Outback Steakhouse Pro-am Championship
It’s been over twenty years since I met Bill Fennel at the Quad Cities Open. During the pro-am he mentioned his cabin in Lutz, Fl north of Tampa and said if I was ever in the area it was all mine. I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into because that little cabin has been my home around Tampa ever since and I sure do appreciate it. In fact, it seems like all my tour friendships have started that way and I value every one of them. Hanging out with a few friends at a tour stop helps ease the grind and makes each stop a bit homey.
There have been a lot of great memories at the TPC Tampa at Cheval but last year wasn’t one of them. The last round was cancelled and while we were packing up my rain suit was stolen from our cart parked in the TPC cart barn. Details aren’t important but I guess my yardage book was in a pocket, it was MIA when I went through my shoebox of yardage books, and that made for a lot of extra work this week, plus another $20 out of my pocket.
Normally, if I’ve been coming to a tournament for a while, and familiar with the course, I can walk the track in two to three hours and be very comfortable with my notes, this year I was on the course every day for three to four hours before we teed it up Friday afternoon. I charted every pin placement with the Exelys Breakmaster digital greens reader and double checked yardages, layup numbers and the course conditions.
Cheval may be the most difficult course on the Champions Tour with a finishing stretch of holes every player and caddie just want to survive when the wind is blowing. Jim Colbert won here with 13 under but usually single digits win the event. The course was in great condition, the greens firm and fast, the weather report was excellent and the Outback folks were doing everything they could to challenge the pros but make it fun for the amateurs.
Ever since Chris Sullivan and Outback took over sponsorship the event has been a celebrity pro-am, this year a bit light in celebrities but a lot of fun for the amateurs. There are party tents everywhere, galas every night and the pro-am participants and spectators are well oiled during the week. Caddies aren’t invited we just have to help control the crowd, assist our amateur partners and sometimes the unusual occurs during play.
We didn’t have to wait long, right out of the box on our first hole the strange began Friday. Each foursome contains two pros plus their amateur partners and our boys were hacking their way up the left side of the fairway. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention until our partner played the wrong ball from a hazard. It was the other amateur’s ball, we replaced it in the hazard and he chipped in for an easy par. Golf is a strange game; we were hoping some of the luck would rub off.
Bob spent last week honing his game at TPC Sawgrass, took a few lessons and had his ailing shoulder worked, he was tuned up and ready to go. I was excited about our chances and after finishing birdie-birdie late Friday afternoon in a difficult wind we were two under tied for 12th place. One of these days I’ll learn to take it one shot at a time but a positive outlook is an absolute necessity out here; I liked where we were and looking forward to our early Saturday tee time with fresh greens and no wind.
Through the first twelve holes we were one under for the day, tied for 6th place and cruising nicely. We stepped onto the 13th tee, waited a bit, and then decided to hit 3 wood on the short challenging par 4. In 1996 I watched Isao Aoki make a nine without a penalty shot on 13. He was leading the tournament, some guy named Nicklaus was close behind and Murph was in the fray alongside in the same threesome. When Jack sank a monster eagle putt on the long par 5 14th hole he took a three shot lead after trailing by three going into 13. I’ve never seen a six shot swing in two holes and told this story many times. Maybe the Japanese Golfing Gods are tired of this story because nobody was watching out for us.
A strong gust of wind caught our tee ball blowing it into a deep faced bunker guarding the right side of the fairway. You can handle bad breaks one at a time during a tournament but not all on the same hole. I’ve replayed the hole too many times, we made only one mistake but it cost us at least two shots and tons of momentum. Our nine iron caught the lip jumped straight up in the air and buried in the deep sand just below the lip. Long story short we made a nice putt to save 7 and you could hear the wind leave our sails.
There’s not much to say after a 7, you try to change the subject when you’re walking off the next tee and focus on the upcoming holes. We were facing the toughest stretch on tour but we kept rowing the boat and finished without hurting ourselves. You just have to deal with these tough stretches, practice hard daily searching for that little thing which will turn your game around.
Or, you have to get away for a few days forget about this stupid game and recharge your batteries. We’re heading for Tybee Island Monday for R&R and Bob’s heading for Ponte Vedra for dinner with friends and no golf. We’ll hook up late Tuesday afternoon in Savannah and get back at it. We agreed in the parking lot Sunday afternoon the game is real close and all will be well. Like life, golf is a bit streaky and the good streak is coming up soon.