My all-time favorite pro-am story occurred not on a Wednesday, but during tournament play at the 1994 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Phil Mickelson was in the celebrity rotation that year and landed himself quite a trio of star power: actor Joe Pesci and NFL Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Mike Ditka.
All three famous amateurs pumped a pair of tee shots into the water on the 18th hole at PGA West, leaving Lefty to do the job himself. His birdie attempt was rolling dead in the heart when, out of nowhere, another golf ball came roaring across the green. It ricocheted off Mickelson’s putt just inches from the hole and knocked it wide of the cup, turning that certain birdie into a red-faced par.
Taylor, a man known to live by his own set of rules off the football field, had picked a poor time to work on his putting stroke. “I was really [angry] and started walking toward him to give him a piece of my mind,” Mickelson would say, “but he kept getting bigger and bigger as I got closer and closer.”
For all the legwork PGA Tour caddies put in to prepare for an event, most of it on Tuesday, the pro-am will always be their toughest day of the week. We’re talking about rounds of at least five hours, often with wealthy executive types who play off a handicap well north of single digits and have paid a lot of money for the opportunity.
Not out of their own pocket, of course, but somebody at the company has to come up with five grand.
Jim Furyk recently caught some flak on social media for comments he’d made to Justin Thomas regarding his message to pro-am partners. As Thomas told Golf Magazine, “[Furyk] was like, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys suck. We don’t think you’re good, so don’t think you’re good because we’re expecting you to shoot about 90.’ Like, you’re an 18 handicap for a reason. You know what I’m saying?”
Loud and clear. Why Furyk caught heat instead of Thomas will probably remain one of life’s great mysteries, but then, social media has a tendency to pin the tail on the wrong donkey. I’ve played with Furyk. He could not have been a nicer guy, and it’s not like I was in feverish pursuit of the course record at Pablo Creek that morning.
Honesty is always the best policy until someone gets their nose bent out of joint, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. Pro-ams are the closest players and caddies get to having a real job. Although it should probably go without saying that having fun is the only realistic objective when it comes to spending 18 holes with one of the world’s best golfers, that isn’t always the case.
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“There’s nothing worse than spending the day with two or three guys who are throwing clubs and hating life,” veteran looper Kip Henley says. “Pro-ams can be the most fun you have out there, or they can be like a root canal. Nobody gives a s— what you shoot. Give me a group of guys who want to enjoy it.”
As is the case with any group of successful businessmen, some tour pros have the personality skills to enhance the pro-am experience, others don’t. For those who view it as an ordeal, a caddie can serve a valuable purpose as the goodwill ambassador, handling tasks such as reading putts, raking bunkers and telling a politically incorrect joke.
One thing every pro golfer understands is this: without pro-ams and the adjacent corporate support, none of them would be nearly as rich. The tour has a strict policy of disqualifying players from a tournament if they miss that week’s pro-am without an approved reason. It happened to Furyk, of all people, at the first FedEx Cup playoff event in 2010.
He went to bed that Tuesday evening thinking his phone was plugged in, the alarm set for some ungodly hour, but in New Jersey, the state that gave us Thomas Edison, the electricity in Furyk’s hotel room took the night off. He woke up late and missed his pro-am time by a few minutes, which knocked him out of the Barclays.
Fate, however, proved to have a clear conscience. Furyk won the overall FedEx Cup title four weeks later, which isn’t supposed to happen if you miss one of the four postseason tilts, and walked away $10 million smarter. You can buy a really good alarm clock with that kind of dough.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.