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Raising more than camaraderie

Participation in pro-ams drives charitable sponsorship at PGA Tour events

Dennis Eckersley putts from off the 18th green at the Red Sox Legends & Friends Pro-Am yesterday at TPC Boston. Dennis Eckersley putts from off the 18th green at the Red Sox Legends & Friends Pro-Am yesterday at TPC Boston. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 1, 2010

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NORTON — The galleries were sparse, the television cameras were missing, and no oversized cardboard check awaited the winners. But don’t let that be misleading. Even though the Deutsche Bank Championship doesn’t begin until Friday, one of the most important days of tournament week was yesterday. Another comes tomorrow. Pro-ams, you see, are a key cog in the engine that powers the PGA Tour train.

What started in the late 1930s in California, when Bing Crosby introduced his Hollywood friends to the world of professional golf, has turned into a tournament staple, with nearly every stop on the PGA Tour giving amateurs the opportunity — at a premium price — to play with professionals on a tournament course, often the day before the event. The money generated goes a long way toward the charitable dollars given out by each tournament, which can be fairly significant. In its seven-year history, the Deutsche Bank has donated some $17 million to charities, a good chunk coming from the pro-am.

Being paired with strangers who don’t play well, the day before a big tournament, when they’d rather be preparing on their own, might not be fully embraced by every member of the PGA Tour. But many of the players understand the significance. Some are trying to spread the word.

“I’d say less than 50 percent of the players really understand how important they are, and that’s a shame,’’ said Stewart Cink, who has won six times since joining the PGA Tour in 1997. “And despite the tour’s efforts, I think that trend is going down.

“I don’t think players make the connection between the pro-am and the support. We aren’t born into this world with the entitlement of playing golf on the PGA Tour. All this happens through hard work and sponsorship, and we have to be attractive to business sponsors who want to put their name and their money behind us.’’

The Deutsche Bank is unique because it features three pro-ams. The first, Monday’s Stop & Shop Pro-Am, is the centerpiece of an initiative that raises $1 million for the Stop & Shop/Giant Family Foundation. The second, yesterday’s Red Sox Legends & Friends Pro-Am, benefits the Red Sox Foundation. The third, the official tournament pro-am tomorrow, brings 52 of the best golf professionals together with business sponsors of the event.

There is a steep price to participate. According to Deutsche Bank officials, spots in the Red Sox pro-am were only sold as threesomes for $25,000, with the players paired with a professional golfer and a local sports celebrity (Carlton Fisk, Dennis Eckersley, Jim Rice, Andre Tippett, Shawn Thornton, and Mike Eruzione were some of the featured participants yesterday).

Tomorrow’s pro-am is even more exclusive for amateurs hoping to rub elbows with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and other PGA Tour stars. Spots in the Deutsche Bank Championship Pro-Am are reserved strictly for the title sponsor and the tournament’s founding partners. This year, that group includes Adidas, CBS Radio, Delta, EMC, Golf Digest, Gulf, MasterCard, Stop & Shop, and the Wall Street Journal. Based on the level of financial support, each sponsor is given a number of pro-am spots, and can use them for employees, clients, or friends.

“As a sponsor, that’s a big reason why we do it,’’ said Seth Waugh, chief executive of Deutsche Bank Americas. “It is so unique to spend time with one’s clients inside the arena. It’s a shared experience of working together rather than trying to make a pitch. It allows you to know them in a completely different way.’’

Waugh, as the head of the title sponsor, will play tomorrow morning with Woods, his customary pro-am partner. The majority of pro-am participants, though, have no idea who their pro will be when they decide to participate. They find that out at a pairings party. For most, it’s a blind draw, and the entry fee doesn’t change depending on which pro an amateur gets paired with.

Professional obligations
A pro-am made news last week at The Barclays when Jim Furyk overslept, missed his tee time by 5 minutes, and was disqualified, under tour rules, from not only the pro-am but also the tournament. The PGA Tour announced yesterday that the rule has been changed for the remainder of the year, effective immediately. If a pro shows up late for his pro-am tee time, he’ll be required to join his group, but also might be subjected to additional sponsor activity, the PGA Tour said. He will not, however, be disqualified from the tournament, as Furyk was.

“Pro-ams are an integral part of our success out here, but I’m extremely pleased that [the tour] reacted swiftly and modified the rule,’’ Furyk said.

Tournament officials need to recruit pros to play in the Stop & Shop and Red Sox pro-ams. Completing the field in the tournament’s official pro-am is done with a combination of the FedEx Cup points list, which takes up 42 of the 52 spots, and selections made by the title sponsor, accounting for the final 10. Those players automatically selected to play are obligated to do so; only an injury or some sort of emergency are legitimate reasons to skip without penalty.

Some players, like Furyk, enjoy playing in pro-ams, for a variety of reasons. Davis Love said that during weeks when he’s not one of the automatic selections, he requests to be a sponsor pick (he is one tomorrow). The ones who enjoy them often cite the ability to play the golf course the day before the tournament, the friendships they’ve made, and the occasional business relationship that presents itself.

There is, of course, the occasional bad golf they’re subjected to. But even that, players said, can provide some levity.

“I saw a guy hit a drive right through his legs, and I still to this day have no idea how he did it,’’ said Charles Howell III. “He made a full swing and it went straight through his legs. It’s amazing some of the shots you see.’’

Said Rickie Fowler, a PGA Tour rookie who has been paired with, among others, Jeremy Roenick, Bo Jackson, and actor Chris O’Donnell in pro-ams this year, “There might be some bad shots, but it’s cool to see the 18-handicapper go out and make a natural birdie. They get pretty pumped.’’

Unique experience
From the amateur’s perspective, the pro-am is a chance to get an inside view of what professional golf is like.

“It’s as close as I’m ever going to get to playing in a professional tournament, so you try to enjoy every moment,’’ said Eric Kraus of Walpole, who had Brad Faxon and Jim Rice in his group yesterday. “What’s fun is you can either come this week or watch on TV and say, ‘I played this hole this way, or I was in that sand trap, or I was out of bounds on that hole.’ It’s a great experience.’’

Added David D’Angelo of Brookline, who works at Fenway Park and played in his third Red Sox pro-am, paired with Geoffrey Sisk, “You’re inside the ropes. I made a putt and they clapped. How cool is that? Every pro you’re with is always fun, and the caddies are great.’’

Again this year, the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund supplied the pro-am caddies: 70 yesterday, and 160 tomorrow.

The real competition, the one televised this weekend by the Golf Channel and NBC, the one that will award $1.35 million to the winner and decide who advances to the tour’s third playoff event, starts Friday. But to the dozens of local charities that benefit from having the Deutsche Bank Championship here, tomorrow is paramount.

“The core of the pro-am is the uniqueness of putting your partners and supporters inside the ropes with the professionals and being a part of their game for a day,’’ said Eric Baldwin, the tournament’s championship director. “Golf is the only sport where you can be on the field, so to speak, while they’re playing. You can’t do it in football, you can’t do it in baseball. This is just one of those unique experiences that you can’t duplicate in any other professional sport.

“Everything we do and every partner that partners with the event helps us drive those charitable dollars and helps us drive the impact we make locally in our community.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com