tampabay.com

Amateurs tee off with the pros -- and it counts

Top seniors are signed up to play at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

By BOB HARIG
Published January 27, 2005


After 16 years of nearly unprecedented success, Tampa Bay's Champions Tour event faced the possibility of extinction when its longtime title sponsor bowed out. After several months of uneasiness, Outback Steakhouse stepped up to save the annual event at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

The Feb. 25-27 event, the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, will be played for the second year under Outback's direction. Among those expected to participate are Craig Stadler, Tom Watson, Jerry Pate, Larry Nelson, Curtis Strange and defending champion Mark McNulty.

When Outback came in, the format changed. While the pros compete for the $240,000 first prize, amateurs are right there with them, spraying balls into the crowd and trying to keep calm.

For the first two rounds all 76 pros compete with an amateur partner, who plays off a handicap. They play a best-ball format for two rounds for the team score, with the top 12 pro-am teams advancing to the final round. All pros play each of the three days.

"I just felt like the opportunity to have a Pebble Beach event in the Southeast would be received positively," Outback CEO Chris Sullivan said last year. Sullivan, who lives in Tampa, is an avid golfer who has played in the PGA Tour's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am several times.

"I think it's one of the great golf experiences in the world to be able to get inside the ropes with these guys when their scores really count. It's just a unique experience. I've thoroughly enjoyed that. But change takes time. We appreciate the people at the tour who took the time to work with us on it. We're very excited. It's our responsibility now to make sure we execute a first-class event."

Tampa Bay's senior event debuted in 1988 at Tampa Palms with a $300,000 purse, and Dale Douglass won to earn $45,000. After four years at Tampa Palms, the tournament moved to the TPC of Tampa Bay, where massive crowds traditionally greeted players on the stadium-course layout. Among the frequent participants was Jack Nicklaus, who won in 1996.

Among the winners over the years were Bob Charles, Jim Colbert, Dave Stockton, Larry Nelson and Bruce Fleisher.

Now the tournament offers a $1.6-million purse, with $240,000 going to the winner.

OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE PRO-AM

WHO: 76 Champions Tour players with 76 amateurs for the first two rounds.

WHEN: Feb. 25-27.

WHERE: TPC of Tampa Bay, Lutz.

COURSE: 6,783 yards, par-71.

PURSE: $1.6-million, $240,000 to the winner.

DEFENDING CHAMPION: Mark McNulty.

LAST YEAR: McNulty, playing in his first Champions Tour event, shot a final-round 69 to win by one stroke over former tournament champion Larry Nelson. McNulty had a three-shot lead on the final tee but bogeyed, and Nelson birdied. Fuzzy Zoeller, who started the day seven strokes back, made 11 birdies, including seven in a row, and flirted with a tour-record 59 before a bogey on the final hole meant 61. He tied for third with Tom Purtzer.

TICKETS: $25 daily, $65 for a weekly badge. The Michelob Ultra Watering Hole is a hospitality venue near the 10th and 17th greens that includes various amenities. A pass is $75 per day or $125 for a weekly badge. Other packages that include parking are available.

PARKING: $5. Parking is off of Lutz-Lake Fern Road and signs will direct spectators to the lots from Dale Mabry, the Veterans Expressway and Gunn Hwy.

TV: 1:30-4 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Golf Channel.

INFORMATION: Call 813-265-4653 or visit www.outbackproam.com

FORMAT: This is the second year of Outback's sponsorship. The tournament is in its 18th year, the second with a format that involves amateur participants. On Friday and Saturday (Feb. 25-26), one amateur will be paired with one professional in a team format (76 twosomes). Amateurs use their handicap in the best-ball competition. The pros play their own ball, and it can count for the team score as well as the individual competition. Although there is no cut for the pros, only the top 12 teams advance to Sunday.