A Week I’ll Cherish Forever
Reflecting on my unforgettable experience at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am
By Mark Baldwin
One minute you’re flying high, riding the wind at one of the world’s most beautiful places. And the next…it’s over. There is deafening silence. All that’s left are the echoes of the crowd and a dream. This contrast is what life is like for many on the PGA Tour. You hit deft shots, hear the crowd roar, take pictures with fans, sign autographs and then disappear into near obscurity. Now I am standing over a cutting board of dinosaur chicken nuggets, slicing meticulously, making sure every morsel will be easy to eat. Our toddler squeals with delight. His dad is home, and in Miles’s young life, I’ve been gone for a long time. As I attack another piece of chicken, a vision of the approach shot on the 10th hole at Pebble Beach flashes through my mind, the dramatic landscape running into the Pacific and a stiff, cold wind trying to push my ball there.
My memories from last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am flicker and run together like a film montage. Sights and sounds return in no particular order, and they all elicit powerful feelings and memories. It will be this way for a while. Occasionally I’ll relive a decision that could have been better — a bad club choice or a misread wind. But most of the sights and sounds are of majestic drives, fist pumps and excited friends cheering until they’re hoarse.
Professional golf for me has been a glorious and grueling adventure. I’ll try not to rehash anything from last week that has already been covered extensively. I’ll focus on moments, not scores. I’ll try to take you inside the ropes on the Monterey Peninsula, as close to the action as my words and memories will allow.
Let me start with a conversation I had with Steve Young, my celebrity partner for the first 54 holes of the tournament. First, let’s acknowledge that being able to write that sentence is unimaginable good luck. Even at 60, Steve remains a towering hulk of a man and shows no sign of aging. Steve and I were walking down the 10th fairway at Pebble Beach last Friday before he descended down the cliff to play his ball off the beach. I asked him if he missed playing football or being part of a team. “It never leaves you,” he replied. “The desire. The passion. The challenge. There’s just nothing like it.”
At that moment I knew exactly what he was saying. Competition is a drug, and I am a broken addict. Managing the surging energy in your body and the thrill of succeeding under pressure can feel like a higher form of existence. Having Steve as a partner was incredibly fortunate. He’s as positive and encouraging a person as you’ll find. He speaks thoughtfully, listens intently and believes deeply. This is someone who never stops trying to improve. He didn’t contribute to our team score on the first day, but he improved the second day and by the final day, he was a different player. Perhaps 2023 will be our year.
I came to the tournament expecting the most memorable thing about the week to be the three golf courses. But it was undoubtedly our group. Rounding out our foursome: one of golf’s great entertainers and professionals, Peter Jacobsen, and Billboard-topping musician Ben Rector. Caddying for Peter was the most recognizable and legendary caddie in the game, Mike “Fluff” Cowan. I met Peter when I was at Notre Dame and he hosted an invitational to which our school was invited. After the tournament, the ever-gracious host hung out with our team, told stories and offered advice on how to embark on a career in professional golf. The week at Pebble would be Peter’s final professional tournament; he was retiring at the event that launched his professional career in 1975. In many ways, things were coming full circle.
The demands of a week on tour for an Average Joe like me are exhilarating and exhausting. In the parking lot, Ryan French—caddie, storyteller, player advocate—tracked down Stewart Cink. On the previous day, Ryan had tweeted about how Stewart was eating in caddie dining with his caddie/son Reagan. From caddie dining, Ryan tweeted shots at me that I was living the life of luxury over in player dining and forgetting the little people. Ryan was sitting at a table behind Stewart, when Stewart tweeted a Schitts Creek GIF of the show’s main character, David, awkwardly looking behind him. When we saw Stewart in the parking lot, Ryan was compelled to introduce himself to avoid further uneasiness.
