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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

(continued from page 2)

"It can be quite scary," says Baryshikov. "When I dance I usually don't even see my audience. The lights blind me to the audience; it's just black out there. And I'm doing something that I have done all my life and trained for all my life. Now I get on a golf course, playing a game where I don't have much experience. It is daylight and the audience is all around you. It is quite intimidating when you aren't doing the thing that you do best."

Captains of industry, used to ruling thousands of workers from plush offices, are brought down to the company cafeteria level at the AT&T. Herb Kohler Jr., of the Kohler Co. in Kohler, Wisconsin, has played in several AT&Ts. "You never know what it is to top a tee shot until you play at Pebble Beach," says Kohler, a tough 17 handicapper who owns his own golfing empire in Wisconsin, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. "But even though you get humiliated once in a while, it's a lot of fun. I like playing with some young pro I haven't heard of before. The field is so big here that a lot of these young guys can get into the field, and it's interesting to talk with them about their careers and what they are trying to accomplish."

Megastar Kevin Costner first played in the AT&T in 1996 after the release of his golf movie, Tin Cup. Playing in the group ahead of Costner and pro Lee Janzen was Bill Torrey, the president of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers. His pro was PGA Tour regular Fred Funk. The other pairing was New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday and his pro, the journeyman Jim McGovern. All through the round, spectators rushed ahead of the Janzen-Costner pairing to get a better look. So Torrey's group was almost constantly surrounded by a gallery that it would not have otherwise attracted. That was the joke during the round. "Nelson and I would always remark to Fred and Jim that we had no idea they had just a great and boisterous following," said Torrey.

The following year, Costner played with new friend and golf champion Tiger Woods. It was one of the most glamorous pairings in the history of the tournament and thousands of people followed the group. "Just let me hit the ball, just let me hit it," said Costner on the practice range before the start of the round. "You bet, I'm nervous."

Then with a throng following the group at Spyglass Hill, Costner was only two over par after eight holes. It was a performance that he noted to those standing at the rear of the ninth tee. "I'm only two over, can you believe it?" he exclaimed. That was exactly the wrong thought pattern. He doubled-bogeyed the ninth hole and struggled for the rest of the round.

The Monterey Peninsula crowd comes out to see the stars. They come out to see comic Bill Murray and pitching great Roger Clemens. They come out to see Carmel, California, resident, former mayor and screen superstar Clint Eastwood, a longtime supporter of the event, who in 1996 flew his helicopter low over the third and 18th fairways at Pebble Beach to help dry the grass after monsoons had soaked the place. (The event was canceled that year following two rounds.) The crowd does not come out to see Bill Torrey and Nelson Doubleday, no matter how influential they are in the world of sports.

Crosby, who died in 1977, was still running the show in 1968 when Torrey first played. At the time, Torrey was the executive vice president of the Oakland Seals hockey team, and Crosby was a limited partner. "It was very much Bing's thing," said Torrey. "It seemed like so many players played there every year because Bing wanted them to. There were a lot of long-standing pro-amateur pairings."

After the 1985 tournament, Crosby's widow, Kathryn, got into a dispute with the tournament's board of directors because she didn't want a corporate sponsor, prompting her to take Crosby's name off the title. In 1986 the event officially became the AT&T, and Torrey noticed the difference when he returned to play in 1997. "I don't want to say it was more friendly back then, but it seemed like it," says Torrey. "I don't want to say it was more intimate but it probably was. It was still good fun, but I think people were bearing down more to win."

What makes the AT&T stand out from the other pro-ams on the PGA Tour, like the long-running Bob Hope Desert Classic, is that it's a bona fide tournament for the amateurs. It's bona fide enough that there is often suspicion about the legitimacy of an amateur's handicap. When Australian Kerry Packer paired with Greg Norman and won the tournament by six shots in 1992, some eyebrows were raised, if not scorched. But Lou Russo, the tournament director from 1985 to 1998, felt that Packer had been given an appropriate handicap. "A year before, Packer almost died of a heart attack," said Russo. "He was a good player but hadn't played in a long time. He was very competitive and very much wanted to play in our tournament, so in the weeks leading up to it he practiced hard, took lessons and tried to get himself in shape, though the scores he was posting weren't all that good. But when the tournament came around he played well, Greg played well and they lapped the field."

Three years later, another controversy erupted when a Japanese businessman, real estate entrepreneur Masashi Yamada, played so much better than his handicap indicated. After he and his partner, Bruce Vaughan, won the team competition, officials looked into his handicap scoring in Japan and found that the scores were all coming from a course he owned. He was disqualified. Russo says there has been increased vigilance over the years.

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