Playing With a Pro is Like Playing in a Glass House


I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was really 15 years ago. I was playing in a pro-am with Fred Couples. Standing in the vicinity of the tee box, I was leisurely swinging my driver back and forth, loosening up a little. Okay, so it was about the fifth hole. But there I was, swinging the ol' driver faster and faster.
Then it happened. I felt a sickening thunk and I knew I had done it. Smacked Couples' caddy in the head. It was better him than Couples, I guess, but still, you don't know how ornery a man can get until you've popped him in the head with a driver. And he got ornery with perfectly good reason, I might add.
You see, a lot can happen when you put a professional caddy, a professional and a rank hacker together. David Duval was saying the same thing this week at the world's biggest pro-hacker tournament, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He didn't address my situation, fortunately, but he said he feels for the hacker who must stand up before huge galleries and let a golf ball fly with the winds.
'There's not much you can do, really,' he said of the moment when it comes time to let the poor schmoe flail away. The most embarrassing moment for me has always been on the tee, up close and personal to the galleries. But the most terrifying moment is when you are hitting into the throngs of people up beside the green. Well, you aren't supposed to be hitting into them, but that is the fear on all 18 greens. Personally, I wouldn't be within two fairways of anywhere I am hitting. But I look and all I see is a crush of people standing beside the green. And not one of them is wearing body armor.
To Duval, there is only one way to get past it. And that is to forget about it. Yeah, right.
'They need to just go and play,' said Duval - primarily because that's all there is for them to do. They've already paid, and they aren't going to just forget playing. Are there any other options?
'I think even the celebrities, they're in a bad spot to start with, and it's just not a comfortable atmosphere. You've just got to forget about it and do the best you can and move on and enjoy yourself and play.'
Translation: there is absolutely nothing you can do to lose the jitters. You're going to feel the little buggers trying to shake your heart out, it's the price you must pay for playing alongside your heroes, and since you can't do anything about the lads and lasses who position themselves in A-1 prime slice territory, you might as well go ahead and hit and pray.
Someone wondered which dilemma is worse - having to hit a sitting duck up by the green, or trying to impress a partner like David Duval. Hey, don't laugh - you don't want to be the butt of all the locker room stories which begin, 'You know, I played with somebody today who was SO BAD that.'
'I think as you're around the pros, that wears off, that novelty wears off real quick,' Duval said.
'I think, if anything, it really rears its head on the first hole or first tee. The ball rolls off the front or hits a fat hook or something. But after that, it seems to kind of settle down, kind of, 'this is what it is and it's not going to change,' so just kind of forget about it.'
Duval himself never had to worry about this. He was good, very good, by the time he got old enough to play in a pro-am. Oh, he had the various junior tournaments that he was involved in, but he doesn't know what it is to stand out in the fairway with a 6-iron in your hand and just wonder which unlucky patron you are going to bean this time.
'There was what I think was a pretty big gallery when I played the U.S. Junior Finals,' he said. 'And there were a couple of other junior events, and then in college there were a couple of events that had some decent galleries. The first full-fledged thing I did was the Open at Medinah, and I thought I carried myself pretty well there. And then a couple of years later I played the Atlanta event (the BellSouth.)'
No, he really hasn't had a problem with stage fright, he concluded. 'It's just a progression that you've got to get comfortable with,' he said.
Apparently so, yes. But you don't do it by just playing in front of crowds once a year or so. And you don't do it when they are sitting up there by the green. Pros are hitting to a specific area of the green. Amateurs, by and large, are just shooting in the general direction of the green. Unfortunately, human beings have decided to park their beefy carcasses in that general direction, too.
Sometimes I wonder about Fred Couples' caddy back then, Linn Stricker. Oh, he's all right. In fact, he was all right the very next day. But not me, no sir. I still see those people up around the green. And Duval's words become hauntingly familiar - 'It's just a progression that you've got to get familiar with.'