Upon introductions, we chuckled at Stewart’s impressive GIF drop. We chatted for a few minutes about tour life and how Ryan’s Twitter account has changed the way golf fans look at professional golf. Stewart, now 48 and the winner of eight PGA Tour events, including the 2009 Open Championship, told us the average fan still doesn’t understand what a tournament week looks like for a staple such as him. The demands are significant, and in my limited experience it feels as if you’re being pulled in many directions. This is a privilege, of course, but it requires sacrificing energy that otherwise would be devoted to tournament preparation. There are sponsor meetings, appearance obligations, pro-ams, clinics, interviews, business dinners and people to schmooze. There is the need to accommodate friends and family who have traveled across the country to watch you play. You need to set aside time to interact with interested followers on social media. These things are time- and energy-consuming, but they are all part of the job. I savored the opportunity to be in demand.
Then there’s the tournament preparation. Learning one course in a week can be a tall order, especially when you’ve never played it. Learning three courses is nearly impossible. Places on each course were left entirely unexplored and uncharted, requiring improvisation if my ball ended up there. Here’s what most tour players are doing during a practice round: pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We are trying to discover where we can find an advantage, and if there aren’t any advantages to be had, how we can avoid putting ourselves in disadvantageous positions. A host of scenarios play out during practice rounds. When a course is in tournament condition, a change in pin placement can mean a change in strategy. Usually missing on the wrong side of a hole means you’ve created a disadvantage. This is especially true at Pebble Beach, where angles are everything. Success there requires embracing the dramatic cliffs of the Pacific and picking lines that are dangerously close to trouble.
Monday was a pro-am for the Boys and Girls Club of Monterey. When I arrived at Monterey Peninsula, I had forgotten the tour pays pros $3,000 for these outings. It was the most pleasant of surprises, and riding high on the newfound knowledge of being given a month and a half of rent payments, I donated half of the $3k back to the day’s cause.
Tuesday was the big practice day. I was scheduled to play Pebble Beach with Dylan Wu, Nick Hardy and Jim Knous and then attend the player pairings party that evening. Any time you’re scheduled to play Pebble Beach is filled with giddy anticipation. You have a pretty good idea that you’re about to walk sacred ground and that the experience is going to blow away your already lofty expectations. Most pros share this feeling, whether they’ve played the course or not. Even the most experienced tour player pulls out his camera for the obligatory selfies on 7 and 18. The anticipation fueled the early morning discussion as we took the 10-minute walk from the driving range to the 1st tee. Mostly, Ryan and I repeated the same thing in various ways: Are we really playing Pebble? How did we get here? How lucky are we?
At the start of the tournament week, I had been told the Fire Pit Collective was planning to prank Ryan. As with any good prank, gently poking one’s deeply held fear is a great premise. The only question was when, but I was told to be ready to play along. As we walked up on the tee, Anthony Gallino, who runs the caddie service at Pebble Beach, approached and introduced himself. He mentioned Ryan had egregiously violated Monterey Peninsula’s social media policy and the members were demanding the revocation of his credential. Steve John, the tournament director, then said much the same. It was all perfectly timed and executed. I saw the disbelief in Ryan’s face as the cameras rolled in the distance. I was concerned he might react angrily, even aggressively. Imagine heading to Pebble Beach for the first time in your life and being kicked off on the 1st tee! As the prank played out, it became evident Ryan was not going to lash out. Steve and Anthony told Ryan his credential was going to be revoked. Ryan’s shock could have been mistaken for stoicism. I could hear in the tone of his response, however, he had already begun plotting atomic tweets that would lay waste to the Monterey Peninsula infrastructure.
“I want you to find a new caddie and win the tournament,” he told me in a saintly tone, though understandably he may have been on the verge of tears. Later, my mother and my wife told me how mean the stunt was. Ryan handled it all with class, although as I type, I’m confident he is plotting a devious, diabolical retribution.
We left the practice round at Pebble Beach in awe and exhausted. Four consecutive days of golf and the excitement that came with it had taken their toll. And the tournament hadn’t even started. I must admit, I was tempted to disregard the advice I had received from others as well as the voice in my head that was telling me to rest on Wednesday and instead play Pebble Beach again. More than the other two courses, Pebble features shots I was uncomfortable with and questions I needed to answer. But that would have left me running on empty. I mostly took Wednesday off. A putting drill, a few wedges and rest. The plan would pay off.
