MADISON, Miss. - Heavy dew was still on the pumpkins when four golf writers yawned, stiffly stretched and introduced themselves to PGA Tour player Matt Gogel. That dim glimmer just beyond the 13th hole was the sunrise.
Welcome to the Southern Farm Bureau Classic Wednesday Pro-Am - where amateurs shell out $2,300 in the pre-dawn haze and $2,700 a person for an afternoon chance to play a round of golf with a PGA Tour player.
This is the Jack Nicklaus-designed Annandale Country Club, built in 1981, and that first strike of urethane on metal is wild. It's the day before Halloween and this might get spooky.
Too bad our 4:30 a.m. wake-up and 5:30 staging and registration didn't include an hour on the range. In fact, no one got to warm up because Mississippi has been deluged with 13 inches of rain in the past five weeks. The range is closed and the fairways are soggy, sloppy and slow - lift, clean and place is in effect.
It's white-knuckle time when an amateur tees it up for the nerve-wracking first shot under the watchful eye of a PGA Tour player. Thank goodness it only takes a couple of holes before the amateurs start waking up and hitting the ball solidly and any shaky nerves are calmed.
If you ever have a chance to play in such an event pounce on it like Mississippi duck on a June bug.
Perhaps The Golf Channel's Adam Barr, one of the participants on this day, said it best: "Think about it. Can you run with Emmitt Smith or shag fly balls with Barry Bonds? Exactly. Pro-Ams are unique, and one of the best things about the pro game."
Depending on how many hardy souls actually come out and become the gallery at one of these events, you might even hear applause when you hit a good shot. And it's always great to have your partner, Mr. Gogel, say "good shot" or "nice swing".
Perhaps the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is the ultimate Pro-Am experience. At registration here your goody bag may include four Waterford crystal goblets, a jacket, a sweater, a shirt and a 3-wood. And the guy standing next to you in line might be Clint Eastwood, Glen Campbell or Bill Murray.
Don't forget your $6 plastic point-and-shoot camera from Wal-Mart. You will have plenty of chances to have your photo taken with a pro or celebrity.
On this day in Mississippi, Gogel, winner of this year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, was driving it down the middle, making good approaches and had a hot-and-cold putter. He finished 2-under-par and missed a hole-in-one by a whisker on No. 8. He also ended the day by chipping in for a birdie from off the green on the par-3 12th.
"I've only had one hole-in-one and that was 15 years ago," said Gogel, who gazed at his ball resting on the lip behind the hole. "How did it get there without going in?"
Walking to the next tee Gogel, an NCAA All-American at Kansas in 1994, admitted the Southern Farm Bureau Classic was very important to him, because a victory would put him in the Top 40, qualify him for The Masters and open doors for the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the putter never warmed up. He missed the cut in the 54-hole rain-shortened tournament won by Luke Donald. Gogel finished the year 57th on the money list with earnings of $1,089,482.
So what do these Pro-Am events mean to some other amateur golfers?
Bill Shelton, host of Michigan Golfer Television Show, said he's played in numerous events. "My all-time favorite was playing with Michelle McGann of the LPGA. If you asked me to pick between the tours the answer would be easy - I'd pick playing with an LPGA Tour player."
Tom Dodd of Justin, Texas, owner of a technology company, CompuPros, admitted he was nervous when he teed it up with Sergio Garcia in the Phoenix Open Pro-Am at the TPC at Scottsdale. He became even more nervous when, on the first tee the announcer declares: "Now on the tee, Tom Dodd, playing out of the Las Colinas Sports Club in Irving, Texas."
"What I did get the hang of very quickly was that I had no reason to be nervous," Dodd said. "This round was completely and totally about Sergio, not about me or the other amateurs. No one even realized that I was playing. When Sergio hit, they were off to the next shot. So I relaxed and had a good time."
Dodd said Sergio was very pleasant, but quite reserved. It was Sergio's rookie season.
"He was not animated as we see him in the Ryder Cup and as he was in the PGA at Medinah. He would smile, answer questions, line up your putt if you asked, have pictures made with his arm around you, but otherwise acted like any other 19-year-old who was playing with a bunch of older businessmen. He was quick to compliment us when we hit a good shot. That didn't take much of his time!"
One of the things Dodd remembers most was how slightly built Garcia is, but that he hit the ball an incredible distance. "On one hole he hit a 3 iron about 220 yards to within eight feet of the pin into a 30 mph headwind," Dodd recalled.
All along the way Dodd was aware that Glen Campbell, Buck Showalter, Amy Grant and Vince Gill were in groups close to his. And one of his best shots came on the 18th, hitting an 80-yard approach to within 10 feet and sinking the putt for par - the same score Garcia got for the hole.
Rance Rogers, President of The Ventures Group, an internet distribution company in Denver, has played in The International Wednesday Pro-Am and struck a friendship with one of his partner pros, Steve Lowery.
"Lowery and I stay in touch," Rogers said. "It is a neat camaraderie and this year I was walking with his girlfriend on the final day of The International when he scored the eagle, then double eagle, and almost won the tournament (Rich Beem took the trophy).
"Playing in a Pro-Am is a great experience," Rogers said. "If a guy tries to make sense of the money he's spending I don't think he is looking at it from the right perspective. But it is like buying a great bottle of wine. At the end of the night you either enjoyed it or you didn't. If you are an avid golf fan, and love being in a position to rub elbows, the Pro-Am experience is something you definitely should try."
First-tee jitters can come into play. "I would say the first time I was nervous," Rogers said. "But more than that, the first time you enter with apprehension wondering if the pro will even speak to you. All of my experiences have been great. The pro was very friendly, made me feel comfortable and we shared conversations throughout the round.
"Another fun part is that you are playing the round the day before the tournament starts. I've played Castle Pines a dozen times, but during the Pro-Am all the scoreboards are there, volunteers and marshals are on every hole and even a gallery is present," Rogers said.
Rogers has also gotten to play a round with Mike Ditka, in the NFL Hall of Fame Celebrity Pro-Am, and he's also teed it up with PGA Tour pros Neal Lancaster, Chip Beck and K.J. Choi.
Kent Burnett, an executive for Dillard's, lives in Tempe, Ariz., and is a real veteran of Pro-Ams. He's played in Pro-Ams at the Phoenix Open, Michelob Championship at Kingsmill and the Las Vegas Invitational.
Some of his tour playing partners have been Curtis Strange, Fuzzy Zoeller, Justin Leonard, Gary Koch, Lanny Wadkins, Dottie Pepper and Tom Purtzer.
"It is an incredible experience," said Burnett. "Nervous? I'd say I'm very alert on the first tee. There's a crowd there watching you. The day I played with Wadkins, my son was my caddy, my boss was in the gallery plus other Dilliard's employees. I hit my drive about 20 yards, topped the next one, but settled down and birdied the next hole.
"Another day with Zoeller, on a par 5, I hit a good drive, good second and had 20 yards to the green. I shanked it and Fuzzy said: 'Attaboy Kent, hit behind the runner like I taught you.'
"One of the big thrills is to see the leaderboard and your team's name on it," Burnett continued. "One time my team was in first and had a lead of six strokes on Tiger Woods' group. Then his team starting charging and we all saw it through the boards. In the end Tiger's group tied us, but another team won the event."
It's doubtful that anyone who participates in one of the Wednesday Pro-Ams with a PGA Tour player would think his team lost - even when they come in last place. Everyone is a winner.
Annandale Country Club
10 Annandale Golf Club Drive
Madison, Miss. 39110
Tournament Website: www.pgatour.com/tournaments/r054/course.html
December 3, 2002