Inside the costly — but worth it — nature of pro-ams
Dale Anderson has many wonderful memories from playing in six consecutive pro-ams at the John Deere Classic, but one stands out: the time he, a 16 index, outdrove Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champ, on a par 5.
“I hit my best drive of the day,” recalls Anderson, COO of Miller Pipeline, based outside Philadelphia. “My ball ended up four feet in front of his. When I said, ‘Hey, you’re away,’ he laughed. Of course, Ogilvy teed off 150 yards farther back from me.”
Pro-ams on the men’s and women’s tours are opportunities for sponsors and their guests to play with the world’s best golfers. It’s often a round these amateurs will never forget — and it doesn’t come cheap. But these events raise millions for the tournament’s charity partners, or, in some cases, they help finance the tournament itself. “It’s the single largest revenue line for the majority of events,” says Nathan Grube, tournament director of The Travelers Championship.
Covid curtailed pro-ams in 2020, at a big cost to tournaments and their beneficiaries. But with pandemic restrictions easing in many markets, pro-ams are making a comeback. They’re going to look a bit different for a while, but that may turn out to be a better experience for amateur players and the pros.
Take the LPGA’s CME Group Tour Championship, in Naples, Fla. The Sunshine State allowed the event to go forward in December 2020, and its organizers were determined to keep players safe. Still, at $20,000 per foursome, it couldn’t cut too many corners. A virtual draw party — where you find out who you’re paired with — wasn’t ideal but a must. Social distancing for tee-box photos was understandable. And the customary swag giveaway was also handled virtually. But one change made out of precaution was such a plus that it’ll stick in November 2021, when the next CME is played. “We had amateurs ride in carts rather than walk,” says Lindsay Allen, tournament director of the CME as well as the Kia Classic. “It promoted social distancing but also turned out to be a better experience for them, since it speeds up the round.” (Having four and a half hours with your pro is fantastic. Six hours, maybe less so.)
What has stayed constant is the cost — an estimated $31,000 per foursome on the PGA Tour, and between $12,000 and $16,000 on the LPGA Tour. The granddaddy of these events is the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. It commands $25,000 per person, but you need to secure an invite for the right to pay that amount. This year, no one requested a refund despite the cancellation of the pro-am portion of the event. Why? No one wants to be dropped from a very exclusive list.
Most pro-ams charge by the foursome. The Travelers gets $19,000 per foursome for the Monday pro-am but $27,000 per threesome for the traditional Wednesday event, when all the pros are there. At the John Deere, among the top donors to local charities year after year, costs run $12,000 per foursome on Monday or Saturday and $20,000 for the Wednesday grouping. At the BMW Charity Pro-Am Presented by Synnex Corporation — the Korn Ferry Tour’s version of the AT&T — practice rounds at the South Carolina stop, plus two tournament rounds with a Korn Ferry pro, costs $6,500 per player.
Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin Malone on The Office, has partnered in the BMW event with Max Homa and Harry Higgs. “I played three rounds with Harry Higgs,” Baumgartner recalls, “and all I kept saying was ‘This guy is not on the Tour?!’ ” The next year, Higgs was.
Of all the pro-ams, the Champions Tour outings might offer the best player access. This September, the Ascension Charity Classic, a new event in St. Louis, will have four waves of pro-am play over two days. A foursome in any of them will cost $15,000. To kick off the tournament, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson will be honored at a Legends Lunch.
“The PGA Tour Champions gets that their business model revolves around access to the players,” says Nick Ragone, executive vice president of Ascension. “They want to create as much engagement as possible, and for the amateurs in the community that’s the big thrill.”
Ragone says the event may add another pro-am to meet demand. That will mean more donations to three north St. Louis charities that serve women and children in need.
For golfers in Detroit, the pandemic unexpectedly became a way to increase pro-am opportunities at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. The tournament, in only its third year, routinely sells out pro-am spots at $10,000 per player. But last year’s event, staged in July, had no fans and no pro-am. So organizers pivoted to a “fall classic” in September, where, for $3,000 per person, 144 amateur golfers entered to play a more traditional charity event. Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau (Rocket Mortgage’s 2020 winner) returned to Detroit to compete in a casual scramble with each group.
“Covid made us get innovative and creative,” says Jason Langwell, the tournament’s executive director. “We never would have been pushed to create a new event otherwise.”
Dale Anderson, who is returning for his seventh pro-am at the John Deere in July, says the invite never gets old. “It’s going to be a little different this time,” he says. “We’re just excited to get the opportunity to play in it. We don’t count on the invite, but we’re happy when we do get it.”
That, like the ad says, is priceless.