Jul
9
2015
Playing in the Scottish Open pro-am with Jimmy Walker
By Stephanie Wei under European Tour

Jimmy Walker pro-am group

When I got an email last Sunday afternoon from Visit Scotland’s David Connor saying he would very much like me to join his pro-am team for the Scottish Open at Gullane GC on Wednesday afternoon if I was available, I did a cartwheel in the living room of my cramped NYC apartment and hit my head on the  coffee table. Okay, that actually didn’t happen, but I was practically jumping for joy.

I wrote back what was likely an overly enthusiastic response immediately and hoped there wasn’t any “take backs” to the offer. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to play in a pro-am on one of the major tours — it seemed like it would be an intriguing experience and it would be very telling about the character of the tour pro you’re paired with in that kind of intimate setting for five hours (in other words, whether or not he’s a jerk)I had the opportunity to partake in the Hawaii Open pro-am last December, which was a total blast, but it’s not quite the same as, say, the Scottish Open edition.I didn’t know at the time who our pro would be, but I also didn’t really care. I could’ve been paired with Ben An (nothing against him, but he’s not exactly full of personality) and had a fantastic time. When I was informed on Tuesday that we were playing with five-time PGA Tour winner and all-around good guy Jimmy Walker, I was ecstatic. Michael McEwan from Bunkered Magazine completed our foursome.

I was also nervous in general, regardless of whom our pro was, particularly because right after I got off a redeye flight from New York to Edinburgh, I immediately drove to The Renaissance Club for a round and tried to play something resembling golf, easily shooting the worst round of the year (don’t ask what it was because I wasn’t keeping score). I mean, I would’ve definitely hit the range and practiced had I know I would be playing in the pro-am earlier.

Warming up on the range prior to the pro-am

Warming up on the range prior to the pro-am

 

However, I was fortunate enough to get a much-needed bunker lesson from Robert Rock during his practice round on Tuesday. When I actually played *real* golf (competitively), I was money out of the sand, but in the last few years, I’ve seemed to forgotten how to hit them and come down with the bunker yips. Luckily, though, Rock is a fantastic instructor and got me back to hitting passable sand shots — which is a necessity at Gullane since there are 123 bunkers. Yes, 123!

My goal going into Wednesday afternoon’s shotgun start was simply not to puke on the first tee. I was happy to discover that at least we were teeing off on the par-3 third hole dubbed “Island”, so hopefully that meant not many people would be watching.

I knew it was going to be a memorable day when we kicked off the afternoon by taking this selfie. There were also a few Periscope cracks directed at me from Jimmy, which set the tone for the day. In other words, the guys spent the day making fun of me, which is nothing unusual — I set myself up well for that and I can take it.

jimmy walker pro-am

So, about there being no one around on our first hole? I was wrong. There were at least 50 people around the green and in the grandstands. After all, I was playing in the group behind Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler was right behind us, with Phil Mickelson two groups back.

I wasn’t *that* thrilled about starting on a par-3 because my irons have been absolute shite and I’m money with my driver — it’s about the only club I can count on usually. Turned out I wasn’t *as* nervous as I expected to be, but I was definitely a little queasy. I was fourth to hit since I was playing from the ladies’ tees (which measured around 6,300 yards — that’s LONG for me) and I stepped up with a 6-iron. I noticed my hands were a little shaky and I rushed the shot and didn’t line myself up correctly, not to mention pushing it a bit and missing the very narrow turtleback green guarded by bunkers in the front.

I ended up in the rough on a mound with a downhill lie on the side slope with little green to work with. In other words, it was a tough, extremely delicate chip shot. I muttered an expletive and could just see myself chunking it, which wouldn’t have been hard to accomplish given the lie. It was one of those shots, where you’re just thinking, “Please don’t shank it, please don’t shank it…”

I hit it as quickly as possible to get it over with and I struck about as good of a chip as I could, but I was still at least 25 feet from the pin. Now, I’m not the best putter in the world, but I do prefer slower fescue greens (over bermuda or poa). I gave it a good roll and the putt happened to catch the left side of the hole and disappear into the cup. SCORE! The nice gallery gave me a rousing round of applause and I awkwardly acknowledged them with a wave of the hand.

IMG_6662

The next hole, “Murray’s Hill,” a long par-4 that doglegs to the left and goes straight uphill, is the number 1 handicap hole, aka the hardest. I hit a perfect driver down the middle, but I was still left with at least 200 yards uphill. I pulled out my 3W and it caught the toe, but the best thing about links golf is that the ball rolls forever, especially when you hit kind of a low draw. I ended up about 5 yards short of the green and managed to two-putt from at least 65 feet for par to make a net birdie. Woot! At this point, I was feeling pretty good.

Since Jimmy had made at least five Periscope jokes by the pseudo-short downhill par-4 6th — one of my favorite holes as you’re up on one of highest points of the golf course — I decided to break out the app and harass him a little bit about strategy. You can watch us all hit our tee shots and I chatted with Jimmy for a bit as he waited to tee off since he could reach the green. Rickie Fowler also made a cameo.

(Unfortunately, the Periscope video got cut off before I hit, which again is too bad because Jimmy played the on-course announcer.)

After I hit yet another tee shot down the middle, Jimmy quipped, “Do you ever miss a fairway? What’s it like always being in the fairway?” Well, it’s wonderful. Except when you Getty photographer friends show up on the 7th hole and you get nervous as they’re obviously setting up to take photos of you teeing off. I hit the worst drive of the day. I mean, I nearly smothered it, but it was more like a really bad pull hook in the long grass.

At least my follow-through still looked OK.

 

Somewhere along the way, we were talking with Jimmy and his caddie Andy Sanders about Gullane and they were both saying they thought the course was fantastic, very fun and playable. Funny story, though — that wasn’t per se Andy’s first impression.