Our group got off to a shaky start at Spyglass Hill on Thursday. Ben’s opening drive lodged in the base of a tree. My second shot at the par-5 11th, our second hole of the morning, plugged under the lip of a bunker 40 yards from the green. My three playing partners hit their balls in the water at the 12th. I nearly lost my ball at the next. You could have been forgiven if you feared the worst for our group’s prospects. Noted musician Huey Lewis, who was injured but still following his long-time pro-am partner, Peter, looked a bit somber. (As Huey introduced himself on the putting green before the round, I told him almost giddily I knew who he was). Then something magical happened.
We walked back to a tee tucked between the tall pines that frame so many holes at Spyglass. The owners of a nearby house appeared with two guitars: for Ben and Peter. A talented musician himself, Peter didn’t miss a beat as our small gallery of 20 or so filtered down the cart path. After a few strums of an E chord, Ben and Peter then started a bluesy improv. Peter sang some golf-inspired lyrics. The mood of our group changed immediately. Fans had their phones out. Dogs were running around, bathing in the sunlight. The music blew away the tension like a warm breeze. As the blues riffs faded, Peter stepped aside and turned things over to Ben. Steve requested a song to “get him going.” Ben strummed a beautiful melody while standing in front of Steve. Playing the notes crisply, he freestyled a song about the various payment methods he would accept for the closest-to-the-pin bet Steve had lost on the previous hole. It was hilarious and beautiful.
“He has the voice of an angel,” Steve said as he walked off the tee. The impromptu performance reminded me this was supposed to be entertainment.
The remainder of the round I put on a ball-striking clinic, if I do say so myself. I almost could have placed the ball where I wanted it, and although there are plenty of potential pitfalls around Spyglass Hill, I avoided them. After 12 holes Peter told me he was shocked I didn’t have PGA Tour status. He told me I had the game to win and I needed to start believing it. Peter would repeat this often over the three days, cheering me on and sharing anecdotes about his career to illustrate how quickly good things can happen to a professional golfer. While I knew Peter would be entertaining and talkative, I hadn’t expected this level of generosity. I had considered what my role might be in helping Peter make his curtain call in a memorable way. Instead he flipped the script and used his final event on the PGA Tour to lift me to new heights.
Peter told a story about Arnold Palmer, who at the height of his fame and glory asked to play with Peter in a practice round at Peter’s first tournament. Now Peter was passing along some of the very same advice the King had offered.
“Look, we’ve all had our wins,” Peter said. “I’ve had them, you’ll have them. When you have the chance to win, your focus needs to be on your game. But most of the time, being a professional golfer is about the people around you. It’s about helping others to enjoy their own game and relationships.” This is what Palmer told Peter, and it became words he would live by.
It was easy to enjoy the dynamics in our group. As we walked alongside Huey, Ben told me how Huey was his musical hero, how Ben had started his career performing in a Huey Lewis cover band, and how I wasn’t the only one geeking out about my good fortune this week. With his dry sense of humor, quick wit and long, flowing swing, Ben became a fast friend. By our second nine on the first day, our group was hitting its stride with high-fives and boisterous cheers.
I played bogey-free golf at Spyglass, the toughest of the three courses, leaving Jake perplexed about why I wasn’t on the PGA Tour. “You have the game to win out here,” he said. “Believe it. Ride it.”
With the last tee time off the 1st tee at Pebble Beach on Friday, we were playing in prime time. The gallery was massive. Friends and family had flown in to follow. About 95 percent of the fans were there to watch Steve. For me, Friday meant something else. It would be Peter’s last competitive trip around Pebble Beach. I opened with a three-putt bogey and spent much of the day fighting to stay in the game. Even with that internal battle, our group built on the fun we had generated the previous day. As I rolled in a 12-foot slider for birdie on 4, a lone fishing boat floated in Stillwater Cove. It was poetic and inspiring, the type of image that could accompany a Hemingway novel.
After nearly making birdie at the 17th hole, I stepped to the tee at one of the most stunning and iconic views in golf. The sun was low on the horizon and reflected off the glassy expanse of water. We all avoided sending our tee shots left into the Pacific and Steve pulled us together for a selfie as fans cheered loudly. At that moment, it felt like we were four kids on a team that just won a city championship. Fans were taking pictures of us while we snapped pictures of ourselves. It was euphoric and joyful.
