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PGA Tour Pro-Am Anecdotes: Space Shuttles, North Korea and Ghandi’s Yoga

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Playing in pro-ams has been part of my job as a public relations executive who specializes in representing people, places and things in golf, including resorts and destinations. Along with media guests, I’ve played in roughly one dozen of them between the PGA and Champions tours. They’re like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.

Here are some anecdotes from my experiences.

Long John Daly

We’ve selected John Daly as our pro-am partner and we’re excited to play with the “people’s champion.” But he’s nowhere to be found as our 7:11 a.m. tee time rapidly approaches. Just when we think we’ll have to double up with another pro-am group, Long John appears on the putting green. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, he one-hand putts a couple balls and then heads toward our tee. Because we have no time for introductions, it’s not until we leave the green that I greet him, asking him how he’s doing. And he said something that isn’t quite fit for print; something to the tune of “I’d be doing better if I had gotten a…” Well, you know. For all he knew, I could have been his next seven-figure sponsor; but I guess that doesn’t concern him, and it’s partly why he’s so popular – he’s unfiltered. He also couldn’t have been nicer, fist bumping us when we made a good shot or putt, encouraging us throughout. When he learned that I was a PR pro who reps golf people, places and things, he excitedly tells me that he’s consulting on a course design in Branson, Missouri. He whips out his cell phone and makes a call. “You need to hire this guy, Chris, he can get us publicity for the course,” he tells the project manager, who clearly isn’t digging connecting in this way. But that’s how Big John rolled that day. He didn’t look or act like so many other golfers do. How many other pros use a $50,000 casino chip as their ball marker?

Space Shuttles

Many of the pro-ams in which I played included amateur partners experiencing their first. Nerves are the norm, particularly as most amateurs are bogey golfers. Hence, when standing a few feet from one of the best players in the world on the first tee with fans nearby, the jitters are invariable. Oh, to be back at the muni with Vito and Sal playing a $5 Nassau. My heart beat so hard at my first pro-am tee shot address that I could feel it in my hands while gripping the driver. As I looked at my ball, I realized how Earth must look to Space Shuttle astronauts as they hurtle into space – it had suddenly gotten very small, very quick. I thought to myself “low and slow,” mentally encouraging myself to make a calm, controlled takeaway. But the little devil on my shoulder countered with “What are you doing here, Chucklehead? You’re out of your league!” With that reassuring thought blaring in my brain, I complete the swing. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed at contact. Somehow the ball finds the fairway, and I can breathe again. Not everyone’s so lucky. Many amateurs start by topping the ball on their first swing, and things deteriorate from there. After a few holes, you can see them dreading their turn to play. And note to all future pro-am first-timers: par is your buddy. That is, if you can’t make natural par, pick up your ball. No score over par is recorded, a smart decision surely made to spare the professionals from 6-hour rounds. Nonetheless, some amateurs invariably miss that time and ego-saving rule that is always and repeatedly stressed during pre-round instructions. It’s not unusual to see bewildered amateurs standing over their ball waiting to hit their fifth on a par-4 as the group walks ahead toward the green.

A Tiger Woods hat

It’s Halloween in Mississippi and we have two foursomes playing in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic Pro-Am. “Hush Y’all” signs abound along the perimeter of the course. One of the groups has drawn Kirk Triplett. Thinking they’d be cute, they buy four of Triplett’s signature “bucket” hats the night before to wear during their round. Expecting him arrive at the first tee wearing his bucket hat, instead he appears wearing a Nike-logoed baseball hat and a certain former No. 1 player’s Sunday red victory-closing colors. “Hi,” he says with a big toothy grin. “I’m Tiger Woods.”

