Teeing it up with a US PGA Tour pro seems like a pipe dream, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re willing and able to spend a small fortune, the PGA Tour helps make that dream a reality every week by way of its Wednesday pro-ams. The chance to spend four quality hours with a professional who’s all but mastered an impossibly-frustrating sport should be on every golfer’s bucket list, and that’s why I couldn’t resist a last-minute invite to compete in the Genesis Open pro-am. I had no idea what to expect heading to the first tee. I ended up getting paired with Bryson DeChambeau, and here are five things I learned.
The first-tee nerves are real, and they’re hard to shake off. That first shot during a pro-am ranks among the most nerve-wracking. The tee box on No.1 at Riviera sets itself up for stadium-like viewing, which for professional golfers is a thrill but for inexperienced amateurs can be a nightmare. Even without that kind of stage, getting announced by name on any first tee during a pro-am is something you can’t master in advance. Even though I took several deep breaths and tried visualising a perfectly straight, crushed drive, I still trembled a bit as I initiated my backswing. I ended up hitting a fine shot – a lower-than-normal draw that settled in the first cut on the left side – but in terms of nerves, the round became entirely more manageable as soon as I took one step off that dreaded (I mean, wonderful) first tee.
A PGA Tour-ready course is nothing like a course you’re used to playing. I’d watched this tournament from home for years before spectating in person for the first time in 2017. I felt like I knew Riviera inside and out before making my first trip to the course, but quickly realised the course looks far different in person than it does on TV. And because I’d spent five straight days at Riviera in 2017, I thought I knew it well enough to feel comfortable playing it. Wrong. The rough at this PGA Tour venue is more brutal than I could ever imagine. Even though it might not appear as such while standing even a few feet away, the rough is thick and healthy and loves to grab clubheads at impact. Also, the undulations and intricacies at Riviera are subtle but potent, and facing them head-on was a thrilling challenge. The greens were rolling at 13 on a Stimpmeter, which were fun and frustrating at once.
Getting paired with a PGA Tour pro who goes out of his way to ensure you feel comfortable makes a huge difference. Bryson did a lot to help us feel comfortable out there. He greeted us with a warm smile on the first tee, asked us about what we do professionally, and he even gave me an insightful bunker lesson from Riviera’s most famous bunker, which is carved out of the middle of the par-3 sixth green. It never quite felt like an entirely relaxed round – Bryson made it apparent that he was preparing for a tournament – but it was a unique way to get to know one of the PGA Tour’s most intriguing stars.
A good pro-am experience generally involves one rowdy hole that will last a lifetime. The 10th hole at Riviera is arguably its most famous. It’s a driveable par 4 that players either love or hate. “I love it when I hit a good drive, I hate it when I don’t,” Bryson told me as we strolled down the ninth fairway. What made the hole even more memorable on Wednesday was the way the Genesis Open set it up. They hired Kelley James to freestyle riffs for every single group that played the 10th hole, which all but guaranteed hearty laughs and nervous pulses. For my group, he freestyled about Bryson’s love of Redbull and his intriguing approach to golf clubs, and he even sang his way to giving me advice for mastering the hole. His tips helped – I scored my one-and-only birdie of the day on that pesky little hole and it will forever be the highlight of my entire experience.
If you think Bryson is analytical by nature, multiply that presumption by one hundred thousand million. For most of the round (about 14 holes), Bryson had two FlightScope technicians measure and analyse each full swing. Bryson said he wanted to nail down exactly how the wind on each hole might affect his shots during tournament play, and the technicians offered him a wide array of information that ranged from ball speed and carry distance to spin rate and vertical attack angles.
But what intrigued me even more, however, was a close-up look at Bryson’s green-reading routine. His system, which is called Vector Putting, factors percentage of slope, the length of the putt, and green speed. As he stood over nearly every putt, he’d audibly say things like, “four percent, 61, 32.” It’s clear Bryson sees lines in numbers, unlike the majority of the rest of us who see lines in, well, lines. I’m not sure how intense other PGA Tour players are when they tee it up during a pro-am (I’m assuming they are, albeit not to Bryson’s extent), but the amount of concentration Bryson showed over every shot, from the first tee to the 18th green, was inspiring.
While I have your attention, there’s one thing I’d like you to keep in mind should you ever compete in a PGA Tour pro-am. A PGA Tour pro-am is not, and I repeat not, the right time to grind over three-foot putts and keep score. Pro-ams are great because they help raise a large chunk of money and they offer you a chance to spend four quality hours with a PGA Tour pro. Don’t ruin a beautiful thing by making the experience all about your scorecard. If you’re lining up a putt for 10, you’re doing something wrong. Nobody in my group did that on Wednesday but I’ve heard horror stories from professional golfers. Pick up, help your group keep moving, and try to remember that your PGA Tour pro is trying to get as ready as possible for his first round of tournament play.
My experience on Wednesday at the Genesis Open is one that I hope all avid golfers enjoy at least once. Competing in a pro-am helped me realise what it’s like to play a golf course in peak PGA Tour conditions, and it also afforded me the opportunity to study, up close, just how detail-oriented professional golfers are. While I’d like to think Bryson’s turbo-charge mind has inspired me to become ever-so-slightly more meticulous, I’ll likely resort to my nonchalant ways of enjoying golf for every reason besides the number that appears on my scorecard. Even so, the adventure of playing in a pro-am will remain with me forever.