When the invitation came by e-mail a few months ago inviting me to play in the Honda Classic Pro-Am at PGA National Resort & Spa, I was not that interested. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be fun. Executive Editor Gordon Mott, a golfing buddy of mine, thought it might be an interesting article for the many golf lovers who read Cigar Aficionado and may not have played in a pro-am (see sidebar on page 85). So I said to myself, Why not? So here goes... The Honda Pro-Am took place on Wednesday, February 27. I had never been to PGA National but had seen the course on TV a few times. The famous Bear Trap holes, 15-16-17, were an exciting challenge. Many golf observers consider these the three most difficult consecutive holes in golf, along with Amen Corner of Augusta National. I was already going to be in Miami Beach the week before; it would only be an hour's drive up the coast to Palm Beach Gardens. I planned to spend a few days at Old Palm Golf Club where I would "tune up" my game. While practicing there on the back range, I met up with the young Colombian golf star Camilo Villegas. I had seen him on TV a number of times a few years back and thought one day he could make it big. So much so that I put him on the cover of the August 2006 issue of Cigar Aficionado. We had a short but pleasant chat, as he was practicing for the Honda Classic later that week. I wished him luck.
As the pro-am day approached, I heard weather reports of a cold wave and rain coming on Wednesday. After a string of days in the mid-80s, I was bummed out.
Sure enough at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I heard thunder and heavy rains outside. The first tee times were at 6:40. I was scheduled to play in the last foursome at 1:40. My foursome consisted of Joel Paige, managing director of PGA National; Jeff Quicksilver of Chicago, whose company, Walton Street Capital LLC, bought PGA National two years ago; Joe Theismann, the former quarterback of the Washington Redskins; and me, "The Shotmaker." Our pro was "The Big Easy," Ernie Els.
By the time I arrived at PGA National at about 11 a.m., Joel was standing on the front steps of the hotel to greet me. Then the bad news: because of a two-hour rain delay, the tournament was shortened to nine holes so that everyone would get to play before it got dark around 6:45.
And if that wasn't enough, Joel told me we were playing the front nine—so no Bear Trap for The Shotmaker this time around.
My first stop was at the driving range where my anxiety was eased when I saw my clubs had made it there safely from the hotel lobby. I spent the better part of an hour warming up as it was pretty cold (around 62 degrees and cloudy).
I then went looking for a cup of coffee to warm myself up. It was now about 12:30. I was resting in the players lounge (nobody stopped me from entering, but I think the room was out-of-bounds for me).
PGA Tour pro Luke Donald walked over to visit. We had played together in a practice round at St Andrews before the Dunhill Cup. He and his friend Billy Terlato (a great amateur golfer from Chicago) had challenged Ernie and me and we were going over the date of the upcoming match. At this point, Ernie and I are undefeated, having beaten Gary Player and Johann Rupert at Seminole (see the June 2006 issue of Cigar Aficionado).
I had told Ernie this was an unfair match, as Billy was much better than me, but he was nevertheless game. "Playing with The Shotmaker," Ernie said with a smile, "I'm not worried."
Joel Paige and I went back to the driving range, at about 1 o'clock, to meet the rest of the team. All nice guys, I knew it would be fun. About a hundred yards away, I saw The Big Easy warming up. I walked over and got a big "Hi Shotmaker" greeting. We caught up a bit, chatted about our next challenge match in two weeks, and I stepped back so he could finish his warm-up.
It was now 1:15—time to move to the putting green. After we all practiced our putting, it was off to the tee box of hole No. 1. Of course, there were spectator stands and all kinds of course marshals, official scorers and announcers milling around.
This time I was only a little anxious. It wasn't at all like when I played along with Tiger Woods at the pro-am of the 2005 Buick Open and almost had a heart attack. I was a veteran now.
As we were each announced, we stepped up to the tee. First was Ernie, playing from the tips. He hit it so far I couldn't see where it landed. Then the four amateurs moved to the blue tees. Joel and Jeff hit their drives far but in the left rough. Joe Theismann, a 4-handicap, drilled it down the fairway—a long way. The Shotmaker hit a nice, smooth drive down the left side, in the fairway. We were off.
Jeff started off slowly, but by the fourth hole he got his game together. He closed the ninth hole, a par 4, with an amazing birdie. Net two. Joel had a remarkable day for a 10-handicapper, including parring the par-3 seventh hole after an errant tee shot into deep rough on the left. Joe Theismann is a real golfer. More I can't say. He has a complete game. He drilled every tee shot, center cut, down the fairway. He had lots of pars.
Ernie is Ernie. An amazing game with great distance and accuracy. I could go on for hours about his game!
I basically played bogey golf. Shot a 46 on the front. Two highlights.
On hole No. 8, a par 4, I hit a great drive down the middle. Just in front of the green is a creek. To clear the creek I had about 180 yards into the wind. Everyone told me to lay up. But I wanted to go for it. Theismann ran over, picked up my ball and teed it up in the fairway. We all laughed. Ernie said, "Shotmaker, go for it."
Randy, my caddie, handed me my Callaway FTi driver. I bombed one over the creek, just to the front right of the green. There was nice applause from the gallery, and cheers from my team members. And on nine, a dogleg left, 360-yard par 4, I parred the hole with a nice 25-foot putt. I was the last to putt; we all smiled, shook hands and said our good-byes. Our team came in at 6 under for the nine holes. The winning team was 11 under.
I'm looking forward to coming back so I can play the Bear Trap. The day was great fun. Isn't that what golf is all about?
Monday morning, March 3, 2008
It's unbelievable. Last night, I watched on television as Ernie Els, starting the day three back, shot a 67 and won the Honda Classic. While he had won a number of overseas matches, he had not won a PGA tournament in the United States in nearly four years. This was a big victory for him, and as a result, he moved into the third position in the world golf ranking behind Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Finishing second was Luke Donald. A perfect setup for our upcoming challenge match. Who knows? Just maybe I brought Ernie luck by playing with him in the pro-am.