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 At the 19th

Pro-am peak came too early to fulfil potential
One of the facets of golf that means it stands out from other sports is the chance it can offer to play with the professionals

Although a keen football fan, the last thing I want is a call from Juande Ramos inviting me to play in midfield for Spurs. Even if it were a comparatively unimportant fixture – an early round in the Uefa Cup, for example – and I was allowed to choosemy favoured right side, the idea of slotting in alongside Jenas, Huddlestone, Malbranque and the rest of the boys has absolutely no appeal whatsoever.

Similarly, I’ve no desire to pull on an England jersey and scrum down at Twickenham, slip on a pair of gloves and go 12 rounds with even the lightest of light-heavyweights in Vegas, leap aboard a frisky two-year-old at Ascot, face up to Shoaib Akhtar on a lively pitch at Headingly, take on Roger Federer whatever the surface or find myself alongside Lewis Hamilton on the grid at Monte Carlo. And it’s not just the fact that I’m 30 years past my athletic prime that discourages me from even contemplating such thrilling sporting opportunities. The truth is, of course, that professional football, rugby, boxing, horse racing, cricket, tennis and Formula 1 motor racing, in common with most other sports, do not readily accommodate the middle-aged amateur enthusiast. We can spectate but not participate.

Golf, as we all know, is gloriously different. It is the great leveller that allows both sexes, all ages and those of widely differing abilities to play alongside one another and have fun. The very best and the very worst can, in theory at any rate, stand side by side on the fairway, or more frequently in the rough, enjoy one another’s company and have a great time, thanks to the combined brilliance of the game itself and that of the handicap system.

Golf’s egalitarian credentials are most dramatically illustrated in the institution of the pro-am. Here the game’s most accomplished exponents tee it up alongside the humblest of hackers in a joyous celebration of the sport. For the latter it’s a chance to watch the game being played properly while for the former it’s an exercise in concentration to see how well they can cope with the unwanted distraction of an incompetent playing partner.

I remember my first pro-am with a mix of horror and pride. A raw beginner with a half-set of Petron Impalas who thrashed around the public course at Richmond Park once a month, I was thrust into a high-calibre event by my wellmeaning father. Naturally a modest bunch, we Agrans don’t ordinarily like to talk about the phenomenal amount we do for charity but I am obliged, for the purposes of this story, to reveal that my old man agreed to jointly sponsor a big charity pro-am on condition that his two sons could play. Unlike me, my brother was an accomplished player whereas I didn’t even have a handicap. After the most cursory of assessments, they lumbered me with 14, which was precisely half what I deserved, and plunged me into an event that was stuffed with the top tour pros of the day, including Ken Brown, Hugh Baiocchi, Maurice Bembridge and Bill Longmuir. My team’s pro was Pip Elson who, I seem to recall, had finished runner-up in the Madrid Open, was a terrific golfer and a thoroughly decent bloke.

Ordinarily, recounting the round coincidentally takes precisely the time it took to complete – four and a half hours. However, space constraints oblige me to omit fascinating detail and the extraordinary agony of being hopelessly out of my depth and instead simply reveal that, with two out of the four best scores to count, I came in courageously on one hole with a four nett three and our team, with a score of 21 under par, won the event. Never having previously played in a medal, stableford or competition of any sort, I sometimes wonder if my golfing career didn’t peak a little early and whether I should have quit then with an unblemished record. Anyway, I’ve since embarrassed myself in front of numerous top pros, including Carl Mason, Sam Torrance, Lee Westwood and Johnny Miller, without every having repeated that early triumph, which is clearly their fault.

Whereas watching pros hitting great shots is thrilling, paying good money to play alongside someone who is even worse than you is ridiculous. Pro-ams make sense; celebrity-ams are daft. They, too, are embarrassing, especially if you’ve never heard of your so-called celebrity who turns out to have starred in a cornflake commercial 20 years ago and has been exploiting his ‘fame’ ever since. By definition, the Z-list names available to play in these events are the least busy whose careers quite probably flew out-of-bounds some while ago. As a consequence, they are frequently sad and embittered individuals who, by the time you reach the turn, make you realise that the said packet of cornflakes would have provided better company.

Then, of course, there’s the seemingly irresistible combination of top pros and pucker celebrities. It worked well for Peter Alliss in that splendid ‘Pro-Celebrity Golf’ series on television a while back and it seems to function OK at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland and the AT&T at Pebble Beach in the States.

Would pro-celebrity boxing work as well? I doubt it, although Ken Livingstone and Mike Tyson taking on Julian Clary and Joe Calzaghe does have a certain appeal.

June 2008

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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