The pro-am is an aspirational, often-whispered-about form of golf. Yes, it's a big-ticket item at the highest levels, but that doesn't mean it's entirely off-limits to rank-and-file golfers. I recently played in my first-ever pro-am, at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf, a PGA Tour Champions two-man team event, and went into it as wide-eyed and excited as any first-timer.
It exceeded my expectations and gave me newfound appreciation not just for the skill of professional golfers, but for the massive logistical and planning processes that culminate in such an event.
So here's an explainer on pro-ams. You may be surprised at some of what I learned:
Who plays in pro-ams?
Since big-time golf tournaments rely on sponsorship dollars to be viable, pro-ams serve several purposes, depending on one's connection to a tournament.
For tournament organizers, it's a chance for increased exposure. Pro-ams turn a weekend tournament into a week-long event.
For sponsors, it's a chance to realize their investment in supporting the event, either by giving executives spots in the pro-am, gifting spots to business partners or valued clients, or a mix of the two.
For the pros, it's a chance to prepare for the event while schmoozing potential business contacts. Pro golfers are themselves business entities these days, and fruitful relationships often form at these get-togethers.
For the ams, it's a chance to feel like a VIP. It's an opportunity to play a course under professional conditions with stands, gallery ropes and an actual gallery. Most importantly, it's an opportunity to play a round with one of the best in the world, to marvel at their skills in person and, potentially, to pick up a swing tip or two.
My experience: I was invited to the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am as a media member, along with a few others, and had a great experience. There was no sense of us (invited guests) vs. them (paying participants). Everyone was similarly impressed by and immersed in the experience. The other ams in my group were Peter Burns, a broadcaster for ESPN's SEC network, and two beer distributors who count Big Cedar Lodge as one of their accounts. We had a great time together, laughing at our mediocre play and the ease with which our pro partners struck their shots.
How much does it cost (and is it worth it)?
Prices vary considerably, largely based on the level of the pros involved. Naturally, PGA Tour pro-ams carry the biggest price tag. For example, a threesome in this week's Travelers Championship Celebrity Pro-Am went for $25,500, or $8,500 per person. Other PGA Tour pro-am spots top $10,000 per person, and of course the multi-day ones like in Palm Springs or Pebble Beach go even higher.
The pro-am experience doesn't have to be so steep, however. Playing in an LPGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour or Symetra Tour pro-am can cost a fraction and deliver a similar experience, especially if your main objective is to admire the skills of an elite competitive golfer. In the case of the latter two, you may find yourself playing with a future star.
For example, the Symetra Tour Championship's Pro-Am at LPGA International costs $2,000 for a team of three. The Korn Ferry Tour Ellie Mae Championship's pro-am at TPC Stonebrae costs $8,250 per team, which is steep, but a steal compared to PGA Tour pro-am prices.
Looking for something more reasonable still? Several PGA sections hold pro-ams throughout the year that amount to a hybrid of the more serious upper-level pro-ams and a fun, social outing, often combined with the opportunity to play a nice private club. The Oregon PGA, for example, has a robust pro-am schedule with 2019 stops at clubs like Waverley Country Club, an old-line Portland club renovated by Gil Hanse; recent NCAA Championship host site Eugene Country Club; and the private Witch Hollow Course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, where at the 2003 U.S. Women's Open Hilary Lunke pulled off one of the great underdog major championship wins in golf history.
Several elite amateur events offer pre-tournament pro-ams - well, "am-ams" - as well. The prestigious Players Am, held at Berkeley Hall near Hilton Head Island, S.C. each July, has a "Contestant-Am Shootout" that helps support the event. A $4,000 "Silver" sponsorship nets two spots in the Shootout, and some other goodies, including six Clubhouse passes to the 2020 RBC Heritage. It's conceivable that you could be paired with one of the top players in this year's Players Am and then get to follow him at the nearby PGA Tour event next year. Past winners of the Players Am include current PGA Tour players Rickie Fowler (2007), Bud Cauley (2009) and Kevin Tway (2010).
For years, the American Junior Golf Association has held "Junior-Am" days prior to many of its events. Far less formal but still fun, these events can be entered for less than $500 per person, while still giving participants an up-close look at some serious golf talent.
Top-level pro-ams are certainly a luxury experience or potential business perk, and it's hard to argue against them, as they continue to be popular throughout the upper echelons of golf. The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am, being a multi-day affair, is one of the higher-dollar ones tied to the PGA Tour Champions, but I didn't see anyone having anything but a great time. They all seemed to have gotten their and their employers' money's worth.
