News & Opinion

Tour’s new pro-am: 9 and 9, minus the whine

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Phil Mickelson walked through the practice-putting green at TPC Scottsdale on his way from the ninth green to the 10th tee on Wednesday of the Waste Management Phoenix Open and shook hands with Brandt Snedeker, who would replace Mickelson for the second nine. It was the equivalent of a tag-team move in a WWE wrestling match.

This season, the PGA Tour instituted a new policy in which a tournament hosting a pro-am with four amateurs may request to use an alternate format whereby one professional plays the first nine holes and a second professional plays the second nine. (It has gained the nickname of the nine-and-nine format.)

As Mickelson continued to the 10th tee, Snedeker asked in jest, “You want to keep going?”

Pros will have the option to request 18 holes, and some did: Xander Schauffele, Charley Hoffman and two-time defending champion Hideki Matsuyama. But Mickelson passed the baton to Snedeker at the 10th tee after signing flags, taking photos and making introductions of the three amateurs. (Tour commissioner Jay Monahan also played in the group.) The WMPO is the first PGA Tour event to make use of the new pro-am format, which was tested last year at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. 

“I think it’s a win for the amateurs because they get a two-pro experience," Mickelson said, "and it’s a win for the professionals because they have more time to get ready and prepare for the event.”

It is a format already in practice on the LPGA, and it has been used at unofficial Tour events such as the PNC Father-Son Challenge. Peter Jacobsen, who should teach a class on how a pro should treat a Wednesday pro-am, said this concept has been in discussion for more than 25 years. Jacobsen, Jay Haas and Jeff Sluman long championed the concept while on the PGA Tour advisory council and policy board during the reign of commissioners Deane Beman and Tim Finchem. Jacobsen said the format never got traction because tournament directors didn't embrace it. Seven Tour events have committed to a “nine and nine” in 2018.

Before TV money exploded, the Wednesday pro-am (and the pro-am draft party the night before) was the lifeblood of the Tour. Entry fees range from $4,000 to $12,000 per amateur. But in recent years, the pro-ams have turned into six-hour slogfests that often finish in the dark. Monahan, the first-year commissioner and a former tournament director, said the Tour had been seeking an alternative to improve the overall experience.

"Wednesday is something that our sport has that no other sport has, and we want to continue to do everything we can to make it the best experience we can, so I think this is just one step," Monahan said.

The new pro-am format is the latest example that Monahan is listening to his players and willing to experiment with the Tour's winning formula. This ranks in the category of low-hanging fruit, and Monahan is checking the easy stuff off one by one. But there is a sense in this change that the modern-day Tour pro isn't capable of being fully engaged for more than nine holes.

"You're telling me you can't play 18 holes and pay attention to these four guys for four, five, six hours, whatever it is?" Jacobsen said. "Our greatest salesmen are not living in Ponte Vedra [Beach, Fla.] at Tour headquarters; they are playing inside the ropes. I don't care how many fancy food carts they put on the tee and how many gift bags you give amateurs. The greatest asset of the PGA Tour is its players."

This feels in some way like another concession to players who'd rather have more time to polish their game or hit the gym than press flesh with corporate types. The reality is that too many players don't appreciate the importance of Wednesday in an era of bloated seven-figure purses. It is one of golf's poorly-kept secrets that for every Jacobsen and Graeme McDowell who treat their pro-am partners like old friends and regale them with stories, tips and a beer at the end of the day (and send a thank-you note for good measure), there are too many Tour pros who hit an extra bunker shot while their amateurs putt out and talk only to their caddie. On his web site Geoffshackelford.com, golf writer Geoff Shackelford recently posted a famous quote from 1973 British Open champion Tom Weiskopf, who summed up the general feeling about competing on Wednesdays alongside a bunch of hackers.

“Tour pros would rather go through an IRS audit than play in a pro-am," Weiskopf said. "Publicly they say they love meeting interesting people and how great the pro-ams are. In truth, they loathe them. They're out there for six hours, see countless bad shots and hear the same stale jokes." 

Jacobsen has heard this sort of grumbling for years, but he contends that Wednesday is the most important day of his work week. He argued that nine engaged holes is better than 18 disengaged.

It's also possible that some of the relationships that form over the course of an afternoon spent inside the ropes could be lost. Davis Love III, for instance, counts an amateur partner whom he met at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am among his best friends. Countless players have parlayed five hours of hit-and-giggle golf into a lucrative personal endorsement contract or logo deal. 

Before Mickelson left his group in the capable hands of the affable Snedeker, Mickelson praised one of his amateur partners, Bruce Ward: "Great driving," Mickelson said. "That was awesome." 

And that's what Wednesdays should be all about: There’s no telling how many times Ward will dine out with friends and talk about the time when he played with Mickelson and how the pro complimented him on his tee shots. 

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak