Pro-ams offer amateurs the thrill of teeing it up — and sometimes partying till dawn — with sports legends and movie stars. There may even be a round with golf’s clown prince Bill Murray in your future.
Some of my favourite moments in golf have come while playing in pro-ams and celebrity tournaments. It’s thrilling — and not a little intimidating — to tee off with a PGA Tour legend, a hockey or baseball hero, or a familiar face from movies or TV. Exposure to their star aura always shapes the day in unforgettable ways.
In the pro-am preceding last year’s Jamaica Open at Montego Bay’s famous Half Moon, A Rock Resort, I found myself partnered with Olin Browne, who earlier in the season had triumphed in the U.S. Senior Open Championship. A genuinely down-to-earth individual, who like most playing pros had seen his share of lean times, Browne couldn’t possibly have been more welcoming to his three amateur partners. He read our putts, commiserated over our duffs, and appeared as thrilled as the rest of us when our team claimed the second-place prize.
At a crucial moment in our round, after I’d hooked yet another drive deep into the woods, Browne had made a point of reassuring me about my swing, describing it as “fundamentally sound.”
After his pep talk, I immediately began to flush the ball and contribute to our team’s strong finish. Browne’s magic — his stardust, if you will — instantly elevated my game.
Often played in aid of local charities, pro-ams and celebrity tourneys are held almost everywhere golf is played. Entry fees to smaller, less prestigious events might cost as little as $100. At the top of the heap are pro-ams officially connected to PGA Tour tournaments, with entry fees typically ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. And most prestigious — and expensive — of all is the 72-hole AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which every February features Hollywood heavyweights such as Bill Murray and Ray Romano. Entry to the 2013 AT&T pro-am costs more than $25,000, with a long waiting list of aspirants.
Montego Bay also provided the setting for a Celebrity Players Tour event I participated in several years ago. Now sadly defunct, the tour, which staged pro-ams throughout North America and the Caribbean, offered star-struck golfers the opportunity to play alongside high-profile sports and entertainment personalities during the day, and party hardy with them at nightly galas.
Like a kid in a candy store, I stared wide-eyed at my neighbours while warming up on the range at White Witch Golf Club, an acclaimed Robert von Hagge-Rick Baril mountainside layout that offers breathtaking views of the turquoise Caribbean Sea from 16 holes.
Hockey Hall-of-Famers Clark Gillies and Grant Fuhr, together with the notably eccentric former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon, who preferred to play barefooted and with a beer in hand, stood booming drives to my left. And swinging away to my right were Olympic sprinter Donovan Bailey and baseball superstar Roger Clemens, the latter my next-door neighbor at the Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort, the tourney’s host hotel.
My only disappointment was the absence in the field of one of my boyhood idols, Ralph Terry, a stylish New York Yankees right-hander back in the glory days of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Terry, a Celebrity Players Tour regular, had for some reason decided to sit this one out. Sadly, my cherished near-mint Terry 1962 Topps baseball card (No. 48 in the set) would return home with me still unsigned.
But the highlight of my pro-am career was definitely my round with Tom Kite two years ago at the Champion Tour’s Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi. Kite, who won 19 PGA Tour titles (including the 1992 U.S. Open Championship), reminisced about his glory days, and ruminated professorially on the ways a golfer’s body — and swing — decline with age, a topic of particular interest to us both.
Kite insisted that I join him at the halfway food tent for crawfish, personally heaping my plate with the local delicacy. Then, setting out on the back nine, we talked of our mutual admiration for George Knudson, the Winnipeg-born legend who was nearing the end of his playing career when Kite first got started on the tour.
A born mimic, Kite even performed a spot on impression of the slight right-hander’s uniquely flawless swing. Taking an imaginary last drag on Knudson’s ever-present cigarette, Kite flung the butt to the ground, took a last look down the fairway, and settled into the slightly hunched, closed-stance stroke copied by a generation of Canadian golfers.
My new golf buddy and I were still laughing when we reached the clubhouse.