If you love golf, there are certain once in a lifetime experiences you simply cannot miss: playing the Old Course at St. Andrews, taking a buddy trip with your best golfing friends, and playing in a pro-am on the PGA or Champions Tour.
Here’s why the latter is so important: it is as close to playing on Tour as most of us will ever come, and while you can you watch competitive golf on TV, to really appreciate it you have to see it from inside the ropes alongside the best players in the world. “These Guys Are Good,” was long the PGA Tour’s promotional slogan, but it’s the golf understatement of the century. Those guys are great, at a level so different from you and me and even the +3 club champions we know that it is impossible to appreciate it by watching on TV or even in person. To really get it, you have to play a round with one of the best golfers alive, and the good news is that this is easier than you might think. On most Wednesdays of the year you can tee it up alongside top pros.
There is another big bonus of the pro-am: while you can travel and play courses that have hosted PGA Tour events, and even Majors, you can never play them under tournament conditions, the way the pros play them, with the rough up and the greens slick, unless you play in a pro-am. How can you criticize a missed putt or chip on TV when you have not walked in that pro’s shoes? From the pressure of having a gallery watching you to the superfast putts, it will be a day you long remember. The good news is that you don’t play from the back tees, and you do not have to be any good. Everyone gets handicap strokes in the pro-ams, and no matter how badly you play, your pro partner will have seen worse. Pro-ams are intense, but fun, and you should not skip one out of fear. Even when you slice it out of bounds, it will be the most fun and memorable lost ball of your life.
You will also have a lot of fun off the course: the typical PGA or Champions Tour (or LPGA) pro-am stars with a “pairings party,” a big cocktail-fest where you get your pro, usually through a random drawing or draft where teams are chosen by random and get to pick from the field. Most pro-ams include breakfast and lunch, usually in the clubhouse, which is off limits to everyone except Tour players, officials, and pro-am participants and their guests. There is usually an awards party with more cocktails afterwards, and in general, the pro-am experience includes a lot of parties, VIP access, and gifts. When you check in, you’ll also get your swag, which can include everything from golf shoes to luggage to sunglasses, humidors, wine and whiskey, and almost always a golf club or two. I’ve played in pro-ams where the free gifts alone have been worth thousands of dollars. You always get a framed and autographed picture of you and the pro, and you usually get a fistful of tickets to the tournament that follows.
Just this past Wednesday, I played in the pro-am of the Viking Classic in Jackson, Mississippi, which is still going on as you read this. I don’t know who won the tournament yet but everyone won in the pro-am. The Viking is a good example of a pro-am that is fun and easy to get into, and it is played on a highly regarded but private course, Annandale, which you otherwise could not play, even though many of the pros said it was among their favorite Tour stops. The before and after parties were lavish, the course in exceptional condition, and all the handling was absolutely first-rate. Since the title sponsor is luxury kitchen appliance maker Viking Range, every player was given a stainless steel commercial-style coffee maker, mixer, chef’s knife, and much more. Golf loving celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse often plays in it, and after this year’s event he hosted a cooking demo for pro-am participants. Because many people play the same event annually, they mix the gifts up: I also played in the Viking two years ago and then it was commercial toaster, knife, and professional quality sauté pan. You might not go to play golf expecting to come home with a toaster, but it’s a nice fringe benefit.
Since almost every pro-am is held in areas known for quality golf, the tournament can be the centerpiece of a larger golf vacation. On this trip I played several of Mississippi’s best courses, like the 36-holes at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club and the semi-private Old Waverly before the grand finale at the pro-am. You can do the same thing at pro-ams from Hilton Head to Hawaii.
Mississippi happens to also be home to the Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions Tour, which I played in this past spring, with Hall of Famer Tom Kite as my partner. What is significant about this event is that it is hosted by the Beau Rivage casino and played on their excellent and very highly ranked Fallen Oak course, which many of the Senior pros told me is their favorite of the entire year. In many ways the Champions Tour pro-ams can be even better, since they often contain more big names, have a more festive atmosphere, and are cheaper. Also, since the tournaments are just three days long, they usually have two pro-ams, Wednesday and Thursday, allowing twice as many amateurs to participate.
While most people fixate on who they are going to play with, it does not make a whole lot of difference in the end. I had as much fun playing on Wednesday with the largely unknown Derek Lamely, winner of one Tour event as I did teeing it up with US Open Champion Geoff Oglivy in the pro-am at the FBR in Scottsdale. There is a lot of luck to the draw and I’ve played with big names, no names, and middle of the pack names like Tim Petrovic, who it turned out shares my passion for great barbecue. Even the “worst” player on the PGA Tour is far, far better than any golfer you know, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a Tour pro by their trophy case, and in many cases, the less famous they are the more fun they will be. But if playing with a big name is important to you, they are certainly available. Even though the Viking ran up against the British Open, which drew off many of the very best, there were still five Major champions in the field, and that is almost always the case. To strengthen the field, the PGA tour rules stipulate that the group at the top of the money list at each event must play in the pro-am, while the least successful players do not.
If you love golf, I cannot urge you enough to play in a pro-am. From having the Tour caddie give your putting reads to cracking jokes with the pro to hearing stories of life on Tour, it will be a day you long remember. I even carried Lamely's bag on one hole because I wanted to see what it felt like to be a Tour caddie. Anything you have ever wondered about life as a golf pro you can ask on the long walks from tee to green, and in most cases, you will get entertaining answers. In many cases you will even get instruction: Tom Kite greatly improved my putting stroke, while a friend of mine got an instant bunker clinic from Ryder Cup Captain Corey Pavin.
Almost every “regular” PGA Tour event has a Wednesday pro-am, while the four Majors, along with the Players and TOUR championships, do not. The highest profile tournaments have the highest profile pro-ams, such as the Phoenix Open (formerly FBR) and the Heritage at Hilton Head’s Harbour Town. There are lots of choices, and depending on the profile of the event, individual spots run $4,000-$10,000 while some events sell only full teams. Information on the individual pro-ams can be found at the website of each tournament, and the master list and calendar can be found on the sites of the PGA, Champions, and LPGA Tours.