Professional golf is absolutely unique in the world of sports for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest differentiating factors between golf and other sports is access to the athletes themselves.
In no other sport can a fan compete in that same sport with an athlete as they're preparing to play in a tournament. That's what a pro-am is, and it is an incredible opportunity for golfers and golf fans to spend hours getting an up-front view of what the best golfers in the world do that makes them so talented.
What is a pro-am in golf?
A pro-am is a tournament played that features a professional golfer and one or more amateur (am, for short) partners. These tournaments are typically, but not always, played in the days before professional golf events on the world's major tours and many developmental tours.
The amateur golfers competing alongside the professional(s) gain access to the event by paying for their spot. Sometimes the amateurs are first invited to compete and then pay to secure their spot. Sometimes the amateurs can simply pay for an open spot.
What is the purpose of a pro-am?
Historically, pro-ams have been used as a way to defray the cost of presenting a professional golf tournament. The money collected from the amateurs either went directly to the pros or helped fund the tournament purse. However, in the modern era, pro-ams have evolved. While players collect money for participating, they have typically become compulsory in some fashion. Players are expected to compete in pro-ams, even if that means taking time away from directed practice and preparation.
On the PGA Tour, pro-ams have changed in recent years to a nine-and-nine format, meaning there are two pros who play with the amateurs (typically four, sometimes three). One pro plays the first nine holes with the group, and then another pro plays the second nine, while the amateurs stay the same for all 18 holes. It lessens the time commitment of the pros, and the amateurs actually get time with two pros.
What is the format of a pro-am?
The pro-am format isn't universally the same, but there's a standard format used by most tournaments.
In many pro-am formats, the professional plays their own ball on every hole, recording a score from the set of tees they would use in the actual competition. Meanwhile, the amateurs play a scramble together. In a scramble, each player tees off to start a hole. The group then selects the best tee shot, goes to that spot and has each player then hit their next shot from that location. The process continues until the ball is holed. The team then takes the lowest score between the amateur scramble score or the pro's score.
In some pro-ams, the professional takes part in the scramble team while still playing from their set of tees.
While PGA Tour pro-ams are typically played on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays ahead of golf tournaments, there are some professional events whose entire format revolves around the pro-am format. The two most notable pro-ams on the PGA Tour are the American Express, where a pro competes alongside three different amateur players each day, and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where a pro and an amateur (typically a celebrity or wealthy businessperson) compete as a best-ball team over 72 holes.