Tour Players Lead Lives of Quiet Desperation

In 2003, I played in the pro-am at the Western Open, at Cog Hill, near Chicago. The pro on my team was J. P. Hayes, whom I wouldn’t necessarily have recognized if his name hadn’t been printed in huge letters on his golf bag. Nevertheless, I was excited. For a golf fan, playing in a pro-am is a fantasy come true. It’s a chance to spend five hours getting on the nerves of a real tour player, and it provides numerous opportunities to obtain personalized mementoes that can later be sold on eBay.

The excitement felt by the amateurs in any pro-am is almost exactly offset by the dread felt by the professionals, most of whom would prefer to be mowing their lawn, if not their neighbor’s lawn. But the tour requires even the top pros to take part, mainly because pro-ams generate favorable p.r. and make tournament sponsors happy.

My team, without even one useful contribution from me, finished sort of in the middle of the pack. The next day—the first day of the real tournament—I decided to lend comradely support to Hayes by following him in his round. His tee time was 1:09, exactly the same as Tiger Woods’s, although Hayes was assigned to the first tee (along with Justin Leonard and Stuart Appleby) while Woods was assigned to the tenth (along with Chris Smith and Cameron Beckman). Woods, who ended up winning the tournament, influences golf spectators the way a black hole influences cosmic dust: when he emerged from the driving range, at about 12:45, what appeared to be the entire human population of northeastern Illinois began to drift inexorably toward him.

Over on hole No. 1, in contrast, the crowd of spectators quickly reduced itself to a handful of friends, relatives, and stubborn contrarians. I walked with Hayes’s completely charming wife, Laura, who was pregnant with their second child; Amanda Leonard (also pregnant); Ashley Appleby; and a few of Hayes’s relatives, who were visiting from Wisconsin—about the same turnout you would expect for the final round of a club championship.

Non-golfers joke about how boring golf looks on television, but TV actually makes tournaments seem more exciting than they are, because it focuses on leaders and stars, and because the camera doesn’t linger once a shot has been hit. If you’ve ever attended a Tour event in person, you know that most of it consists of absolutely nothing—like a fireworks display at which the rockets go off ten minutes apart. Even if you’re following one of the superstars, you have more than enough time between strokes to read the newspaper, get caught up on your bills, or work out any lingering difficulties in your marriage.

It’s the pros who lead lives of quiet desperation—not regular golfers like us. If a pro hits a ball out of bounds, the other guys in his foursome never say, “Aw, forget it, just drop one up by the tree.” And nobody ever hooks them in the crotch from behind with a two-iron as they’re getting ready to play a shot. They have to hit practice balls and lift weights and take vitamins and live in hotels and worry about telling their wives they’ve been demoted to the Hooters Tour.They sacrifice the best years of their lives to entertain and inspire us, and how do we repay them? By hounding them for autographs, and calling them chokers when they lose, and nodding smugly when Johnny Miller says their swing looks a little laid-off. Then, to top it off, we ruin their Wednesdays with pro-ams.

We have a lot to atone for. And as I walked along with Laura Hayes I thought of a way to do that: by inaugurating a national program of amateur-professional events—“am-pros”—which will be just like pro-ams, except opposite. Rather than imposing ourselves on the pros at the very moment they’re trying to pull themselves together to compete, we’ll invite them to join us at our own clubs, and let them see, for a change, how real golf is played. Any pro who misses the cut at any tournament can simply show up that weekend at any participating club and play for free. We’ll give him a handicap of plus-five or plus-six, and we’ll choose teams the way we usually do, by throwing balls or pulling numbered poker chips out of a hat, and we’ll work him into our regular Saturday or Sunday games. Lunch, too. Want in?

Hacker (real name) counting the skins money at my club this past Sunday. J. P. Hayes and Tiger Woods: this life could be yours.

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