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Leisure: Above and Beyond Par

My approach shot to the 15th hole at Mayakoba’s El Camaleón course has caught the greenside bunker. It is not my first time in the sand today. I have been struggling, and now I need to get up and down to help out my teammates—one of whom decides that now is an opportune time to offer a nugget of unsolicited advice. “You have to open up the face,” he says. “You’ve got a really closed grip.”

I heed his advice warily, rotating the club to what feels like an extreme open position. After swinging, I watch with satisfaction as the ball breaks free from the sand, lands on the green, spins, rolls, and leaves me a 6-foot putt for par (which I subsequently miss).

Anyone who plays golf has at some point received uninvited—and likely unwanted—swing tips from playing partners. However, my mini-lesson at Mayakoba has come courtesy of PGA Tour player J.J. Henry. The occasion is the Wednesday pro-am tournament during the Mayakoba Golf Classic, a PGA Tour event at the exclusive Mayakoba resort complex on Mexico’s Riviera Maya coast.

The pro-am at Mayakoba is one of several such tournaments at PGA Tour events across the United States, Canada, and, in this case, Mexico. (The Mayakoba Golf Classic is the only PGA Tour event in Mexico.) For the cost of an entry fee, amateurs can tee it up with top pros in these casual yet challenging competitions, which are held at acclaimed courses under true PGA tournament conditions. For those who love golf, a pro-am may be the best playing experience money can buy—and one that has no equivalent in other major sports.

“You have five hours of quality access to a star Tour player and the experience of being inside the ropes, playing in front of a gallery, and experiencing tournament course conditions,” says Michael Patrick Shiels, a Michigan-based radio host and sportswriter who has played in several pro-ams. “It’s a fantasy for golfers.”

The Mayakoba Golf Classic is the sixth PGA Tour pro-am I have played in, with partners ranging from successful journeymen like Henry to Australians Stuart Appleby and 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. Each experience has been instructive—and humbling. The first axiom of pro-ams is that no matter whom you play your first tournament with—the top player in the world or the 200th best—he will be, by far, the best golfer you have ever been partnered with. For years “These Guys Are Good” was the promotional slogan for the PGA Tour. But they are not just good, they are great—playing at a level impossible for the most avid fan to appreciate on TV. Even watching pros in person does not do them justice. To understand what it takes to be a Tour pro, you have to play 18 holes with one.

Almost every regular PGA Tour event offers a pro-am tournament. (The four Majors do not have pro-ams.) In general, the highest-profile tournaments, such as the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Arizona, have the highest-profile pro-ams. The most famous of all is the celebrity-studded AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but this multiday event is open only to its chief sponsors and invited guests.

Most pro-am events draw amateurs from the local community, though a few, such as the Mayakoba Golf Classic, attract vacationers because of their resort settings. The Mayakoba tournament is held on one of Mexico’s best courses: the Greg Norman–designed El Camaleón. (Norman also hosts the tournament.) The Fairmont Mayakoba is the tournament’s official hotel, but the beach-and-jungle Mayakoba resort complex also includes Rosewood and Banyan Tree properties. It is not uncommon for the pros to bring their families to this tournament, and they can often be seen going to the beach between rounds. Perhaps as a result, the four-year-old tournament has been growing in popularity on the Tour and is now attracting a field that this year included Major champions John Daly, Todd Hamilton, and Mark Calcavecchia.

When I first met my pro at the Mayakoba tournament, he was quick to shake my hand. “You got the right guy today,” said Henry. “I’m all about having fun.”

He was right. Henry may not be a household name, but he is a terrific partner, offering advice, swing tips, humor, yardage, and putt reads from the first tee to the last. And when he hits his driver, the ball screams like a jet taking off. While we are playing, he does not hit anything that could be described as a bad shot the entire round, which is especially impressive considering he devotes much of his energy to conversing and making sure his amateurs are having fun.

“I’ve been on Tour for 10 years, and I just love the pro-am,” says Henry. “We get an extra practice round, and that’s important, but also, the people I meet are always interesting, a who’s who of the community.”

Then, as if on cue, I learn that my cart mate is Fernando Ysita, president of the Mexican Golf Federation, the nation’s governing body for the sport. Golf superstar Greg Norman once told me that he used his pro-ams to increase his business acumen, interrogating such playing partners as former GE CEO Jack Welch.

