It's barely light and I am barreling in a cart toward the thirteenth hole. Even in Mississippi, fall mornings can be chill and damp. Shivering from the cold, I am also trying not to be nervous, which is making me nervous.
Everyone's entitled to some first-tee jitters. First-tee jitters begat the mulligan. But there are no mulligans at a PGA Tour pro-am, and this is for the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, one of the Tour's last official events of the season (simultaneous with the Tour Championship, where Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and twenty-eight other no-name pros are playing for beer money). The Annandale Golf Club in Madison, Mississippi, is bedecked in tournament panoply for our full-handicap best-ball shotgun.
Awaiting our foursome is Matt Gogel, number fifty-three on the 2002 money list with $1,060,251 in twenty-five starts, including a victory at Pebble Beach (where he avenged a '00 loss to Tiger). Also waiting are his caddie, a scorekeeper wired up to the electronic leaderboards, ball spotters, marshals with signs reading hush, y'all and sundry folk whose tasks are unclear, beyond being clearly disconcerting.
Gogel has played in scores of pro-ams, seen thousands of questionable swings. Surely he's inured by now. But from the depths of my dufferdom I fear that first impressions do count, that Gogel—who may look like a cherubic kid but is nonetheless a millionaire with a swing to die for—will see me top, slice or whiff and, sine die, case closed, think I'm a putz, a dork or worst of all: a hack.
This snaps me out of it. Hell, I am a hack. So I step up to the tee, take a breath, clear my mind and bash the ball right down the fairway.
I'm not completely new at this. I've also played in Futures Tour pro-ams in my home state of Vermont. Hitting from the same tees as the young women who make up the LPGA developmental tour, and being routinely outdriven, is its own lesson in masculine humility.
And I played here in Madison in the 2001 pro-am with Loren Roberts, who quickly proved to be a regular guy. When I walked up to my second shot with an armload of clubs, he said, "Here, I'll hold those for you."
Tour pros are required to play in pro-ams (or forfeit credits toward their retirement fund) and usually have little say over whom they're paired with. Most make the best of it, a few barely tolerate it . . . and then there are the Tom Weiskopf stories, tales of amateurs being singed for life by a Terrible Tom tongue-lashing. Those stories hover in the pre-pro-am background, as amateur teams decide which pro to pick.
There we were at the draw party, on the Monday night before Wednesday's pro-am. It was at the Hilton in Jackson, where with suitable pomp, a full buffet and an open bar, we all contemplated and dismissed possible playing partners with all the compassion of a Roman emperor flipping his thumb.
"How about Glen Day?"
"You mean Glen 'All' Day?"
"If you like walking around in a cloud of cigarette smoke."
"Not a bad idea; he's about as much fun as it gets."
At all but the majors and other top events like the Players Championship, there's a pro-am every Wednesday during Tour season. Entering is as easy as buying a ticket—a soberingly expensive one. At the SFBC there were twenty-one team slots sold for $2,200 per amateur player in the morning, and twenty-four more at $2,700 per in the afternoon. That made the event a bargain, since fees ("investments," in pro-am lingo) often top $5,000. That's why corporations usually foot the bill. But singletons can and do enter.
Aside from the golf, amateurs receive a tournament gift (leather bags at the SFBC), a mounted photo with the pro and all-you-can-eat buffets at the draw and awards parties. Not to mention the warm glow of knowing that most of your entry fee goes to charity.
Which pros play?There's no exemption, even for those named Woods or Mickelson. Chances are those guys won't be available at your draw party, however; several prime slots are always reserved for tournament sponsors.