Behind the Scenes at the Farmers Insurance Open/Zurich Pro-Am (CA)

If you’re like me, you’ve seen and heard of pro/ams, but have probably never known much about them or how they work. I had the great privilege of participating in the 2012 Farmers Insurance Open Zurich Pro/Am at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California, several weeks ago. I participated as a caddy for my friend, Adam, who was invited to play as a representative of Farmers.
Pro/Ams are logistically verbose events, comprised of a multitude of interwoven opportunities that work in harmony to create an experience filled with fun and excitement. To me, this experience was most memorable for three specific events: The pairings party, the Putting with the Pros contest, and the pro/am.
Everything about the Zurich Pro/Am is first class, and you would expect nothing less from an event that costs $6,500 per player!
The pairings party was MC’ed by Gary McCord, had eight gourmet food stations and half a dozen Grey Goose open bars. All players were gifted yet-to-be-released TaylorMade Rocketballz clubs (choice of 3-PW set, or driver/3-wood/rescue/putter), and the featured auction item was a golf trip for four to Scotland that sold for $17,000.
The room was set up with 72 tables, and McCord was nearly incomprehensible in his ramblings but very funny, nonetheless. I half wished he would break into a rant of “He’s looking at thirty yards of bar and grill, an opening through the French doors, forty yards of patio umbrellas, a hundred yards of water, and a lonely pelican sitting out there in a 15 mile an hour breeze…” There were plenty of Rocketballz clubs lying around, and there was certainly enough machismo and alcohol in the room to make a great Tin Cup moment happen, but it did not.
MC for the night, Gary McCord
When the pairings lottery began, the 72 PGA participants in the pro/am (all in the top 100 money list) were projected on the overhead screens, along with their respective tee times and the course their group would play. The actual tournament is held on both the South and North courses for Thursday and Friday’s opening rounds. All weekend rounds are then played on the South, making it the more desirable of the two tracks.
The first team to select was drawn at random: Team number seven. Our group was team number nine, and I thought to myself, “We’re close.” Team number seven jubilantly chose Phil Mickelson, who had the first tee time on the South Course at 7:45 am.
A perusal of the boards showed that last year’s champion, Bubba Watson, was not in the field. There was, however, a “Wild Card” spot at 11:45 on the North Course. This combination piqued my interest. More picks came off the board, then more. Team 52, 67, 17, 72, 12, two. Still no nine.
North Course pro/am selection list
With the majority of the party already collecting their new Rocketballz clubs from upstairs, there were about seven teams left to pick when it dawned on us that we actually want the last pick! Someone tried choosing the wild card earlier, but was told that it will go to the final team.
With five slots left on the board, teams started getting more free Rocketballz clubs for their wait, and finally team number nine was drawn with just the wild card and an early morning North Course tee time with Blake Adams available. We thought we would get Adams, until it dawned on us that one team (drawn and forfeited earlier) did not show up to the pairings party. Of 72 teams, we were literally the seventy-second and drew the wild card. We hung on McCord’s words as he announced the player we’d be on the course with at 11:45 the next morning would be… Ernie Els, the “Big Easy!”
All jacked up with excitement and Grey Goose cocktails, our group grabbed their free clubs from upstairs. I offered half a dozen people $100 for their irons, assuming if they paid $6,500 for entry they probably did not need them nor care for shipping them home. My thinking was obviously a little foggy from the booze, and I left empty-handed.
Ernie Els bio hanging on door at hotel room
The following morning I woke up in my bed at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, a five-diamond hotel on the course, and looked to the other bed where my friend Adam was telling me I have to get up so we can get breakfast and hit the range. I looked at the clock and it was 6:30 – five-plus hours before our tee time. I muttered some incoherent words and complied.
We grabbed an outstanding free breakfast and hit the driving range, which was an absolute zoo with lines five to six players deep at each station. We hitched a ride to the putting greens, where Adam told me I was registered for the Putting with the Pros competition at 9:00. We were the only two on the larger of the two greens, and I noticed San Diego’s channel seven news anchor (not Ron Burgundy, unfortunately) directly behind me interviewing Billy Hurley III at the edge of the green. I was sure I was live on the news, and elevated my short game appropriately.
Shortly after, a group was congregating on the smaller green, and the Putting with the Pros competition was about to begin. I was paired with James Driscoll. Adam was also in our group, and the format was as follows: Six putting stations, with a putt inside one foot of the hole worth one point, and a putt holed worth two. The collective total for each group would then be posted, and the highest total would win.
My goal was simple: Watch what James does and adjust appropriately. He put five out of six putts within a foot, while I holed two and had two others within one foot. Adam did the same, and we were tied at the top of the leader board. I won great Adidas sunglasses for the effort, and Adam got a new TaylorMade Ghost blade putter. Not bad for a six-hole event!
As an aside, James Driscoll is a wonderful person and my new favorite golfer. A three-time All-American at the University of Virginia, he beat out Luke Donald head-to-head and finished second in the 2000 US Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club. He was bested by Jeff Quinney on the 39th hole of the final round, and went on to shoot a 68 at the following year’s Masters. His playing partner there, Tom Watson, called it “The best round I’ve seen here by an amateur.”
During the opening round of the Farmers Insurance Open, James holed out from 28 feet on the par-three 11th hole. I turned to his girlfriend and joked that he learned that from me during our time together on Wednesday. She laughed. He taught me, though, providing me with excellent advice on my putting and with methods to practice my stroke, including using tees to measure and control my take-away and follow-through.
Following the putting contest, Adam and I made our way back to the driving range, where he was putting solid swings on every ball. A professional caddy actually asked me, “Has this guy ever been on Tour? He is crushing the ball!” Things were looking good for team nine.
The tee times were running a half hour behind, so we watched a number of other groups tee off, including Rickie Fowler, Stuart Appleby, Dustin Johnson, and Cameron Tringale. When it was finally our turn to take the box at the tenth hole on the North Course, we met up with Ernie and the rest of our team. The team consisted of all Farmers Insurance agents, including Adam, whose nerves were on edge with the large crowd surrounding the tee area.
The pros teed off from the tips, while the amateurs played from the white tees. Each player is given a certified handicap. Adam played to a nine, while the rest of the group was given the maximum 17. Els, of course, played at scratch.
With nearly $60 million in career earnings, Els is well known to be laidback and cool. He is also a little intimidating. He towered several inches above me, making me think he’s at least 6’5”, and is well put together with huge forearms. He looks just like on tv, and has the demeanor you’d expect from a huge South African nicknamed the “Big Easy.”
Adam’s first drive was monstrous: A slight draw blasted 300 yards to the left side of the fairway. Ernie would actually hit his approach shot first, and was delighted to have a playing partner who could fire a tee shot that well.
Els posed for pictures and signed autographs for everyone who asked. He answered any and all questions candidly and offered advice on swings and strategy. He also shot five-under, which got our team to eight-under for the day. The winning team shot -17, so we were far from contention but had a fantastic time.
It was amazing watching the flight of each shot taken by Els and the other pros. Ernie swings the club with ease, and the ball responds with spectacular flight and action. He plays the fade and draw beautifully, and the grace in his game is evident in the backspin and run he gets around the green, as well as in his putting. If his first putt didn’t go in, it was always within a foot or two.
Some of the interesting tidbits I got from Ernie include:
  • All-time favorite courses: Spyglass and Pebble Beach, both in California (he also loves Whistling Straits, especially after nearly winning there in the 2004 PGA Championship – I remember watching his group during the final round)
  • Ernie is a big Cowboys fan, and does not think Tony Romo is their future
  • One of the most important parts of golf is finding comfortable shoes – his are a loafer style, and looked to be about size 15
  • Ernie and I agreed the BBQ pulled pork and tri-tips sandwich from Phil’s BBQ was the best free food station on the course (it was fantastic)

