On Monday, on the par-5 14th hole of Pebble Beach Golf Links, during my first practice round for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, I jacked my second shot left of the gallery ropes. The group in front of us was methodically hitting practice putts, so I had plenty of time to discuss the upcoming shot with my caddie Kevin Price, a boyhood friend who was playing hooky from his job as a money manager. I was 136 yards out but the shot at hand was steeply uphill, into the fan, so we debated the merits of a 7-iron versus an 8. A kindly older woman and her son stopped a few feet away to listen. The galleries had been sparse all day, so I was pleased to have an audience.
"I'll try to make you proud," I said, jauntily.
"Don't worry, we have low expectations," she said. This was, I think, meant to be reassuring but was actually a pretty good indictment of my inconsistent ballstriking.
I decided to smooth a 7-iron but was too antsy over the ball and took a ferocious rip. I knew instantly the shot was destined to go long and left.
The woman watched my ball disappear over the green and rendered her verdict: "You should have used the other club."
I could only laugh. I have spent the last 17 years second-guessing Tour players for a living, and now, suddenly, I'm on the other side of the ropes. Having grown up in Monterey County, playing in the Pro-Am has been a lifelong dream for me. Late last week I finally got the call, sort of. Would I be an alternate, in case one of the amateurs has to WD? I couldn't say yes fast enough. Alternates are allowed to play practice rounds on all three courses and attend all the early week parties. Worst-case: I show up at Pebble Beach on Thursday morning--different alternates will be on call at Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Country Club--and wait for two torturous hours while the lucky devils in the tourney tee off. If no one blows out a back or otherwise has to bow out, then my adventure is over. Still not a bad gig, right?
I have covered the Pro-Am for SI going back to 1995 but had a lot to learn about how the tournament works for the contestants, all of it covered in two thick information packets and a beautiful leather-bound, multi-page invitation. Turns out players are responsible for making their own practice-round arrangements. Tee times before 9 a.m. are reserved only for pros; after that, the ams can play with ams or pros. For Monday, I set up a 9:50 time with a fellow alternate, but he had to bail. I showed up at Pebble feeling like a guy who had gone stag to the prom.
Luckily there was a two-ball just heading out, so I invited myself to play with Kerry Gordon, the recently elected president of the Northern California Golf Association, and Bob Lurie, 82, the former owner of the San Francisco Giants. We enjoyed glorious weather and my playing partners were great company. I felt strangely relaxed on the first tee and split the fairway. (Moments later I putted off the green, but nevermind.) Bob is my new hero, a jovial, young-at-heart character who just had both knees replaced but said he'd crawl around Pebble if had to. This is his sixth decade playing the tournament--he's made the cut four times--so I asked him for some avuncular advice.
"Just remember that no one cares how you play out there," he said with a cackle.
On that note, I won't bore you with the details of the curling 30-footer I made for a deuce at the 7th hole, or the wedge I hit to a foot at 11 or the textbook par at 18. In truth, those were the only highlights. I was so determined not to be jittery that I overdid it and was kind of low-energy at the outset of the round. Then I overcompensated by trying way too hard in the middle. It wasn't until the end of the round that I found some rhythm. It's a disorienting feeling to be inside the looking glass. My fragile 8.9 index is not used to the scrutiny.
Monday night I bumped into Lurie again at the swank, jacket-required contestant party. I'd never been before because media scum are not allowed; for a couple of days, at least, I'm traveling on a different passport. (By the way, it was easy to spot the pros in the crowd: They were the ones wearing jeans with their blazers, and their dates had five-inch heels.) Bob greeted me the same way everyone else has: "Are you in yet?" We compared notes on upcoming practice rounds. For my Tuesday morning spin around the Shore Course at MPCC, I'm going to have a personal gallery for the first time: my wife, dad and father-in-law. I'm also slated to play with Tour veteran Tag Ridings and Mark Wilson, who is only the hottest golfer on the planet. I asked my maharaja Bob for a little more counsel on how to quiet what are sure to be jangling nerves.
"Just swing hard," he said.
To which I might add, don't woof with old ladies on the rope line. In my experience, that doesn't end well. (Photo: Kohjiro Kinno)