My experience: As a writer, I was invited - along with a few other media - to take part in the pro-am as guests of the resort and the tournament. It was humbling to be invited and a pleasure to return to Big Cedar Lodge at a time when the resort goes all-out for its guests.
What's the schedule like?
Nearly every pro-am kicks off with a "pairings party," usually the night before the main golf day. Open bars, heavy hors d'oeuvres, live music and schmoozing with fellow participants abound. So do high-end golf club and resort logos on polos and quarter-zips. As the name suggests, it's the time when the ams find out who their pro(s) will be, usually by assignment, though I recall from the 2000 Greater Hartford Open Pro-Am pairings party - which I attended alongside my father, who went on to play in the pro-am the following day - that there was a lottery and the ams got to come up to a microphone and select their pros. I urged my dad to choose Mike Weir (like him, I play golf left-handed), but Weir's tee time slot was something like 6:30 am. Some pros generally appear at these parties, but not all, and not always.
Pro-ams are often full-course shotgun starts with morning and afternoon waves. Tournament organizers are not afraid to pack the course, so there can be A- and B-groups on most holes. Check-in generally entails picking up your swag, grabbing breakfast or lunch and warming up before everything gets underway. There may be a putting contest on the practice green or some other fun/competitive warm-up activity. Beverages from water to sports drinks to alcohol are never far away.
Apres-golf is an awards reception with more food and drink. Spirits are high but there is the vaguest air of melancholy since people know that the fantasy experience is winding down.
My experience: The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am is a multi-day affair because since two courses - this year, Big Cedar Lodge's new Ozarks National and Top of the Rock layouts - are used in the tournament, the pros and ams get two days of prep and play, respectively. The pairings party at Top of the Rock was an experience unto itself. First, we took to the Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail, a guided golf cart ride circuit that serves as a great introduction to the limestone cliffs, waterfalls and long-range Table Rock Lake views that abound at the resort.
Our ride ended at the main Top of the Rock complex, where we were led on a labyrinthine tour of the building before emerging onto the patio for the aforementioned food, drink and socializing. In one corner, competitive long-driver and trick-shot specialist Dan Boever was entertaining folks with his antics, even allowing some to take some swings with his clubs at a plywood board with balloons stuck to it.
Johnny Morris, resort owner and Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO, offered welcoming remarks, as did with Roy Blunt, Missouri's senior U.S. Senator; Mike Parson, Governor of Missouri; and Jerry Davis, president of the College of the Ozarks (nicknamed "Hard Work U" for its requirement that students work in order to defray tuition costs; Big Cedar Lodge employs several alumni). Simply Irresistible, whom I heard referred to as "the top corporate and private event band in the country," provided the evening's music.
I was assigned an interesting pair of pros. The first day, I got to play Top of the Rock with the inimitable Miguel Angel Jimenez, who was pleasant and enjoyable company. It was great to see what perfectly smooth swing tempo looks like up close, and from the "Most Interesting Golfer in the World," no less. We walked alongside The Mechanic (yes, he's cool enough to have two popular nicknames) while amiable students from the College of the Ozarks toted our golf bags on the scenic nine-hole par-3 layout.
That night, dozens of us amateurs and pros (since the event is at an expansive, self-contained resort, pros and their families stay on site and therefore seem more involved in the festivities than they might be at other tournaments) took to Fun Mountain, Big Cedar Lodge's large complex of food, drink, bowling, arcade games, Go Karts and more. We had the run of the place, and enjoyed more hospitality and fellowship, though I heard later that someone who had had a couple too many cocktails caused a minor wreck on the go kart track. Whoops!
Rain, fog and cold stymied pro-am participants for part of the following day, but my group was still able to play nine holes at the brand-new Ozarks National with pro Ken Tanigawa. Tanigawa has an unusual story among members of the senior circuit: after failing to mount a lucrative golf career out of college, he bided his time and ultimately made it through Q-school for the over-50s, and then won in his first season of eligibility.
Finally, the closing event of the pro-am was yet another extravaganza at another one of Big Cedar Lodge's impressive venues: the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy, about 10 minutes from the resort proper. The evening centered around a big concert that attracted not just pro-am participants but the general public from the Branson area. The headliner was Tracy Lawrence, a country music star from the 1990s. A local bluegrass band impressed the crowd as well. The second-day partial washout precluded the presentation of any awards, but no one seemed to mind. The three-day hangout was a hit.