I stood 240 yards from the green on the right side of the fairway and studied the crowd all the way to the green. Countless fans standing several deep lined the fairway between my ball and the green. A concert had begun near the clubhouse, a cover band loudly playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” I waited through the first verse.
“What are you waiting for?” Ryan asked.
“The chorus to drop,” I replied. “I want to see how loud this gets.”
After singing along to the chorus, I refocused with some deep breaths and hit a piercing 2-iron directly at the flag.
“Be good!” I said.
The ball landed softly on the front edge and stopped. It was a little unlucky, but this was now Peter’s stage and we were all just extras.
It never ceases to amaze me how great players rise to the occasion in their final competitive moments. Peter played his third shot from about 130 yards to a pin cut a few paces from the left edge of the green, not to mention the Pacific. His tempo remained steady, and he hit an unwavering draw that stopped 8 feet behind the hole. We waited for Peter to lead the group to the green. We were smiling, laughing, all of us soaking in the moment.
Steve rolled in a 40-footer, sending the crowd into a frenzy. As we high-fived and the crowd chanted Steve’s name, Peter was reading his putt. Fluff and Peter agreed to play one cup of left-to-right break. As if it was routine, Peter poured the putt into the heart of the hole. I applauded along with the crowd. He may not have shot a great score, but it was his storybook ending at Pebble Beach. I would sign for an even-par 72 and was sitting uncomfortably close to the cut line.
The third round was cut day, and we were at Monterey Peninsula. Ryan was at his very best. After a hot start, I let a couple of shots slip away as we approached the 18th hole (our ninth) still riding the cutline. I hit my tee shot into a fairway bunker, and Ryan could sense the thought of making the cut was weighing on me.
“Let’s just get back to having fun,” he said. “Help your partner. Read Steve’s putt. Enjoy the company. Let’s make our last nine out here one to remember, regardless of score.”
I lipped out my 130-yard bunker shot and made birdie. There would be no looking back. I birdied my 14th, 15th and 16th holes. The cut line was no longer a concern. As we approached the final green, Peter’s last competitive hole ever, his focus was on helping me, on sending me into the final round with confidence and belief. Most players in his position would have wanted an ovation. Most would have been justified to make the moment all about themselves. But Peter embodies the advice Arnold Palmer gave him all those years ago, and here he was passing that on to me. It was a generosity of spirit I’ll never forget. I had a 40-footer for birdie and watched with dizzying excitement as the ball rolled into the hole. Fist pumps were thrown. High-fives connected. Hugs were shared. Everyone was laughing and cheering. That improbable birdie putt, I believe, was one for all of us.
But golf is hard. That’s one reason why we love the game so much. It stalks everyone who plays it. The final round presented plenty of those challenges. I played with two pros and an amateur as the winds intensified, the green firmed up and the grind got real. Hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance on a Sunday, and that reality sinks in somewhere during the back nine, when you’re running on adrenaline. The group dynamic changed significantly. Everyone was serious. Everyone was slow. Officials put us on the clock. The wind was swirling. After three fun-filled days over which I climbed into a tie for 21st, there wasn’t much laughter — if any. When I made a couple of bogeys, my mood turned somber. After bad decisions on consecutive holes in the middle of the back nine, I felt as if I was attending a funeral in the world’s most beautiful place. I was hanging on for dear life rather than playing like I had nothing to lose. Pressure has a way of warping your perspective and deceiving you into believing something relatively trivial is existential.
With the wind howling in my face, I hit a poor tee shot at 18, and I felt fortunate it didn’t go out of bounds. After everyone in our group teed off I walked over to a corner of the tee, turned away from the crowd and looked out at the water, breathing in the cool, salty air. I tried to take in the moment, reminding myself how lucky I was to be here and to enjoy every step up the last hole. As we approached the green, Ryan and I thanked each other for a week we’ll never forget. I closed with a par, and while disappointed with my final-round 75, I remained deeply grateful for the opportunity and the experience.
At the end of last season, I thought my career in professional golf was over. Ryan talked me into playing one more year. Months later, I’m riding the momentum of a dream week at Pebble Beach, and as I cut those chicken nuggets for my son, the world feels full of possibility.