Occasionally, however, high-profile PGA pros have been known to pay little attention to their amateur partners during a pro-am round. While this is a rarity, there is often an inverse relationship between fame and friendliness. “Sometimes the biggest names are not great pro-am partners,” says Steve Wilmot, the longtime tournament director for the Verizon Heritage in North Carolina. “With the less-known players, sometimes the amateurs are like ‘Who is this guy?’ on the first tee. But by the fifth hole they’re making dinner plans, and by 18 they’re friends for life.”

The playing format at the Mayakoba Golf Classic is typical of a pro-am: The amateurs (four per group at Mayakoba) receive handicap strokes, and the single lowest score between them or their pro is what counts. (Since the pro rarely makes worse than par, amateurs generally have to score an adjusted birdie or eagle to make an impact.) But as Wilmot suggests, the round of golf is just one part of the pro-am experience.

The pro-am at Mayakoba began with a Tuesday-night pairings party, an opulent beachfront cocktail soiree where the pro-and-amateur fivesomes were announced. Typically pairings are selected through a lottery in which amateur teams are allowed to pick their partners in order of the team being drawn. Less commonly, tournament organizers match amateurs and pros in advance and simply announce the pairings.

Wednesday at Mayakoba is a frenetic procession of breakfast, golf, lunch, and cocktails. After our round, we collect our “tee prizes,” which in this case include a cigar-filled humidor, a bottle of wine, a garment bag, a TaylorMade wedge, and an assortment of balls, shirts, hats, and sunglasses. Gifts at other events range from golf shoes and drivers to laser range finders and even small appliances (at the Viking Classic in Mississippi). Participants at last year’s FBR/Xerox Pro-Am at the Waste Management Phoenix Open walked away with designer golf outfits, sunglasses, humidors, and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

Pro-ams generally conclude with an awards dinner, where the top finishers receive their trophies. Once the professional tournament begins (usually the day after the pro-am), the amateur participants often have VIP access that includes clubhouse entry, reserved seating, and tickets for friends and family.

Still, one of the best perks of playing in a pro-am is the opportunity to improve your game. The pros’ caddies frequently accompany you on your round and offer helpful advice and tips. And, as with Henry, the pros are often happy to chime in. At the Viking Classic, I hit my second shot on a long par four to within eight feet, presenting (considering my handicap) a putt for eagle. My pro, Stuart Appleby, ran up to the green to give me his read, pointing to the spot where I needed to die the ball. Unlike at Mayakoba, I hit a good putt, and Appleby’s read did the rest.

Several months after I played with Appleby, he entered the record books by becoming only the fourth player in PGA Tour history to shoot a round of 59—a feat that I took a certain amount of pride in. Indeed, one of the aftereffects of playing in a pro-am is that you tend to become a fan of your partner. The day after I played with Kevin Streelman at the Reno-Tahoe Open in Nevada, I watched enthusiastically as the heavy underdog tied for the low score and stood atop the leaderboard after the first round.

Most of the pros amateurs get paired with would not be considered underdogs, given that PGA Tour rules require the best players in that week’s field to participate in the pro-am. At Mayakoba 132 pros entered the tournament, but there were only 40 groups in the pro-am, which meant the top 40 entrants, by earnings, had to play. This arrangement is mutually beneficial: For the top pros, the pro-am is an important extra practice round.

Similar opportunities to play with top professional golfers can be found on the LPGA, Champions, and Nationwide tours, all of which offer pro-ams. “At the [Nationwide Tour] Buick Open last year, Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin gave me swing tips the entire round,” says radio host and sportswriter Shiels. “I also played in a Champions pro-am with Fred Couples. Where else are you going to get Fred Couples to give you a bunker lesson?”

Shiels adds that many regular participants in pro-ams think that the best overall experience is on the LPGA Tour. “There are fewer events, so top players always show up, and they are eager and energetic to support their cause.”

Regardless of the tour, playing in a pro-am is an unforgettable experience—an opportunity to interact with the stars of the sport on its biggest stages in a way not possible in baseball, football, or basketball. And with a little luck, you might even go home a winner: At the recent Reno-Tahoe Open, my team took third place in the pro-am even though we did not play especially well. I am a 14 handicap, and my trophy case is not exactly overflowing, but having Miss Nevada hand me an engraved plate from Tiffany & Co. almost made me feel like a pro.

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