Nerves, niceties all part of playing pro-am round with Rory McIlroy

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 22: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland looks on at the 11th green during the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa on February 22, 2018 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Nerves, niceties all part of playing pro-am round with Rory McIlroy

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Nerves, niceties all part of playing pro-am round with Rory McIlroy

 

ORLANDO — When you’re an 11-handicap like John Lovell, first tee jitters are the norm. That nervousness doesn’t lessen any when the first tee is at Bay Hill Golf Club, you’re competing in the pro-am at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and your playing partner, Rory McIlroy, has just pulverized his drive in front of you. 

“There’s a lot of pressure,” admits Lovell, a travel industry executive. “That’s why I hit it 50 feet. Cold top.”

“I thought it only went about 40 feet,” says his pal Bob Murphy, a wry Scot who works for IBM.

“I paced it off at 50!” Lovell insists.

Wednesday at Bay Hill. Just another day in the life of Tour pros, but a more memorable one in the lives of their playing partners.

I asked McIlroy if he’s comfortable needling partners for a first tee ground ball.

“No, you need to feel your way into it,” he says. “Later in the round, when you get to know them.” 

Which is what he did, landing a couple of gentle jabs about the topped drive after Lovell had settled down and made five straight pars. The amateur is familiar with the pro-am nerves: he’s played in two dozen of them, in the company of stars such as Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia.

“We got rained out with Sergio, but he was a blast for nine holes,” Lovell says.

Lovell’s tally of PGA Tour pro-am appearances pales in comparison to the third amateur in the group, Dave Hilfman, who has made almost as many starts on Tour as McIlroy.

“It could be close to 100, but that’s a long and distinguished career,” says Hilfman, a senior vice president with United Airlines. He jokes that if FedEx Cup points were awarded for pro-ams he’d be in the top 10. He’s 58 and plans to retire later this year.

“He’s retiring to play less golf,” Lovell says drily. 

Hilfman’s stellar play drew regular praise from McIlroy and demonstrated his comfort playing with the game’s best. Past pro-am partners included Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

“My thought process is don’t throw up and try to look like I know what I’m doing,” he says. He gestures toward McIlroy. “Mostly you’re excited because he’s a great guy and you just want to get out there and have fun.”

Even Hilfman isn’t immune to the humiliations amateurs experience among the world’s best.

“At the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am one year I managed to chunk a driver,” he recalls, still humbled at the memory. “It was very impressive. A foot-long divot.” He was partnered with former PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang. They made the cut but the final round was rained out.

The old pro-am cliché — that pros won’t be surprised if amateurs play badly and won’t care if they play well — rings true to Hilfman.

“Most appreciate it if you can hit the ball and move fast,” he says.

“It’s not about how they play, really. Obviously they want to play well but it’s more about having a good time,” McIlroy says. “Some guys like to give them lessons the whole way around. I’ll give advice if they ask for it but I don’t want to get in their way or feel like I’m overbearing. I let them get on with it and enjoy it. I’m in a fortunate position that the people I play pro-ams with are very successful and it’s nice to learn about that. It’s a great opportunity to meet people you might stay in touch with down the road.”

McIlroy’s group finished 11-under par and briefly led the pro-am. Lovell finished better than he began, ripping a driver on 18 and hitting a fine approach shot for an easy par.

“You don’t measure your own game, you’re just in awe of his,” he said as the group said their goodbyes behind the green. “You don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. You just marvel at what they do.”

Murphy, the Scot with the Irish name, was chirpy and self-deprecating about his tidy game.

“I relaxed on the back nine,” he said. “I usually do when I shoot 20-over on the front.

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