but he was stoic. Nick won the tournament by four ahead of Kevin Streelman. We tied Young and Mickelson for second in the pro-am, five behind Fitzgerald and Streelman.
In the end, it’s all about me, of course. For once I saw myself as The Man in the Arena, described by that old 12-handicapper Teddy Roosevelt, who said: “It is not the Tweeter who counts; not the golf critic who points out how the short hitter stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have made a net birdie.
“The credit belongs to the golfer who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by sand and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who double-bogeys the stroke holes, because there is no effort without skulled balls from bunkers, but who does actually make the putt not shown on television.
“Who at his best knows the triumph of beating Mickelson on Sunday, and who at his worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly against Fitzgerald, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
(This article appears in the latest issue (Issue 4) of Golf Digest.)