Buggah

Robert Allenby shoots a 67 during our pro-am round. Three times his putts lip out, otherwise he shoots a blazing 64. With each near miss, he hisses “BUGGER!” (it sounds like “Buggah” with his Aussie accent). To this day, I spit “BUGGAH!” when I lip out. At the time, Allenby was wearing a brand of sunglasses with lenses the size and shape of alien eyes. I asked if I could try them on, and when I do, they make everything “pop,” appearing incredibly bright and clear. I don’t know what the technology was, but it blew me away. We represented a brand of sunglasses in our client portfolio at the time, so I offer Robert them to try. “These are [crap],” he says immediately and hands them back. Truth be told, after trying his, he was right.

A day of misery

Playing with Stuart Appleby was my least enjoyable pro-am round. In all fairness, it had rained non-stop leading up to tournament week, and the course was saturated and mucky. Lift, clean and place was the rule, and it was a long, unpleasant slog. The first sign that all was not well with Appleby came as we waited our turn to play on a backed-up par 3. Thinking a little small talk would help pass the time, I ask him if he and Greg Norman are close and if the Shark inspired him while coming up as a junior golfer in Australia. His response was harsh and concise, and he offered nothing further. An uneasy silence – at least to me – hung in the air. Not feeling comfortable continuing the conversation, I mumbled something benign like “I’ll be darned” or “You don’t say.” As the round proceeded, Appleby similarly didn’t hold back expressing his unhappiness with the conditions – which were as bad as they come – and it was all he could do to hang in there. And he didn’t. He tells me with two holes to go, “I’m going in. I’ve had enough. Tell the others I said thank you.” And he leaves. Not knowing what to do, and just about to tee off without a pro, the group behind us arrives. Fred Funk is their pro, and typical of his reputation, Funk warmly welcomes us. Eight-some it is. To make it interesting, we play a two-hole match against the other pro-am group, eking out a win and $10 per man. When given lemons…

North Korea

It’s 2008 and I don’t recall how we got started on foreign policy – I think it stemmed from me mentioning that I had served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division – but David Duval is engaged. “What’s next, North Korea? Iran?” he asks, pondering what country poses our next big threat. World affairs and U.S. foreign policy are important subjects that interest me, but having a discussion of this type during a pro-am round was surreal. I should have seen it coming. Our amateur foursome included then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, once the Republican Party’s National Chairman. When introducing himself to Gov. Barbour on the opening hole, Duval told the governor that he was one of the few Democrats on the PGA Tour. “Well, that’s all right, David,” Barbour said in his thick, Yazoo City-inflected drawl. “In the Republican Party, we believe in redemption.” And we’re off!

Ghandi

Playing with Duval reinforced two irrefutable golf truths. The first was that golf is a game of ironies. The easier you swing, the farther the ball goes. His approach shot to the 18th exemplified this fact. Laying 283 yards from the green after his tee shot, Duval selects a 3-wood for his approach, which had to carry a wide creek running in front of the par-5 finishing hole. Holding his finish after a swing smoother than Ghandi after yoga class, Duval coos softly “Stay in the air.” Stay in the air, indeed! After rocketing off the clubface, his ball is a sensor-guided missile streaking toward the flag. It lands over the creek and rolls about 40 feet past the hole. A lovely lag putt leaves him a kick-in birdie to cap his round of 67. I remember thinking that the former No. 1 player was on the comeback trail, ready to break out of the relative journeyman he had become at this point in his career. Instead, he shoots 72-72 in the first two rounds of the tourney that week and misses the cut. Which underscores the second golf truth: like Forest’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get when you tee it up.

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A University of Maryland graduate, Dan is a lifelong resident of the Mid-Atlantic, now residing in NoVa. Fan of all D.C. professional sports teams, Dan fell in love with golf through Lee Trevino's style and skill during his peak years. Dan was a newspaper journalist, editor of Golf Inc. magazine, then a PR professional specializing in golf people, places and things for 17 years, rising to Vice President in Billy Casper Golf's PR division. In 2018, Dan started his own company, Dan Shepherd Public Relations, LLC, catering to golf, travel, lifestyle, attractions of all types, and non-profits (www.operationsupportmilitarygolf.org).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Rob Thomas

    Mar 7, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    In can attest to the nerves AND topping one of the first tee! Good read that brought back good (and not-so-good) memories, Dan!

