Getting Settled in at the Clambake
How’s this for starters? A shiny Lexus, spectacular courses and (free) rooms at the Inn
By Ryan French
“Hey, Mark. Just wanted to let you know you have a job next week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.”
Matt Ginella, Alan Shipnuck and Alex Upegui, the partners at Fire Pit Collective, had scheduled a Zoom call with Mark Baldwin and me on January 25. They said it was to discuss logistics as we anxiously awaited the final decision on a sponsor’s exemption into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. As we were talking, we heard the Zoom ding that all of us have grown accustomed to. Steve John, the AT&T tournament director, suddenly appeared on the screen, and before I could process what was happening, he uttered the 20 words above. It all felt surreal. I dropped multiple swear words (after Steve got off the call, of course). Mark, who is typically calm and even-keeled, was pumping his fist. Matt, Alan and Alex were hooting and hollering. It was fantastic.
Before we get into how great the first two days have been here—and they have been great!—let’s talk about the reality of this event and what it means to Mark’s career.
For those who don’t know Mark’s background, he has been a professional for 16 years and played on 15 tours around the world that offer World Ranking points. He’s 38. With an almost 2-year-old son and credit card bills that are often skyrocketing, time is not on his side. Opportunities such as this are so rare it’s hard not to put back-breaking pressure on yourself to take advantage of them. As things now stand, Mark has this start and the Barracuda (golf’s undisputed fifth major) in July lined up. Beyond that, nothing is guaranteed.
Because Mark doesn’t have status on the Korn Ferry or PGA Tours, he has to go through pre-qualifiers just to get into Monday Q’s. The odds of making it through a Monday Q are already slim; making it through both the pre and the Monday is even more daunting. And expensive. But a made cut this week means Mark can skip pre-qualifiers for the rest of the year. It also helps him save money, as pre-q’s are usually played days before the Monday, meaning if you do advance, you’re stuck paying extra nights for the hotel, meals, car rental and other expenses.
If Mark plays well, he also will accumulate “non-member” points. For instance, if he finishes 15th he would get 55 points. (Until you become a member of the PGA Tour, the points are basically held in escrow.) If at the end of the season he has accumulated non-member points equal to or greater than those of the player who finishes 200th in points, he earns a spot in the KFT Finals. There he would have a chance to earn his PGA Tour card. A top-10 finish this week would probably be worth enough points to secure Mark a spot in the KFT Finals. (It also would put him in the field for next week’s Waste Management Open.) Chase Seiffert, who is in the field this week, did exactly that at the 2018 Travelers. He had no status, Monday-qualified and finished in the top 10. It was his only made cut of the season. That one made cut changed his life. There are countless more examples.
Mark knows all this, but we don’t talk about it. It doesn’t need to be said and talking about it would only make it worse. In interviews for “The Grind,” I’ve asked him about what happens after the Barracuda, if he doesn’t play well. “I’ll talk about it after the Barracuda” is his standard reply. Or he’ll say, “I’m winning the Barracuda.” He has to think that way. My job as a caddie is to help him make the AT&T just another tournament. Of course, that’s hard to do when you’re playing some of the best courses on the planet and celebrities are hitting balls next to us on the range. (We’ll learn who our amateur partner is at a Tuesday night party.) But by Thursday, when the tee goes into the ground, we need to have gotten over all of that. That is the reality for players who get sponsor’s exemptions and through Monday qualifying: They never know when their next start is coming, so the pressure is immense to play well right now.
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On Saturday morning, we flew into San Jose, Calif., from Phoenix and made the hour-long drive south to the Monterey airport to pick up Mark’s courtesy car. (The extra hassle saved Mark a few hundred dollars on airfare.) I waited outside. When he returned he looked as if he had seen a ghost. “I just told them my name,” he said, “and they handed me the keys to a brand new Lexus, no ID, no credit check, nothing, just handed me the keys.”
