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Playing With the Pros

Ever Since Bing Crosby's "Clambakes," pro-ams have allowed amateurs to compete with PGA stars
Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Jack Lemmon was hunched over the ball with his pitching wedge, playing a par 5 on the eighth hole at Cypress Point during a round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The course had been soaked from days of rain, and the popular actor, who once noted that the tournament was "where we all get together to embarrass ourselves," was trying to loft the ball to the green. He hit the ball fat -- that is, he hit the turf well behind the ball. The huge divot he took from the drenched turf stuck to his club head, and the ball stuck to the divot. On his follow-through he tossed the ball about 10 yards behind him.

Lemmon played the next shot into a greenside bunker, where the story gets worse. The bunker sand was sodden, though there was no standing water in it. Like most golfers hitting a sand shot, Lemmon dug his shoes down into the sand, which was more like a quagmire. He played the shot onto the green, only to discover that he couldn't get to the green himself. He was trapped in the thick mire of the sand, so much so that he finally extracted his feet from his shoes, leaving them in the bunker for the caddie to retrieve. He putted out in his socks and joined his shoes at the next tee.

"You know, I'd wonder sometimes, when it was windy and rainy, what the hell I was doing out there," Lemmon, who passed away last June, once remarked. "But at the end of the day, when you got together with all these wonderful people, it seemed to be worth it. If you could stand up, that is."

The AT&T Pro-Am, once known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, is an annual gathering each January of PGA Tour professionals, Hollywood celebrities, star athletes and corporate executives. The world's most famous pro-am tournament is played on America's most legendary public course, the Pebble Beach Golf Links, located on California's Monterey Peninsula. While Pebble Beach is the home course for the event, nearby Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills golf clubs are also used. And, more often than not, the AT&T is played in what has been dubbed "Crosby Weather." Defined by rain, wind and cold, Crosby Weather is often the worst conditions the pros face all year.

The pro-am format has become a staple of the PGA Tour, with 40 of the 50 tournaments played each year leading off with it. Each week, amateurs pony up on average $4,000 to be part of a group that includes one of the tournament's qualifying players. The pro-am's usually on a Wednesday, and the normal format is a threesome or a foursome of amateurs with a pro playing for a single day; the Crosby's format is unique because it has two-man teams, one pro and one amateur, playing for four days. For the pros, it's a weekly practice round, albeit one in the company of, well, let's be truthful, real hackers.

Pro-ams are conducted by the operational bodies of PGA Tour events, not by the PGA Tour itself. The standard number of teams for a one-day event is 52; 54 if a shotgun start is used. Eighty percent of the pros come right off the top of the prior year's money list; the rest are sponsor invitees. That means if Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval are in a tournament, they must play in the pro-am. But if you are Joe Shmoe ponying up a few thousand to play in the pro-am, don't expect to play with Tiger or Phil or David. The marquee players will be paired with title sponsor executives and other significant underlying sponsors. Joe Schmoe's team must select one of the remaining pros at a pre-tournament draft party.

The pro-ams have become principal fund-raising vehicles for golf tournaments, which annually donate to local charities. The one-day tourneys can be useful marketing tools, too, providing loyal fans with a chance to rub shoulders with their favorite pros, or at least someone whom they may have seen in a final group on television on Sunday.

The Palm Beach Invitational of 1938 was the first tournament to donate money to charity as a PGA Tour event. The check was for $10,000. Today, the numbers are bigger. At the end of the 2001 season, PGA Tour events had raised more than half a billion dollars for charity over their history. As a result, charity is a driving force in all golf tournaments. Without the charitable aspect, it would be difficult to get volunteers and corporate sponsors for these costly events. The AT&T Pro-Am is not only the center of charitable giving on the Monterey Peninsula (about $4 million per year), it has been the longest-standing model of charitable funding in the game, serving as the mother of all pro-ams. For many local charities, the AT&T is their main source of annual revenue, doled out by the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the tournament.

It all started at the Crosby.

The heart, soul and voice of this remarkable tournament was Bing Crosby. Crosby's golf game was nearly as smooth as his singing. He owned a ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, California, north of San Diego. In 1936, he decided to stage a pro-am nearby that would pair his friends from the celebrity and business world with top PGA professionals. He, himself, put up the $3,000 prize money that made the tournament legit.

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