After the round, Ernie posed for pictures and signed everything we had, including my hat and a Torrey Pines flag.

The pro/am was followed by an awards dinner, featuring dinner, drinks, entertainment and speeches by Justin Rose and Charlie Hoffman. During the event, we met some friends from Wisconsin at the Hilton Lounge. One of the most entertaining aspects about this experience was watching all the prostitutes on premise. There were so many, it was like they were bussing them in.
At one point, a girl came up to our group outside and said, “Looks like three of you have wedding rings on, so it looks like you’ll (to me) be getting my phone number tonight.” I told her that wouldn’t be happening, and she asked if she could have my number, instead. I responded that I don’t think she would love me for all the right reasons. I learned a valuable life lesson when her facial impression changed and she bolted through the doors, saying aloud, “I can’t believe he just said the L-word to ME, oh my God!” It was like insect repellant for pro’s, and I recommend keeping that little word of advice in your back pocket if you ever need it.
The following day was the first day of the Farmers Insurance Open. The difference in look and feel on the course was huge. Players were no longer leaving tee boxes to sign autographs for any and every fan, and taking pictures or videos (even taking out your cell phone) was likely to have you hauled off the course. I did manage to get a few videos on the first hole, and was sternly warned afterwards. I learned my lesson.
My strategy for this day was solid: I first followed Driscoll from the first to the fourth tee, then wandered for a while with Rickie Fowler before catching up again with Driscoll, JB Holmes, and Vaughn Taylor. Ernie was in the group behind them, and Phil Mickelson’s group followed. I walked with these three groups for hours. I would have liked to see Phil play a little better, but he spent more time in the sand than David Hasselhoff (an oldy but goody, I know), and was noticeably frustrated. James, on the other hand, was playing fantastic golf, finishing the day with one of the South Course’s best rounds at -4.
James Driscoll’s tee shot on South Course hole 1
As 2:00 approached, our shuttle to the airport was eminent, and I made my way from the outmost reaches of the South Course back to the Lodge. I picked up some free food along the way, and met up again with Adam.
What an unbelievable experience this was. Everyone I have told about it says the same: “Wow, I bet you can’t wait to do that again!” That would be amazing, but an opportunity like this is almost certainly once-in-a-lifetime. While I probably will not have an extra $6,500 in disposable income any time soon, I am very happy I took full advantage of the opportunity to join my friend for this incredible experience.

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