  2. Spell Check

    Mar 5, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    Nice read, but it’s spelled “Gandhi”: http://www.markshep.com/peace/Spell.html

  3. Andrew

    Mar 3, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    It’s amazing how those who love war the most have never been near one. Cowards.

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The 19th Hole (Ep 63): Valentino Dixon talks Golf Channel documentary; Marvin Bush remembers his father

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Valentino Dixon shares his amazing story in an exclusive interview with Michael Williams. Also in this episode: a tribute to George H.W. Bush, featuring a conversation with his youngest son, Marvin.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

featured image c/o Golf Channel

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Hidden Gem of the Day: Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport, Illinois

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here!

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was submitted by GolfWRX member lawsonman, who takes us to Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport, Illinois. The course sits west of Chicago, and in lawsonman’s description of the course, he cites the immaculate condition of the track as one of the reasons he feels it’s a hidden gem.

“Always in pristine condition. 36 hole layout that is as hard as you want to make it. Trees (big) and water are everywhere. Pace of play is usually very good. Located about 90 minutes west of Chicago’s western suburbs.”

According to Park Hills Golf Course’s website, 18 holes around the course costs just $23, no matter what day you wish to play. There is a $16 charge should you want to use a cart for 18 holes.

@rooftopweather

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Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Opinion & Analysis

Louisville Golf: Post time for persimmon

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“I knew I had to give it a shot. If I had tried and it didn’t work out, I would’ve been okay with that. But I had to go after my passion and see where it went.”

Jeremy Wright gets it. Taking over at Louisville Golf is not for everybody. This isn’t a multi-billion-dollar revenue generating machine with private research facilities and elaborate corporate complexes. It’s not about money…or fame…or 385-yard drives. Gerard Just, the youngest of the Just brothers who started Louisville Golf might have summed it up best:

“You know, I guess you could say we’re simple people. We don’t really go on vacations. But we work hard and we enjoy what we do. We don’t make a lot of money. I don’t think my kids could afford to work here to be honest, but they hate their jobs. We never really had that problem.”

Louisville Golf was established in 1974 by Elmore Just and Steve Taylor when they left Hillerich & Bradsby (crafters of Louisville Slugger baseball bats and Power-Bilt golf clubs). Elmore ran the business side of the company and Steve oversaw the manufacturing aspect. Back then, in the heyday of persimmon, the club manufacturers were on an allotment. Since persimmon (remarkably well-suited for golf clubs due to its strength and density) is a relatively slow-growing wood, there was only so much material to go around and upstart Louisville Golf had to fight for every block they got. Eventually, they built the business into a major player, making 800 clubs a day for the likes of Hogan, MacGregor, Wilson, Spalding, and others.

Master models for Louisville Golf persimmon club heads

Some of Louisville Golf’s more well-known woods that won on the PGA Tour were the Wilson Whale that Payne Stewart used to win the 1989 PGA Championship and the Hogan Apex that Tom Kite used to win the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach. Then metal woods came into the picture and sales dwindled. When Callaway launched the Big Bertha, sales basically dried up overnight.

Though metal woods took off like a rocket in the 1990’s, there were some holdouts. Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, and Mark Calcavecchia held onto their persimmon woods into the late 90s. The last man standing was widely considered to be Bob Estes, who used his Louisville Golf Smart ProBE (a club Just developed specifically for Estes) in the Accenture Match Play in 2001.

When Elmore Just passed away in April of 2001, his brother Mike assumed control of the company. Elmore is actually buried at Persimmon Ridge Golf Club in Louisville, an Arthur Hills course he developed in the 1980’s. When Mike took the reins, though the company had successfully limped along through the metal wood revolution, the hard reality was that they needed to reinvent themselves if they were going to remain profitable. Mike left his mark on the company in 2004 by deciding to leverage Louisville Golf’s unique expertise into crafting period-correct hickory shafted golf clubs and restoring vintage specimens. That decision marked a resurgence of sorts, as the niche has served Louisville Golf well. Today, Louisville Golf and St. Andrews Golf Co. are the only large scale manufacturers of such equipment.

