The first time I played in a pro-am I battled nerves, rain… and Royal Portrush

Aerial view of Royal Portrush

A view of Royal Portrush.

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Ed. note: In golf, you always remember your first time: the first time you broke 100, the first time you played Pebble, your first visit to the range with your kid. For a new GOLF.com series — we’re informally calling it First-Time Fridays — we’ve asked our staff to recall some of their fondest golfy firsts. Michael Bamberger kicked things off with the first time he interviewed Arnold Palmer. Now, here’s Josh Sens on the first time he played with the big boys in a pro-am…

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The greatest thing about golf, many golfers say, is that on any given day, with any given swing, an ordinary duffer can strike a shot as sweet as any Tour pro’s.

No doubt, that’s cool. What’s even cooler, though, is that on rare occasions, when the stars align, that same Joe Schmoe can tee it up for 18 with the best in the game.

I’m thinking of the first time I took part in a pro-am. At the 2004 Senior British Open Championship. At Royal Portrush.

Picturing it now, the image of my playing that course in that event comes back to me as something of an absurdist stunt, the golf equivalent of a Garage Band hack sitting in with the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.

Really, I had no business there.

The author, Josh Sens, at a different pro-am, this one at Kapalua.

Though I was in my 30s and had dabbled in the game for nearly half my life, I was a golfer with a very small ‘g,’ a self-taught muni scrounge with a cheeky attitude toward golf’s tweedy customs and almost no exposure to its big-boy venues. My only brush with a championship course had come one day in high school when I’d trespassed onto The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., hit a single iron shot, then fled. That I’d made a life in golf was entirely unplanned.

In the late-1990s, while working the city beat at a large newspaper in Northern California, I’d become acquainted with a golf-addicted Tibetan lama. An emissary of the Big Hitter himself, he lived in a posh spread in the hills near Berkeley, led meditation sessions on weekday evenings and played skins games with the men’s club on Sunday mornings: a spiritual figure plucked from Caddyshack.

When the story I scribbled about him got picked up by a glossy golf publication, my career took a turn. Almost overnight, I became a golf writer, or at least enough of one to be granted opportunities I’d never dreamed of, including an invite to peg it with the real men in Northern Ireland, on one of the world’s most storied links.

In the years since, I’ve played in enough pro-ams to have learned the only two rules that really matter in them: keep up the pace, and approach your pro as you might a squirrel or someone else’s teenager: without any sudden movements or intrusive inquiries.

That day at Portrush, though, I was simply trying to breathe.

For starters, there was the daunting specter of the course itself, a double-black diamond of a brute that bore no resemblance to the bunny slopes I’d learned on. Its bunkers were a fright. Its fairways had been firmed to the texture of a tarmac. And the rough was tall enough to lose a toddler in it.

Shane Lowry, 2019 Open champion.

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Nor was the weather in a kindly mood. To say a heavy rain was falling isn’t quite right. It was knifing off the water in near-horizontal sheets. The wind was whipping such that as I hunched toward the first tee, a large white tarp flew past me, the top torn off a hospitality tent.

Like any round of golf on a crowded course, a pro-am is a showcase of the human carnival, a pageant of idiosyncratic swings. One of my amateur partners was the head distiller at Old Bushmills Distillery, a cheerful man who swore profusely and played cack-handed, as they call it, with his left hand low on every club. His putting was atrocious but boy, could he smoke it. On the rare occasions when he missed a shot, he’d drop an f-bomb that, in his pronunciation, rhymed with “took.”

This being a senior event, the pros weren’t all conventional either. Playing in the group ahead of us was Eamonn Darcy, the Northern Irish stalwart and four-time Ryder Cupper. If Jim Furyk’s swing calls to mind an octopus falling from a tree, Darcy’s was like a swarm of jellyfish caught in a tornado: a whirlwind of flailing limbs. Every ball I saw him hit went laser straight.

The pro in our group was Don Pooley: tall, lean, long-hitting, laconic. I remember that he struggled with his ball-striking that day, to the point where I thought: this guy stands no chance.

That he went on to lead the tournament into the weekend, and finished just a few shots out of the winner’s circle, points to another lesson pro-ams teach you: the best players in the world can turn it On and Off like that.

Other things I remember:

I remember my opening shot, a nervous, glancing blow of a tee ball that ballooned high right into the rough. I hacked out and limped to a double bogey — not a proud showing, and yet two shots better than the snowman Rory McIlroy recorded on the same hole at last year’s British Open.

As I recall, double bogey was the maximum we were allowed to take. After that, it was in your pocket. And I was in my pocket on more than half the holes.

Still, the pace was sluggish. There were backups everywhere. In the group behind us was Tom Watson. In my most vivid memory of him from the round, he is waiting, arms crossed, on the tee box of a par 5, glowering at me as I take a practice swing. Though, of course that can’t be true. He just had resting-scowl-face, as he would have had a right to on a day like that.

The 18th hole at Whistling Straits in 2018.

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Anyway, it’s a silly notion. The idea that a golfer of Watson’s stature would be paying me any heed at all. Therein lies yet another pro-am lesson, a lesson that applies at all levels of the game: as long as you keep moving, no one cares how you perform. Aside from dying, playing golf badly is the loneliest thing you can do in the company of others.

On that day, at least, I was not alone in stinking up the course. The round wore on, the rain and wind relentless. On the 14th hole, a bear of a par-3 known as Calamity, Pooley led us off with a shocker of a shot: a hosel-rocket that screamed low and right and vanished in a gulley overrun with gorse.

It was my turn next.

Four-iron in hand, I focused, waggled, drew the club back, and uncorked a daisy-cutter on exactly the same line — a faithful replica of Pooley’s shank. There was silence on the tee box, and then laughter.

“Congratulations, Josh,” my cack-handed Northern Irish playing partner crowed. “You’re hitting ‘em just like the pros!”

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Golf.com

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.