Golf Gold

At PGA Tour Pro-Ams, the Real Action Happens Before the Action

Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra / SI

At the Hyundai Tournament of Champions pro-am, much of the drama took place before the author even set foot on the course.

Maybe it’s the beer-goggles I’m wearing, but Billy Horschel has never looked better. His smiling face, beaming from a photo in a tournament program, suggests that he’s a friendly, easygoing sort, not the self-abusive stress-case I once saw on TV.

I circle his headshot with a Sharpie, convinced that he’s a guy with whom I might like to play 18. Given a chance to really get to know me, I’m sure the reigning FedEx Cup champ would feel the same.

If only he didn’t have so many suitors.

It’s 8:30 p.m., Hawaiian Island time, a few hours in and many lagers down at the drawing party before the Thursday pro-am at the 2015 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua. I’m in a hotel ballroom, filled with tipsy bigwigs, a swag-bag at my feet, a roster of Tour pros printed on a sheet before me. A live band is playing, and the air is electric with anticipation, a mood of adolescent excitability that I haven’t sensed since my high school prom.

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This time around, though, we’re all going to get lucky, if not with Horschel then at least with Brian Harman or another of his lesser-known compadres -- if “luck” is what you call it when you pay top dollar for a half-day of professional companionship.

In another context, that might sound pathetic. But in today’s golf culture, it’s a form of high-class courtship. Nothing to be ashamed of, so long as you embrace the one-sided dynamic, ignoring that it used to work the other way around.

A few generations back, at golf’s most elite level, amateurs were the ones worth wooing. No one in their right mind pursued the pros -- those poor saps who had to sweat over six-footers for their dinner. To play golf for a paycheck was to sully the pursuit, not that gentlemen like Bobby Jones would ever want or need to. In golf’s caste system, top amateurs were the dynastic Crawleys, ensconced at Downton Abbey, the pros their servants, toting tea.

Even when that tweedy pre-War era ended, replaced by the age of the logoed collared shirt, the pro-am relationship took a while to tilt. As recently as the ’80s, Arnie and Jack aside, the hosts of marquee tournaments had names like Hope and Crosby. In the pro-ams they staged, the pros and ams were linked by more than just a hyphen. They mingled in the clubhouse, clinking cocktails, equals in their standing if not their scoring.

At this point in the Maui evening, I might fail a Breathalyzer, but I’m sober enough to note how times have changed. In the big, crowded ballroom, the liquor flows freely, yet as far as I can see, not a single Tour pro from the Hyundai field is on hand to partake in the libations. Maybe they have other obligations. Surely they have other interests. They orbit elsewhere, party honorees, in absentia.

Not that I’m unhappy with the company. Gathered with me around a banquet table are my three amateur partners, a trio of affable business world successes, buddies, all, from Newport Beach, Calif. The veterans, cumulatively, of more than a dozen pro-ams, they’ve shown up for the shindig in a festive spirit, bent on maximizing an experience that amounts to a $8,100 splurge per man. Along with a spot in tomorrow’s pro-am on the Plantation Course in Kapalua, that entry fee has earned them assorted perks, including a place in a mid-week 18-hole all-amateur event on the nearby Bay Course; skybox seating for the Hyundai itself; and a gift bag stocked with golf and tech-related goodies -- balls, shirts, wireless speakers.

A recipient of swag myself, I’m taken by the extras, but as one of my Newport pals reminds me, the real prizes are the Tour pros, not the ProV1s. “Getting the right guy,” Jim Foster says. “That’s what makes or breaks this deal.”

A lean and laidback 60-something, Foster earns his living trading coins and precious metals, but he’s pretty good at golf-pro valuation, too. His calculations focus on two quantitative factors: pedigree and personality. “It might sound cool to play with Tiger Woods,” he says. “But it isn’t, really, if he decides not to speak to you all round.”

Once again, I think of prom night: better to risk rejection while seeking the hand of the snooty beauty, or to settle on the sweet but so-so girl next door?

As for that Tiger-talk, it’s hypothetical, of course, since Eldrick isn’t in the Hyundai field. But there is a host of A-listers to consider, including Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar, and because the time has come to rank our choices, my three teammates and I, like every foursome in the ballroom, are soon quarreling among ourselves.

Photo:

The author and his teammates didn't take the business of selecting a pro partner lightly.

Our arguments, fueled by booze and based largely on hearsay, are way too loud and far from scientific. We all like Jason Day; he’s supposed to be a nice bloke. Ditto Mahan and Kooch. We agree that Bubba might be eccentric but entertaining. We’re high on Horschel. We’re pretty much uncertain as to who, exactly, Michael Putnam is.

