Commentary

Pro-ams play crucial role for tour events

Originally Published: March 18, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- For most of these guys, there is no impressing them -- either way. They've seen enough good, and far too much bad, to ever be moved to the state of amazement by an impressive amateur or, more likely, an inept one.

It is part of the deal for PGA Tour pros to partake in the Wednesday pro-am, and they have come to accept that we mortals should not be expected to strike a golf ball in the same way as those who play for a living.

[+] EnlargeKenny Perry
David Cannon/Getty ImagesHow important is the pro-am? "It's more critical now than in all my 23 years on the PGA Tour," veteran Kenny Perry said Wednesday.

That didn't really make it any easier standing on the first tee with Kenny Perry on Wednesday morning at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, where I played in the Transitions Championship Pro-Am, a career first. If there is one thing I know, it is my place -- and it is not between the ropes with professional golfers, with spectators lurking.

Good thing there are numerous fledgling golfers who do not have the same aversion. They pay thousands of dollars for this privilege at tournaments around the country. And the exercise is imperative for the health and wellness of PGA Tour events.

"When I was younger, I didn't think about it that much," said Perry, 48, who won his 13th PGA Tour title earlier this year at the FBR Open. "But right now, it's very important for us to take care of all of our amateurs and all of our sponsors and all the people who help support us. It's more critical now than in all my 23 years on the PGA Tour.

"When I was younger, I just enjoyed meeting CEOs and making connections. Pro-ams are fun to me. They're real easy. Most of the time, the guys are pretty laid-back. They're all pretty nervous at the beginning. But just give them a good day. They put up a lot of money to play. It's their day. It's not the pro's day. It's the responsibility of the pro to make sure they have a good day. That's the way I've always approached it and always looked at it that way."

Perry is one of the guys who gets it, and most of them do. Of course, there are instances when pros are having a bad day and perhaps take it out on their amateur partners in various ways, making things uncomfortable.

There is an old story, urban legend perhaps, about a particularly grumpy pro whose reputation was such that he rarely said a word to his amateurs during a pro-am. A woman who drew this pro sought to break the ice by telling him, "My friends made a bet with me saying I wouldn't be able to get you to say five words during our round." The reply: "Sorry, lady, you lose."

True or not, you get the idea.

But that type of attitude is not going to cut it in today's environment. Pro-ams are the backbone of any tour event, with the money paid by amateurs to play for one day essentially providing the working capital for the event.

"It's unique to our sport that you can compete out there on the same playing field that he is going to play the tournament on," said Gerald Goodman, tournament director for the Transitions Championship. "That alone makes it special in our sport. You can't play on that football field with those guys. You can't do it in basketball or baseball. That's what makes this so unique.

"For years, we called our pro-am players 'partners.' If you tried to put your mind to it that I'm paying x number of dollars for a round of golf, you would say it doesn't do it. But they are helping us with the infrastructure of this tournament. We have to pay for bleachers, porta-potties, roping, staffing, course rental, food, lockers … all sorts of things. So the pro-am is very important to us financially. It is a big part of our budget."

With 52 groups and three amateurs in each, there was room for 156 amateurs -- at more than $5,500 per person.

But not every group had three amateurs Wednesday, and a couple dozen spots go to Transitions as part of its title sponsorship agreement with the tournament. A good guess puts revenue from that pro-am at between $500,000 and $600,000. The tournament, which operates as a nonprofit organization and donates its proceeds to charity, also gets revenue from sponsorships and ticket sales. And this economy has made the task of finding buyers all the more difficult.

"The effect of the economy is pushing down marketing expenditures by companies across the board and individuals," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who visited the tournament Wednesday. "And so as a consequence, if you're running a tournament, you're selling stuff, including pro-ams. It's harder work, no question."

For all that work, however, the tournament would not exist at all without a title sponsor. Transitions Optical, which is headquartered just down the road in Pinellas Park, Fla., stepped in this past June when the tournament -- which has had four title sponsors in 10 years -- lost PODS as its lead sponsor.

A title sponsorship for a regular PGA Tour event runs about $7 million a year, including part of the $5.4 million purse, television advertising commitments and fees to the PGA Tour. The tournament would, in all likelihood, have left Innisbrook were it not for Transitions.

And given the current economic climate, the tournament was fortunate to find something willing to promote itself; in this case, a company that is pushing healthy sight and lenses that "transition" in the sun.

"We feel that we are doing a very responsible investment for our company," said David Cole, managing director for Transitions. "While we don't have the spotlight on us like some of the automobile and financial companies do with government intervention, at the end of the day, it's about making a responsible investment to elevate the awareness and importance of vision. The need to take care of your sight.

"That's a very, very important message that will be the major component of this event for the entire week. In some manner, you have to invest to do that."

As at most tournaments, Transitions held a Tuesday night pairings party in which the pro-am participants got to pick their pros. Rocco Mediate served as the master of ceremonies. Modeled after the game show "Deal or No Deal," groups chose a briefcase and in it was a number that determined their picking order.

My pairing was rigged because, as title sponsor, Transitions gets to make three picks before anyone else. It was no surprise that they wanted me with a good guy like Perry. Cole was in our group, as well.

After Transitions executives chose Perry, Masters champion Trevor Immelman and defending champion Sean O'Hair, the other picks followed, and among the first ones were Jim Furyk and Adam Scott.

The weather was perfect, and you could not have asked for a nicer round of golf. In addition to Perry, who hits it a mile, and Cole, who runs a multimillion-dollar company, we were paired with Ronald Thompson of western Pennsylvania. He is 79 years old and walked the entire 7,300-yard course, a feat unto itself. We finished a respectable 8 under in the best-ball event (12 under won), although I judge success more by the number of balls lost.

During the round, Perry discussed various topics, such as his TaylorMade clubs (he was experimenting with a set of Tour Preferred irons, then switched back to his r7 irons at the turn because "I've won four times with them, the Ryder Cup, had a lot of success," he said); Kentucky men's basketball coach Billy Gillispie (it seemed as if Perry might be in favor of his firing); his golf course in Franklin, Ky. ("It's the only one I'll ever do," he said); the change next year to v-grooves from square grooves ("it'll be interesting to see what that does to scores") and the Masters (Perry will arrive the Thursday before to practice in peace).

And he shot the most effortless-looking par 71 you'll ever see -- which was nowhere near the case for the rest of us.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com