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Golf Feature: - (posted 16th September 1998)

Playing around with the amateurs

by Evan Samuel

Despite the facial contortions and sulks of men who can make a missed putt look like an international incident, the
real agony of professional golf is not felt by the big names on the big tour.

It can be found in the rictus smile of the jobbing pro as his 28-handicap pro-am partner takes another swish at the
ball somewhere in the rough just yards from the tee.

Every professional golfer plays in pro-ams. They are part of the bread and butter of the game, and people pay good
money to share a course with the Montgomeries, Westwoods and Faldos the day before a professional event in Switzerland, or France, or Scotland - wherever the tour happens to land this week.

But there are pro-ams at the other end of the game, too. And not just in terms of the money and prestige.

Imagine if you will the reaction of Colin Montgomerie - the Zen master who can actually hear one hand clapping - as, standing over a putt for a birdie to take him into the lead on the final day of the Volvo Masters, his amateur partner drops his putter; asks his mate for a cigarette and a light; or yells "good shot" to his business partner on the next tee, who has managed to avoid hitting a tree.

The mind boggles. It could never, ever happen.

Except, of course, in the wilds of Kent or Oxfordshire or Surrey, where the regional professionals - the men who teach, or who have had their day on tour, or who want their day on tour - ply their trade. It happened last week, at Wokefield Park.

Seventy-odd professionals on the PGA Southern Tour played 36 holes on Wednesday, and the top 22 of the 40 who made the cut played their final rounds with three amateurs apiece.

It was very windy. It was, at times, very wet. It was excruciatingly slow - an average pro-am round takes about five and a half hours.

None of these things are conducive to amateurs playing well; add those amateurs to the other conditions and it's a wonder the professionals can play at all, let alone play well.

They did, though, a testament to the high standards now required to make a living in the game... and to their ability to keep up their concentration with vital ranking points at stake.

It does not happen all the time - the preferred option is the pro-am before the event - and no doubt the PGA, like its members, would rather it did not happen at all. But sometimes there is no choice.

There isn't a lot of money at the grass roots of the profession (the Wokefield Park winner, former tour player Tim Spence, won 1,750) and even less sponsorship. The money paid by companies to play with the pros is vital to the running of the PGA regions.

Time is also a consideration. A club pro is hard pushed to leave his shop and his teaching for a day, let alone the two needed for a 54-hole event. Making it to a pro-am the day before - the preferred option, and what always happens on the European Tour - can be, if not impossible, extremely difficult.

"We are used to playing pro-ams," said one player. "Usually they are one-off sprints, corporate days and you are only playing for the money, not ranking points.

"If you are in with a chance in the individual you can bear down, but if you are bleeding after six holes you can relax and be one of the boys with your partners.

"But in the final round of a tournament there are ranking points to worry about. It can be hard to stay in the zone. When you are playing with other pros there is a rhythm to the game, everyone automatically knows what to do, where to stand.

"When you are playing with high handicappers who don't necessarily know all that, it can be hard. It's the toughest job in golf."

But the players keep smiling, encouraging the hackers, trying to play their own game at the same time. They know which side their bread is buttered, and as the bread isn't very thick the butter is even more important.

Associated Newspapers Ltd.