Someone mentions a former Masters champ in the field, but I immediately shoot him down. My partners appear shocked, as I launch into a story about a friend who played with this veteran in a pro-am a few years back. My pal went into the event over the moon but came away complaining that the player was aloof, had a patronizing habit of referring to his partners as “my amateurs” -- as in, “I’ll be over to sign autographs in a minute, folks. But I’ve got to go deal with my amateurs” -- and, more annoying still from my friend’s perspective -- kept banging practice tee shots as his amateurs were marching down the fairway, whistling drives over their heads.

Maybe the player was just having a bad day. Or maybe my buddy was exaggerating. Either way, I realize, it’s probably moot, since a pro of his status is likely to get snatched up before we get a chance to pick.

The drawing begins, a lottery system. Amateur groups are selected randomly, then given 30 seconds to make their pick. Well, sort of randomly. As representatives of the title sponsor, groups from Hyundai are guaranteed the first two picks, and they use them well: Bye-bye, Bubba. So long, Kooch. Our Masters champ proves a hot commodity as well; he’s chosen third by a group that clearly hasn’t heard my buddy’s tale. The next three picks reflect a geographic bias: Sang Moon Bae, Jason Day, Seung Yul Noh. Next goes Hunter Mahan, in the seventh slot.

Scrambling to keep up, I cross names from a cheat sheet with my Sharpie and scan the roster of remainders. It’s a mixed bag. Maybe this is the real reason Tour pros steer clear of drawing parties: No one really wants to see how low they go.

And then it happens. Our group gets called. Tick, tick, tick. The timer’s running, but it only takes an instant to come a consensus.

Billy and I will be together after all!

I flag a shuttle back to my Maui crash-pad at Montage, the newest development in Kapalua, a seaside Shangri-la composed of a hotel and luxe residences that start at $3.4 million. Earlier in the day, I saw Valero Texas Open champ Steven Bowditch strolling around the lush tropical grounds here, and Kevin Streelman splashing with his daughter in the Montage pool. Call it another pro-am perk: You get tantalizing glimpses of how the other half of the one-percent live.

Despite my posh accommodations, within earshot of the ocean, I have trouble sleeping. Early-onset first-tee jitters. But before I know it, the night passes and I’m back in the shuttle, cruising toward the course for a 7 a.m. rendezvous with fate.

It’s barely light as my partners and I gather on the tee box. Horschel approaches, looking every bit as friendly as he does in his photo.

“Hi, I’m Billy,” he says, extending a hand while adhering a time-worn pro-am custom of pretending that the big names require an introduction.

“What’s your last name, Billy?” I feel like asking. “Just so I can write it on the scorecard.”

But it’s too early for wisecracks, and besides, Horschel makes it clear that he’s a truly decent sort. Though the Tour requires pros to play in a certain number of pro-ams a year, Horschel doesn’t make it seem like an obligation. From our opening shots, and for the full duration, he is all that we could ask for: supplying us with yardages, helping us read putts, meting out the kindliest of compliments.

“Beautiful swing!” he says, sounding sincere, when I make a slappy pass at a 7-iron.

“Ah, man, Josh, you can’t buy a putt!” he says, as I rocket a three-footer five feet by the hole.

Photo:

The author slides a putt past the hole and gets a reaction from the reigning FedEx Cup champion.

For a guy who cashed a $10 million FedEx check, he sure seems humble. He signs a zillion autographs, poses for as many photos and displays a Job-like patience with our amateur hacking. All the while, he puts on a show.

To watch him play the game at such proximity -- that sound at impact, the ball rocketing off the face like a ballistic missile -- is almost worth the price of admission in itself. And yet his greatest feat may be the one he pulls off on the par-3 11th, when he offers me a swing thought and suggests a club, and I stick my tee shot within a foot. Cheers from the grandstands. A high-five from Horschel. I could quit the game right now. I believe I’ve peaked.

And then, in an eye-blink, it’s all over. We’re putting out on 18, replacing the flagstick, my five-hour fantasy retreating into the past. We all shake hands. Horschel goes his way. I go mine, pretty certain that we’ll never cross paths again.

That afternoon, though, back at my hotel, I’m wandering a foot trail along the water, when I come upon a spiffy-looking structure called the Cliff House, perched on a bluff over an ocean inlet. Once a rundown shack, it’s been overhauled by Montage, which puts it to use as a graceful hideaway for private events. Drawing near, I hear the sounds of laughter, so I slip through the entrance, which gives way to a patio with a postcard view.

A tall man in a bathing suit has scaled the patio railing and clambered out onto the rocks, ready to perform an Acapulco-style cliff-dive: Bubba Watson. An acquaintance is spectating, beer in hand, chuckling, cheering, and I recognize him as my morning pro-am partner. Catching sight of me from the corner of his eye, he turns and smiles, “Yo, Josh!” Billy hollers. “How’s it going?” With the late day sun slanting off the surf, I stand beside him at the railing, Bubba-watching. He strikes me as a guy I might like to have a beer with. If we keep meeting like this, who knows, he might just feel the same.

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