Louisville Golf club heads ready for final assembly

It’s a peculiar set of circumstances to be sure, but oddly enough, many golfers in the 21st century have found Louisville Golf through 100-year-old golf clubs. This is exactly how Jeremy Wright came into the picture. Jeremy was a medical sales representative in Houston, TX with a wife, three kids, and a serious golfing hobby. He had recently gone on a search for an exotic shaft upgrade for his Scotty Cameron putter. On a whim, he googled wooden shafts, stumbled across hickory golf clubs, and the rest was history.

“One of the things I learned in that search was that, when the golf industry transitioned from hickory shafts to steel, a lot of players either kept their old hickory putters or would fit their new putters with hickory shafts for decades after that transition because the feel was so much better.

“So I kept digging into hickory golf and tried to learn what it was all about. I discovered there were hickory tournaments and the winners shot like 75-78 and I thought, ‘I can do that. I’m going to get a hickory set together and figure this out.’ From that point on, I was hooked. There was no going back.”

So hooked, in fact, that when Jeremy heard the Just family was fielding offers for the company as a result of Mike’s passing in October of 2016, he put his name in the hat. It just so happened that Jeremy and his wife were both at a point in their careers where they were looking for more. Burned out and tired of the cyclical corporate rat race, they decided to go all-in on Jeremy’s passion, submitted an offer to the Just family, and ultimately were selected from multiple potential suitors to carry on the legacy of the company.

Sole plates for Louisville Golf persimmon fairway woods

As for where Louisville Golf goes from here, you can probably expect a lot more of what got them here in the first place. After all, one of the biggest reasons Jeremy was selected to take the reins at Louisville Golf was his commitment to preserving its heritage.  Louisville Golf may not be rubbing elbows with the major OEM’s anymore, but these days, they’re not trying to either. Just like the rest of us golfers, they’re getting by with grit, optimism, and respect for the game. They’ve also seen the fortunate bounces and bad lies that come with a life dedicated to golf, but as the old adage says, the most important shot is always the next one. Time marches on. And so does Louisville Golf. They remain committed to what has brought them this far and see that as a springboard into the future.

“We’ve got some products in the works that I think are really innovative and will show what persimmon is really capable of. I think if you’re a better player who can find the sweet spot on a consistent basis, you really should think seriously about persimmon. Especially if you’re looking to get a specific yardage out of your clubs like with a fairway wood or hybrid. There was a video circulating a few years ago with Rickie Fowler using a steel shafted persimmon fairway wood and he was getting a 1.49 smash factor. You can’t get much better than that. The way the bulge and roll is shaped on a persimmon wood and also the location of the CG allows for a bigger gear effect than modern titanium woods. Persimmons do impart more spin on the ball (especially on a mishit), so we acknowledge the ball may not go as far, but that spin also brings the ball back to the target, too. That’s one of the biggest advantages of persimmon. You’ll be shorter but in the fairway as opposed to long and in the trees.

“The people that find us are looking for a deeper connection to the tradition and the spirit of the game. They’re tired of paying for marketing fluff and silly catch phrases. We make viable alternatives for the modern golfer, we make classic reproductions of the steel shaft/persimmon head era of golf, and we make spot-on hickory shafted clubs as well, so we think we have a place in just about everyone’s bag depending on how you prefer to experience the game. Nothing compares to the joy of a purely struck golf shot with a wooden golf club. You just feel like you’re playing golf the way it was meant to be played.”

A visit to Louisville Golf reveals a group of people who have dedicated their lives to exactly that: playing the game the way it was meant to be played. Hard work, attention to detail, a commitment to quality, and having a lot of fun along the way are the hallmarks of their operation. One strike directly on that persimmon sweet spot will send all of those vibes straight into your bones. Playing golf with persimmon woods in the 21st century may be taking the road less traveled, but it could make all the difference.

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