How serious is the golf?
In a word, not very. And that's fine - pro-ams are about the hangout vibe and networking far more than they are about any sort of competitive golf. Scrambles and shambles tend to be the formats of choice, and groups are advised at the outset that "par is your partner." Inevitably there are players who think a pro-am is their chance to prove something about their own golf games - to themselves or, more embarrassingly, to the pros - but it's just not a good venue for it.
To be honest, the golf is almost incidental to one's immersion in the experience, which can border on sensory overload. Yes, the golf course is in tournament shape, but the flags are cut near the center of the greens in order to move people through the course. The volume of players means there is a lot of waiting on tee boxes, but it's best to treat it as an opportunity to continue soak the whole experience in.
My experience: At Big Cedar Lodge, the golf was almost a side-dish to the socializing, and that was just fine with us. The slow pace of the rounds, particularly at Top of the Rock, made it difficult to get into much of a rhythm, so it was better to focus on taking in the scene than shooting a low score. We celebrated our birdies, but it was no big deal when we missed.
How friendly are the pros?
In talking to people with more pro-am experience than me, I heard this can be a bit of a mixed bag. I'm divided between seeing it as understandable and seeing it as unacceptable.
On one hand, a lot of pros have played in dozens, if not hundreds, of pro-ams, and to varying extents they're probably a little jaded by the whole process. But I don't see this as reason to be cold or rude to one's pro-am partners. There are probably times when ams overstep a bit - interrupting a pro's preparation, monopolizing the conversation, getting unacceptably drunk - and I can't fault a pro for standing up to poor behavior. After all, just because you've paid for the privilege of being in the orbit of a group of celebrities, it doesn't entitle you to be a jerk, no matter the entry cost.
My experience: Both Jimenez and Tanigawa were enjoyable partners. Jimenez shared his fondness for Casa de Campo, where he spends part of the year and enjoys the opportunity to speak his native Spanish on a daily basis. The Spaniard is a willing English speaker, but it is clear that having to speak a non-native language so often makes the chance to retreat to the Dominican Republic from time to time something he looks forward to. It was a nice bit of insight that made me wish I had at least some conversational Spanish.
I'll admit to feeling nonplussed when I first saw "Ken Tanigawa" on my pairings sheet. I had never really heard of him, so I wasn't sure what to expect from interacting a player with relatively little name-recognition.
Shame on me. Ken and his caddie were as friendly and engaging as could be, and Ken's relative inexperience in pro-ams (a few dozen, rather than the hundreds his peers have played between their PGA Tour and Champions days) made him come off as almost as excited as we were. The four of us came away instant fans; I was thrilled when he won the Senior PGA Championship just a few weeks later. He exemplified a piece of advice I've heard before about pro-am partners: the lesser-known ones can often be the best.
How good is the swag?
In short: really good, especially in the higher-prestige (i.e. higher-dollar) events. Golf balls, hats, shirts and some sort of pullover are pretty much de rigueur. Some sort of equipment credit - for a driver, fairway wood, putter or wedges - often factors in. You'll always receive some sort of photograph of your pro-am group, typically signed by your pro.
Rain suits, umbrellas, sunglasses, shoes and other goodies tend to feature as well. And of course, some kind of nice duffel bag to hold everything. More specialty swag items tend to depend on the mix of sponsors. For instance, when Canon sponsored the Greater Hartford Open (now the Travelers Championship), my father received a new Canon digital camera. My colleagues report having received Callaway hybrids, a GoPro camera and Irish whiskey in other pro-ams.
My experience: The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am was good to its participants in the swag department. I inventoried my bag and here's what it contained:
- Bob Timberlake canvas and leather multi-pocket bag
- Columbia Performance Fishing Gear shoes
- Dozen Pro V1s
- Pursuit XR700 laser rangefinder
- Abu Garcia EMAXSP30 fishing reel
- Oakley golf sunglasses
- Bass Pro Shops knife
- 3 or 4 assorted Columbia and Under Armour pullovers and shirts
- Columbia and Beretta hats
- Signed and rustically framed group photographs from my rounds with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ken Tanigawa
Writing about golf for a living has its perks, to be sure. The opportunity to play in an event like the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am is hard to top. I think those who gain entry to such events by more conventional means would whole-heartedly agree, too.