There are professional athletes who go to great lengths to avoid meeting fans in person — some won’t even sign game-day autographs. Pro golfers, however, are a much different breed, and the best in the world tee it up weekly with complete strangers — amateurs like you and me.
If you’re a golf fan, no experience can compare to playing a PGA-approved course under tournament conditions with a top pro. It is one thing to play a course that hosts a tournament, but it is something very different to play “inside the ropes” during a tourney, with a gallery, leaderboards, lighting-fast greens and rough that has been grown high and thick. The best part about playing with a world-class professional golfer is the colorful anecdotes about life on Tour, not to mention the skills that have to be seen in person to be appreciated. Many gladly dispense tips and even impromptu lessons to their amateur partners. It’s all part of what makes playing in a pro-am one of golf’s ultimate bucket list experiences.
Most regular season PGA, LPGA and Champions (the former PGA Seniors) Tour events have a pro-am the day before the tournament, usually on Wednesday. Some have two pro-am days, so ample opportunities present themselves all year long around the world — the European Tour, regional tours and mini-tour events also have them.
Here’s the drill: Buy a spot in a pro-am, and the night before is the pairings party, a lavish cocktail event and dinner where you find out who you are playing with. You will also connect with your amateur teammates if you bought a single spot, though many friends purchase the team of three or four amateurs. The next day, meet your pro and tee off. Nerves can wreak havoc, but any pro golfer will honestly tell you he has seen far worse. You are not getting paid to play, so just have fun. The tournaments are usually best ball or low net, and if you struggle on a hole or lose a ball, simply pick up and move on, no harm done. It is much more laid-back and about having a good time than most first-timers expect. If your team finds its way to the winner’s circle, there are prizes, but you also get swag just for showing up, including shoes, golf clubs and fine wine. And you’ll always receive some tournament logoed clothes and an autographed picture with your pro. In events that allow caddies, you can even have a friend or spouse carry for you, allowing for shared memories.
Of course, the biggest highlight is landing one of the world’s great players. PGA Tour rules require the best players, by world ranking, to participate in the pro-am each week — only the lowest ranked are excluded. Usually, the title sponsor gets a free pick or two, so if Tiger Woods is playing, you won’t get him as your partner, but you might get someone close.
The highest-profile regular season event is the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the most-attended golf tournament on earth, arguably the most desirable pro-am. By chance, I landed U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy, then ranked Top 10. I’ve teed it up with several Hall of Famers and three of the five guys ever to shoot 59, the low round in PGA Tour history. US Open champion and Ryder Cup hero Tom Kite stopped between holes to give me a putting lesson. Masters Champ and former world No. 1 Fred Couples gave my buddy a bunker lesson. And these experiences are the norm, not the exception, but here’s a tip: In many ways, Champions Tour pro-ams are better bets, as the fields are more heavily laden with famous names and all-time greats. Also, there is no cut line, so the guys are a lot more laid-back. These pro-ams cost less, too.
None of the Majors (except the British Senior Open), The Tour Championship or Players Championship offer pro-ams, but the biggest regular events do, including Phoenix and this month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which has a great field. Another fantastic pro-am is the long-running RBC Heritage on Hilton Head, routinely voted the favorite tournament by Tour players. Held right after the Masters, it gets an extra-high-quality global field of the world’s best players. Many pro-ams are held in great resort destinations like Hilton Head, so you can double up a once-in-a-lifetime golf experience with a luxurious vacation.
The Mitsubishi Electric Championship at the Forbes Five-Star Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is a can’t-miss Champions Tour event. The Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino is played on one of the most exclusive courses in the South, Tom Fazio’s epic Fallen Oak. The only PGA Tour event played in Mexico, at the wonderful Rosewood Mayakoba resort, is fun in the sun and one of the best buys among pro-ams. The Reno Tahoe Open is another great value PGA Tour pro-am, and each summer, beautiful Lake Tahoe hosts the world’s premier celebrity-am you can play in: the nationally televised American Century Championship. There, you can tee it up alongside the biggest names in sports and entertainment, like Michael Jordan and Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
Champions Tour pro-ams usually start around $3,500 and most PGA Tour pro-ams run $4,000 to $6,000, reaching well over $20,000. All packages include VIP “pro for a day” treatment, meals, drinks, lots of free gear, usually a fistful of tickets to the tournament, as well as special perks like clubhouse access, reserved seating and special parking.
Photos Courtesy of Mayakoba PGA and True South Classic Pro-Am