I've teed it up in pro-am tournaments of all shapes and sizes.
I was so nervous I chunked my first two wedges in front of ginormous crowds at the 2012 Irish Open, a European Tour event at the Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland. Later, I slapped a slicing tee shot that caused the entire gallery along the left side of the fairway to duck. My ball faded gently back into the fairway.
Not all pro-ams are so glamorous. There were no spectators at the 2015 Mauna Lani Resort Hawaii State Open pro-am when I teed it up with Parker McLachlin, winner of the 2008 Legends Reno-Tahoe Open on the PGA Tour. Who needs a gallery when you're playing in paradise on an oceanfront course?
Every time I'm invited to play in a pro-am I jump on the opportunity. They're my favorite events in golf. You get the taste of tournament golf without the grind of it. Pro-ams are more golf party than golf tournament, in my opinion. The golf is secondary, unless you're on the leaderboard.
I get that the pro-ams of the PGA Tour, the European Tour and PGA Tour Champions are unattainable for the average Joe. Dreaming of playing in arguably the two biggest celebrity pro-ams on the planet, the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-am in California or the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland? Forget about it. LPGA Tour and Web.com Tour pro-ams won't be cheap, either. They are for the corporate suits. The Golf Digest column "The Undercover Tour Pro" indicated that PGA Tour pro-ams can cost as low as $1,750, while the price to play Pebble Beach soars to $18,500 and up. For comparison's sake, the Admiral's Cup Pro-Am I played cost $3,225 for a five-night stay at the host hotel, the beachfront St. Kitts Marriott, with many meals and several dinner galas included.
There are hundreds of pro-ams that make financial sense for anybody who's a fan of the game. They are great excuses to skip work, play a tournament course in top shape and support your local golf scene.
Every PGA section in America offers pro-ams for its men's and women's state opens. The Hawaiian Open I played in happened to be stacked with three former Tour winners -- McLachlin, Dean Wilson and Scott Simpson. Also check if the Symetra Tour, the home for aspiring female pros, or The Legends Tour, made up of legendary ladies like Nancy Lopez, might offer a pro-am near you.
Destination pro-ams are even more exciting. I've played in two in the Caribbean run by The Golf Connection -- the Jamaica Invitational Pro-Am and the Admiral's Cup Pro-Am on St. Kitts and Nevis. They're basically five days of fun, golf, booze and beaches all wrapped into one big winter sunburn.
In both cases, I had no idea who was on my four-man team until I landed on the islands. Each time I came away with new lifelong friendships. Another example would be the World Links Invitational Pro-Am 2017 -- Southwest Ireland, offered by Carr Golf from Sept. 27-Oct. 3.
In the interest of full disclosure, there are downsides, too. You'll likely never land the star you want. Those players often end up in groups catering to the major sponsors. If the pro you do partner with is having a bad day, either his/her game is off or he/she is in a foul mood, they might not be the most engaging playing partner. Some pro-ams have lame formats, such as scrambles or they force participants to pick up once they hit par. Others are death marches where slow play grinds the day to a halt. Restrictions like walking only or riding only can keep certain golfers from playing. Most pro-ams at the highest level require wearing pants because tournament officials want you to look the part for the crowds. I guess I've been lucky. None of these issues have ever soured my day.
Here are my five favorite reasons to play in a pro-am:
Playing with a pro
Pairing parties -- where you get to pick your pro as part of a lottery drawing -- are part of the fun of high-level pro-ams. I've never been to one, but I hear they are a hoot. The anticipation of landing a big fish fuels the adrenaline. To me, playing with any pro is a treat, whether they are PGA Tour or PGA of America. The quote-unquote B players I've been paired with -- McLachlin and European Tour winners Simon Thornton and Edoardo Molinari -- couldn't have been nicer. Jamie Little, an Englishman who has played in 29 career European Tour events, was as friendly as he was talented hitting the ball. He was the reason we finished third in our bracket in the Admiral's Cup. Sometimes if you get a big name, you won't get the same level of personal attention.
Less individual pressure
Most pro-ams are four- or five-man team events, except rare events like Pebble Beach, where you are paired with a pro as a duo. All of them allow players to play with their handicaps in place, meaning you'll get strokes where you deserve them. That levels the playing field. Even the least talented team has a shot to win it.
The format also means less individual pressure. If you hit one in the drink off the tee (guilty!), you let your teammates carry you home. The Admiral's Cup featured two days of two best-ball scores, one gross and one net. The final round counted three scores. That's not as easy as it sounds. My group in St. Kitts had to count a few double bogeys before getting hot.
Playing in a pro-am means collecting swag -- lots of it. Tournament sponsors usually donate stuff as prizes and to give away as part of the pre-tournament gift bag. In return, they get exposure to a captive demographic and probably a spot or two in the pro-am as well. My Caribbean swag bags have been stocked with shirts, pullovers, balls, coolers, cozies and more. They're all good souvenirs. It beats spending big bucks in the pro shop.
I can't emphasize how much fun a team game is. You're all pulling for each other. You're all high-fiving when that eagle putt drops. There are words of encouragement after misses, not moaning and groaning as is the norm in golf. It certainly doesn't hurt that there's a pro in the group. Little acted like the team caddie. He would read putts and dish out tips where and how to hit the next shot. He went to great lengths to coach us toward positive results.
Play top courses
Pro-ams aren't held at dog tracks. If they're associated with a pro tournament, you're playing a championship test in top condition a day or two before the event. Destination pro-ams, on the other hand, only work if they're held on courses worth traveling for. The Caribbean courses I have played -- the White Witch and Cinnamon Hill on Jamaica and Royal St. Kitts and the Four Seasons Resort Nevis -- are all glorious resort courses showcasing stunning ocean/sea views with at least one hole near or on the water.
How to enjoy your Pro-Am experience to the fullest
1. Warm up: Hit the range and putting green like you would during a warm-up for any other round. The more normal the routine, the less nervous you'll be.
2. First tee: You probably won't meet your pro until the first tee. Give his/her their space. Let him/her come over and introduce themselves. Be casual and relaxed. Don't go all fan-boy during the first meet-and-greet.
3. Caddie conversation: You must share your pro during the round with your other playing partners, so get to know the caddie, too. He/she is usually willing to share fun and interesting tales of life on tour.
4. Pro talk: Don't bombard the pro with questions about the tour or their game. They'll probably loosen up better if you find out what they love away from golf - hobbies, family life, fun vacation spots, etc.
5. Post-round fun: If you've made enough of a good impression on your pro, there's a slight change he/she might join you for a drink after golf but don't expect it. Autograph requests are okay as long as it's done toward the tale end of the round.
If you've been lucky enough to play in a pro-am, we'd love to hear how you fared. Were you nervous or the team hero? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @GolfAdvisor.