Two years ago when the Open Championship was held at Muirfield, which is about a 10-minute walk down the road, Andy stopped by the Alasdair Good Pro Shop, where Gullane GC is located. The course is literally right along the main road and some may think it looks a bit pedestrian because you can’t see the ocean since there’s a massive hill with a few holes that block the rest of the course(s) and the gorgeous view. So, Andy was saying that when he found out the Scottish Open was at Gullane, he was kind of confused because he thought it looked like a muni, but now that he’s actually seen the track, he obviously has had a change in heart.

I’ll be honest — I wasn’t blown away by the course at first sight (which is a good reminder to never judge a book by its cover! Apologies for the cliche!), but after playing it Wednesday, I really enjoyed it. It’s a super fun and playable course. The fairways are sneaky narrow with strategically placed pot bunkers — and a lot of them — but if you can drive it accurately and avoid those hazards, then it’s quite scorable. The approach shots are relatively straightforward and there’s not much trouble around the greens, except pot bunkers, of course, but those are generally easy shots, especially for the pros. The greens are lovely — though several are rather narrow — and roll true.

Here’s what was perhaps my favorite hole, the par-3 12th — measuring 178 yards for the championship — which requires a precise tee shot to hit the green. As you can see below, it’s guarded by quite a few bunkers, so it’s better to err on the side of going long or just short if you manage to knock it on line.

Gullane no. 12

Jimmy thought he hit the perfect shot and his caddie Andy called for it to get in the hole, but much to Jimmy’s chagrin, it ended up just short of the green. He looked over at Andy in confusion (as you can see in the Periscope video below), as they discussed the wind direction. When we were walking off the green, we saw Rickie’s tee shot into the hole, which landed at the front of the green as Jimmy’s did, but rolled all the way down the hill, and Andy pointed it out to Jimmy. So, apparently they weren’t the only ones confused by the wind. (or Rickie just hit a really poor shot, but it’s unlike pros to come up *that* short.)

Another fantastic hole is the par-4 15th, an intriguing dogleg left that slopes right. It normally plays as the 8th of Gullane No. 2. After nailing my drive down the right side of the fairway — again, hitting the short grass is really the only part of my game that I can count on — Jimmy deadpanned, “Does it ever get boring hitting fairways?” Absolutely! Wish I could hack it out of the rough more! (Not really.) Jimmy shouldn’t talk as he hits it pretty straight and I’m pretty sure he barely missed any fairways on Wednesday, either. He’s also sneaky long if you’re not familiar with his game. Basically, he does everything well. He’s quite impressive to watch and underrated, in my opinion.

I had an 8-iron into the green and it was going straight at the middle flag as my playing partners called for it to go in the hole, but due to a bit of bad luck, my ball hit Jimmy’s, which was just on the front part of the putting surface and rolled back off to the fringe. I may or may not have uttered a few f-bombs — under my breath, of course. (Sorry, mom.) I should’ve had five feet or less for birdie, but instead I was left with a long lag putt and settled for par. Hey, that’s golf.

Jimmy Walker

The finishing holes are rather fun and present some scoring opportunities. The 16th is the only par-5 on the back nine (there are only two in the championship setup, but lots of long par-4s!), and it’s pretty straightforward, but the longer you hit it, the narrower the fairway becomes. The green is also No. 1’s most sloping green.

The 17th is a pretty straightforward par-3. Like the other ones, the trouble is at the front, so selecting the correct club is key, but you might get lucky with the bank on the left. In my case, I nearly topped my tee shot — which was mortifying as there were quite a bit of people watching — but got really fortunate and it bounced over the pot bunker on the front right and nearly rolled up onto the green.

Gullane

While the par-4 18th isn’t overly long, it’s a great finishing hole, and if you watched the telecast of the first round, you may have noticed there were quite a few birdies. I hit a good drive, but a little too much to the right side of the fairway, where there’s a cluster of bunkers, but I managed to navigate through them. I was left with a short iron or even just a wedge and I knocked it to about six feet. The rather sizable crowd was generous enough to give me a nice round of applause, which always makes you feel good about yourself (and a little awkward).

Automatic birdie, right? Not so much. I was so focused on the line and even called Jimmy in for the read that I left it right in the gut — one more roll and it would’ve dropped in the cup. That was kind of embarrassing to do in front of a few hundred people, so I have an idea of what Dustin Johnson felt when he pulled his four-footer to miss out on a playoff with Jordan Spieth at the U.S. Open. OK, not really the same thing, but I couldn’t help throwing that in there.

Gullane

When we arrived on the 2nd tee, our final hole, I was a little sad that the day was about to come to an end, as it was such a great experience and Jimmy, along with David and Michael, couldn’t have been a better playing partner. Jimmy was friendly, chatty and hilarious — he has a dry sense of humor. He was truly an ideal player to be paired with in a pro-am (so if you get a chance to play in one, hope you’ll lucky enough to draw him!). Same goes for Andy.

As I was about to tee off, Rickie Fowler, who was on the first green, called out, “Hit it in the fairway, Steph!” We had a fun little back-and-forth, which we caught on Periscope!

As a team, we shot 17-under, four shots out of first place. While we didn’t win any prizes, it was still a super fun and memorable day. Perhaps more impressive was that we played in less than four-and-a-half hours — a stat that Jimmy and Andy were amazed by, too, since pro-ams in the U.S. are generally closer to five-and-a half.

Hopefully, this will be the first pro-am of many that I’m invited to participate (hint, hint!). Many thanks again to Visit Scotland for the opportunity and to Jimmy, David and Michael for making it such an enjoyable and wonderful experience.