Outback has amateurs playing with pros with the tournament on the line, a novelty that may be around for a while.
By BOB HARIG
Published February 20, 2004
LUTZ - Everybody who is anybody in professional golf has a pro-am story, a tale so seemingly preposterous that it cannot be beat.
It is part of a pro's life, playing the game with those who otherwise would have no business being in the same group, save for the big-bucks opportunity that is afforded amateurs at tournament stops across the country.
But this week at the TPC of Tampa Bay is different. Way different.
We're not talking about a friendly pretournament outing. We're talking about amateurs playing alongside pros while the tournament is being played. We're talking about shanks and skulls and worm-burners occurring amid perfect precision, the sweet sounds of a pro's club meeting the ball.
We're talking about the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am that begins today.
"We've all seen just about everything," Champions Tour pro Dave Barr said. "We all have our horror stories, and think we've got the best one, until somebody else tops it."
When Outback took over in the fall as title sponsor of the event that is now in its 17th year, the company decided to give the tournament a different look. Gone was the traditional 54-hole stroke-play format. Added was amateurs playing with pros for the first two rounds, with a separate team competition added.
In addition to the stroke-play event for the pros there will be a team best-ball event with the amateurs using their handicap. The top 12 teams after 36 holes advance to Sunday.
This is nothing new to most of the players here, many of whom competed in the various pro-am-as-part-of-the-tournament events on the PGA Tour. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Bob Hope Classic, Las Vegas Invitational and Funai Classic at Disney World all have amateurs competing alongside pros during tournament rounds.
This year, there are three such events on the Champions Tour, including the Outback. How a player deals with it likely will determine his success.
"If we have to put up with amateurs, I think they have been well-versed to stay out of our way," said defending champion Bruce Fleisher, whose amateur partner is Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "I just think this is a tournament where you have to have a mind-set ... you have to put your pants on, go out there, be a professional and enjoy the ride. If this thing happens to work, other tournaments may follow suit. I think it's something players better get used to and deal with in a positive way."
If that doesn't sound like the most enthusiastic endorsement, it is because some players go about their work differently. Fuzzy Zoeller probably could play with anyone, such is his personality. Fleisher and some other players perhaps are wound a bit tighter.
"Some guys might handle it better," Fleisher said. "There might be a couple of (amateur) players who can't break 100. It's a distraction. As time goes on, hopefully we'll be able to get better players who understand the game. It might take time."
The tournament has gone to great lengths to assure that the amateurs, including a handful of celebrities, understand the nuances of playing alongside pros who are playing for $1.6-million in prize money, with $240,000 going to the winner.
Champions Tour player Gary Koch, the unofficial "host" of the tournament, presided over a mandatory meeting for the amateurs Thursday night to go over rules and etiquette.
"You have the choice to let it drive you crazy," Champions Tour player Dana Quigley said. "It's the choice you have, to let it bother you or not. Guys who let it bother them ... they'll have a hard time."
Quigley told of the time he played a pretournament pro-am round with a player who had won his spot in a radio promotion. Turns out, the amateur had never played a round of golf in his life. After nine holes, he thought the day was finished. "The guy must have shot 400," Quigley said. "He missed it more than he hit it. And he had a ball."
Something that drastic is unlikely to happen here. No amateur in the field has a handicap higher than 18. Still, on this stage, on a difficult course
"You just hope you have an amateur who feels comfortable playing," Barr said. "A lot of times they are so afraid of making mistakes. And that's when problems occur."
If Barr had one piece of advice, it would be: "You're not going to impress us either way. We've seen it all. Don't try to hit it far, that doesn't impress us. The only thing that can impress us is your score."