Pro-am experience brings the greats closer to home

Local golfers share what it's like to play alongside touring pros

John Daly and Sanford Health executives at Minnehaha Country Club
John Daly and Sanford Health executives at Minnehaha Country Club

The two days of the 2019 Sanford International Presented by Cambria pro-am experience count as a big improvement over the 2018 version because the event actually took place.

A year ago, with the PGA Tour Champions tournament making its first appearance in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the community should have been getting its first taste of playing alongside touring pros. Instead, the rains came. And the rains kept coming.

After nine holes on that first day, the conditions prompted a washout of half the morning session. All of the afternoon session and both sessions on Thursday were buried under raindrops.

So this year, those who played in the Midco Championship Pro-Am on Wednesday and the Energy Management Collaborative (EMC) Championship Pro-Am on Thursday waited a year for the chance.

“It was unbelievable,” said Levi Chiodi, who was part of a group with PGA Tour Champions player Glen Day on Thursday. “I didn’t start playing until I was 25. I thought golf was one of the weirdest, stupidest games I’d ever saw. And then as soon as I was playing it, I was hooked.”

Chiodi got in eight holes with pro Tommy Tolles last year before the rain came. The weather was near-perfect this week, though. Sunshine and temps in the 70s and 80s is more in line with the kind of conditions most associate with the third week of September in Sioux Falls.

No reason to get nervous

“It can be a little intimidating playing golf with a pro,” Chiodi said. “But Glen Day has a huge, joking personality. He was giving us a hard time because we weren’t playing as well as we should have. But it was all in jest. He made it fun for us.”

The pro-am model is part of all PGA Tour Champions tournaments. It has been part of tour stops for more than 50 years on all pro tours. Money raised goes to charity and to help defray tournament costs.

It can be a memorable day for those like Chiodi, who might get the opportunity to do this once a year. The pros, meanwhile, are part of this exercise every week they’re in a tournament. It could potentially present all sorts of challenges.

When is it right, for instance, to pass along a few pointers?

“It can work both ways,” said Tom Byrum, South Dakota’s lone representative on the Champions Tour. “If they ask, I’ll help them but a lot of times, even if they’re struggling I try not to say too much. If you can tell they’re not playing like they usually do, maybe it’s the atmosphere. And you can’t really get a lesson for that.”

Experience has taught Byrum to stay in his lane. Best to wait for an invitation.

“So unless they ask, I don’t say too much,” he said. “But if it’s obvious and it’s been a long first nine or first 12 holes, I might say ‘All right, let’s try something here just for the fun of it, maybe hit a second ball just one time.’ But I’ve found, too, that if I jump in too early and it doesn’t work, they’re not real appreciative of that, either. You know, so I don’t jump in there and give lessons too often.”

Pros have fun, too

Jim Harrenga’s group played with longtime PGA touring pro Fred Funk on Thursday. He is considered one of the Champions Tour’s more charismatic players and he did not disappoint.

“Just a great sense of humor,” Harrenga said. “He was with the team the whole way. He knew where all of us hit our shots. He kept track where we were on the course. I’d call him a great teammate.”

On Wednesday, Harrenga played alongside Dave Stockton Jr., a short-game guru of sorts who was generous — and insightful — in the way he read putts for the group.

“They’re all great guys,” Harrenga said. “They’ve all paid their dues, they’re out there enjoying it, having fun with us.”

Katie Knudtson was one of those whose hopes were dashed by the weather in 2018. She said on Thursday that she plays golf “periodically” and then laughed. Knudtson was grouped with pro Stephen Ames, who has won more than $3.5 million on the Champions Tour and four times on the regular tour. There was no doubt plenty of laughing.

“When we first started today I was nervous,” she said. “But once we got going we were fine. Stephen and his caddie Greg were excellent at giving us pointers and helping us change our swings and our drives — it was awesome.”

Getting to know the course

Most of the golfers competing in the Sanford International did 20 or more years on the regular tour prior to qualifying for the PGA Tour Champions. As such they’ve either learned to enjoy the pro-am part of their lives or they’ve made their peace with it and accept it as part of the life of a touring pro.

And in some cases, getting out for some time on the course can be downright helpful come competition time. Especially when you haven’t seen the course.

“I need to make my putts count today,” said Davis Love III, a 21-time winner on the regular tour who would be getting his first look at Minnehaha Country Club on Thursday afternoon. “I need to learn the greens. As soon as I putt out, I need to putt around the green a little bit.”

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

“I find pro-ams really good,” said Retief Goosen, a two-time US Open winner who is in his first year as a PGA Tour Champions competitor. “You get a good feel for the golf course, first of all. It’s a practice round, yeah, and you meet some interesting people and people that do great things for the game. Or this week, people who do great things for health.”

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Posted In Golf, Sanford International

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