From there we headed directly to Spyglass Hill, at which point we really showed our Monday Q roots: We pulled all the luggage out of the trunk and were changing our shoes in the parking lot when a car packed with golfers drove by and stared at us in disbelief. That’s when it hit us that we had made a mess in the parking lot at one of the best courses in the world. We had a good laugh.
I then started to organize the golf bag. All pros not named Viktor Hovland take the head off their driver when flying so the shaft doesn’t stick out the top of the bag, protecting it from getting snapped in transit. Mark had done that, and I grabbed the head and put it on. The only problem was that I couldn’t find the wrench to tighten the head. Mark couldn’t either. A frantic search ensued. For 10 minutes we looked through everything until Mark found the wrench stuffed in the corner of his travel bag. Minor crisis averted.
We got all of the luggage back into the car and were about to head to the range when Mark said, “I can’t find my wallet.” We weren’t off to the greatest start. All of the luggage came out of the Lexus and we embarked on our second search in 20 minutes. I had remembered seeing the wallet in the console of the car we drove from San Jose to Monterey. A call to Avis followed. When I grew impatient with the person on the phone, Mark took over. While on hold, he continued to rummage through his bag. “Let’s go!” I heard him shout. I looked back to see him holding his wallet in the air.
We had talked our way onto Spyglass and had a 1:30 tee time with Jim Knous. Jim is one of the many great people I have met through the Monday Q account. He is soft-spoken and one of the friendliest people around. It was a great pairing. Joining us for the round was Kevin Price. He grew up with Shipnuck in nearby Salinas and also has become close friends with Ginella. No surprise he’s a giant golf nerd. Kevin owns a financial services company but caddies part-time at Spyglass and Pebble Beach just because he loves to be around the game. Mark had never played any of the three courses on the AT&T rotation (Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Monterey Peninsula), so Kevin talked us through every hole at Spyg. It was a huge help, and I jotted down as many notes as I could.
Spyglass was amazing and in perfect shape. When I asked Mark where it ranks among the courses he has played, he replied, “It went directly to the top of the list.” I believe he’s going to say that a few more times this week. He especially loved the par-3s, which prove 1-shotters can be great tests without having to be long. Mark played solidly.
After lunch at the Spyglass Grill (I love that is just an unfancy burger spot), we went to our accommodations in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea. The Monday Q community always amazes me. The Inn at Carmel is owned by a Twitter follower, and when he heard we were in the field, he offered Mark and me free rooms for the week. Hotel prices for the week are crazy high, with it being almost impossible to find anything for less than $300 a night. We relaxed around the fire pit—where else?—and couldn’t stop smiling.
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On Sunday morning we played the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. It helps having Shipnuck as a local. One of his friends who is a member took us out, because official practice rounds don’t start until Monday. Rich Patterson was a great host. He has a pretty amazing golf resume—member of the R&A and at Pine Valley—and he was a cool dude and expert trash-talker. I got to tee it up, and another member filled out the foursome. Mark and I took them on in a match and we got smoked, though we forgot to pay off our $10 debt. I’m assuming Alan will cover that and put it on his expense report.
The Shore Course is so beautiful and elegant, if that’s the right word. Mark described it as “18 holes of Zen.” I felt like I was in some kind of simulation. Whales were spouting off the coastline, and it felt as if there were more deer than golfers on the course. A few times I had to remind myself to stop gazing and snap into work mode. It can be hard to take notes and grind on strategy when you feel like a tourist.
After lunch—the patio views from the clubhouse deck are ridiculous—Mark practiced a bit and we taped a podcast. Then we shut it down, declining a few dinner invitations and instead grabbing takeout. In talking to other players and veterans of this tournament, the first piece of advice is not to overdo it during the practice rounds. Everyone is so excited to be here and the courses are so fun to play, but the goal is to be fresh on Thursday. So we were asleep by 9. When we reconvened on Monday morning, for another spin around the Shore, I didn’t have to ask Mark what he dreamed about. I already knew.