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Pro-am puts shoe on other foot

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ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Seth Wescott’s resume is the stuff of Gen X legend. The Maine native has a total of six Olympic medals in the snowboard cross, including three gold keepsakes, and four medals from the X Games.

But on Thursday along this idyllic stretch of Golden Isles coastline, the man who races down mountains at speeds in excess of 90 mph stepped to the 10th tee on the Seaside Course deep breathing like he was the star student in a Lamaze class.

A few minutes later as we nervously strolled down the fairway your correspondent asked the snowboard/surfer/9-handicap what is more menacing: a final run at insane speeds for Olympic gold or his first tee shot in a PGA Tour pro-am?

“The tee shot . . . without a doubt,” he said before reaching for another water bottle. It seems cotton mouth is an occupational hazard for pro-am participants.

It is a harsh introduction to the uninitiated. A small but ever-present gallery expecting something worth watching, a Tour type expecting nothing even close to quality golf and a mind racing so fast you strain to remember how to grip the club. Do I interlock or Vardon?

The Tour pro-am is entirely unique to golf. You can’t take batting practice with the Yankees, run a 2-minute drill with the Patriots or sprint down the floor with the Lakers. So when offered a spot in this week’s pro-am at the McGladrey Classic we jumped at the chance, all the while never grasping the reality that those we’ve written about for more than a decade now have the license to critique.

It started on the practice tee, as we nervously worked our way through a bucket of range balls. “Let’s see it,” Kevin Streelman smiled from a few paces away. Fortunately the slightly thinned 8-iron sailed in the generally intended direction. “I’ll give you one (stroke) a side,” Streelman laughed and thankfully moved away.

Our professional, the always affable Charles Howell III, was at least kind enough to hold his ridicule until the fourth hole. When informed I’d received an impromptu lesson from Lucas Glover a day earlier, however, Howell couldn’t resist.

“Did you write something bad about Lucas?” he asked. “He’s usually a nice guy.”

And so it went, for 18 holes. At the second hole Howell graciously congratulated your scribe on the speed of a particularly tricky lag putt, mercifully not pointing out that my aim was some 5 feet left of the hole.

As enjoyable as the pro-am experience is, the anxiety doesn’t fade with time or twisted ridicule. It was all enough to make one appreciate what Tour types must endure on a weekly basis. We weren’t playing for a check, but that $700 gift card to the Polo store and all the pastel sweater vests Gary Williams, our Golf Channel colleague and the third member of Team CHIII, can wear hung heavy.

A few points of interest:

• Tour players possess far more patience than they are given credit for, with Howell clearly resisting the urge to suggest we take up tennis or chess or anything that doesn’t require ability.

• The pro-am experience, begrudged by some professionals, is the most valuable tool in the Tour’s bag of tricks. There is no better sales pitch than sending a CEO out for 18 holes with a member of the rank and file on a Tour course.

• Pro-am rounds aren’t that long. At least not at Sea Island, where our group went off with the afternoon wave, hit more wayward shots than one would think possible and finished in just over four hours. We were a foursome, compared with some pro-ams that include four amateurs, but the next time a Tour fourball finishes in four hours will be the first.

We maintained that pace, it must be pointed out, without anything even close to winning form. Team CHIII finished at 7 under, a full 10 strokes out of the lead despite birdies at the final two holes by Williams.

On the ninth green (we started on No. 10), the pressure was finally lifted with a frenzied exchange of handshakes and apologies. But not without a final swipe from Howell.

“You work too much because you’re obviously not playing much golf,” he deadpanned as a backhanded compliment. At least that’s how we took it.