MADISON, Miss. - The sign said "Shush Ya'll." And while the only people within earshot were uniformly clad tournament officials, the sight of a PGA-style, "quiet please" sign raised on my behalf was enough to make my heart beat through my logo shirt.
My team was on the final hole of our shotgun start, Wednesday pro-am at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic outside of Jackson. And here's the thing: we were (as they say around here) "fixing to win the dad-gum thing."
We'd ham and egged our way to a net 18-under par at the Jack Nicklaus designed Annandale Country Club in a mystical, dreamlike state. Our 17-handicap, a burley chap with a grizzled maw, was having the round of his life. Our 4-handicap, a lefty from Dallas with an affinity for the local casinos, was even on the day. Our mid-handicappers (yours truly included) were playing solid and providing the sort of insurance that would make the redoubtable Southern Farm Bureau blush.
The only glitch in the matrix was that our PGA Tour player, Ian Leggatt, was about to post the highest pro score of the day. Didn't matter. The harmonic convergence that had overtaken the amateurs had rendered his play obsolete. The best thing that "Leggo," as his caddy Pat called him, could do for us - and he did this well - was just be a helluva nice guy.
Back to that final hole. Our tee shots on the par-4 10th were a microcosm of the day - a couple balls hit fairly well and a couple of balls striped down the middle and sitting up in position "A." In a final Bagger Vance-like moment, our 14-handicap stuck his approach within two feet of the cup and drained a birdie putt.
We were in the clubhouse at 19-under. We were golden. Or so we thought.
From what I can gather, pro-am teams come in three varieties: those consisting of buddies just out for the experience (normal), those constructed with the express intent of winning the thing (freaks and sandbaggers), and none of the above.
We were the latter; three golf writers and a public relations guy who'd spent the four days leading up to the pro-am driving from Gulfport to Jackson in a tour bus with three other golf writers and a lovely host from the state's tourism division. In between riding around on the bus, we (in no particular order) golfed, gambled, told lies and imbibed the finest spirits Mississippi had to offer (any beer with "light" after it).
While we golf writers spent the time between tour stops debating the advantages of doubling-down, solving a perplexing and meaningless baseball trivia puzzle and tackling other pseudo-intellectual topics, our savvy PR host was locked in his own little think tank, devising the perfect team.
That, or he just sleeps sitting up.
Out on the course, he deftly switched back and forth between our two groups, sizing up and strengths and weakness of each. He carefully evaluated our ability to consume copious amounts of Southern cooking and beer at dinner each night, yet still awake bright eyed and bushy tailed for our crack-of-dawn tee times.
In short, a Major League Baseball scout had nothing on this guy.
And so it was, the evening before the pro-am draw party at the Jackson Hilton, the burley man with the grizzled maw, the left-handed casino junkie, the PR pro and this guy came together as a well-oiled, well-soiled machine.
The draw party had drama. The draw party had lots of Southern women. The draw party had free food and drinks. More importantly, it had a board full of recognizable - even desirable - potential playing partners. Crowd favorite John Daly was on the board for the morning, as was Ryder Cup Captain in-waiting Hal Sutton for the afternoon. A couple of young guns, defending champions Luke Donald and sweet-swinging David Gossett also were available for the taking.
Program note: if you ever play in a pro-am, and if you have the means, it is highly recommended to soak up the vibe of the draw party. What appears at first to be a pro bono cocktail party with a raffle is actually a total rush. If you want to do it right, grab a fist full of free drinks, huddle with your teammates, and decide on your top five picks.
Our top five: Bernhard Langer (historic value), Luke Donald (defending champ value), Matt Kuchar (whatever happened to value), David Gossett (seems like a nice guy) and Leggatt (we all thought he was Scottish and playing with a guy from the motherland would be cool).
The first few picks in most pro-ams go to the sponsors. So there went Daly and Langer. Kuchar and Donald were scooped up by a couple of unorganized squads that made their mind up on the spot, on the clock (the nerve.) About 15 picks later, it was us. And Leggatt, who is from Canada, not Scotland we later learned while pouring through his bio at PGATour-dot-com, was ours.
I've been on the first tee in Myrtle Beach at 7 a.m. with a head full of cobwebs and three balls staring up at me from the tee box. I've been on the first tee at world-famous courses with the pressure of the game's storied history bearing down on me. But I've never been on the first tee, looked down at the golf ball and watched it grow smaller and smaller like a rooftop appears out the window of an ascending airplane.
About this time, I was thankful we weren't playing with Big John, Sutton or Langer. Even thought it was just the pro-am, Daly's group probably was drawing a healthy crop of spectators. Suffice it to say, Leggatt's following was noticeably smaller. Having a PGA Tour player watch your first tee shot, however, was nerve-racking enough so as to make every first tee experience from here on out tolerable.
Anyway, fast-forward to that final hole. The birdie putt hits the bottom of the cup, we head back to the clubhouse to wolf down lunch, grab our parting gifts, and make tracks for the airport. Every great press trip must come to an end, and thus each member of the motley crew returned home to his helpless keyboard and disenfranchised significant other.
Come to find out, a full five days later, that 19-under was good for second. So the perfect team was slightly less than perfect. But playing in one's first pro-am and almost ham and egging it to a victory? Priceless.
This pro-am, and story, was made possible by the generosity of the Mississippi Development Authority. A special thank-you to Janet Leach, our gracious host. For more information on golfing in the great state of Mississippi, log on to GulfCoastGolf.com.
October 7, 2003
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