The Southwest Airlines flight I was on, heading direct from Baltimore to San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just hit the tarmac at about 10 p.m.
We were taxiing into the gate when I turned on my phone. After fielding an unexpected call from my bank about some debit-card fraud, I texted my buddy Dan Shepherd, who had invited me on this trip to see the U.S. territory and play in the pro-am for the PGA Tour's Puerto Rico Open. He was at the pairing party earlier in the evening, and so I was curious: Who'd we get?
He texted back, "Teater," meaning Josh Teater, a 39-year-old tour veteran from Kentucky. Cool.
The follow-up was more imminently important. Were we playing in the morning wave, that started at about dawn, or in the afternoon wave?
Shep and the inspiring Discover Puerto Rico (more on them in another story) team organized transportation for me to get from the convenient Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport to the Condado Beach Hilton, which would be my home base for three nights. The driver and I talked about Rafa Campos, though he didn't know the Puerto Rico native specifically by name, and wondered if he had a legit chance to win on home soil. I told him, coming off a Web.com Tour win and good finishes in this event in the past, I believed he did.
After perhaps the only double-over-and-laugh check-in experience of my life (I'll explain on a podcast), I hurried up into my room and went to bed. The a 5 a.m. roll-out toward Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, host of the tournament, would come quickly -- especially with the island an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone. I sprung forward prematurely.
I got in the van -- with a luxurious high roof line -- on time, and we picked up our squad: long-time writer and fellow Marylander Jeff Thoreson, Golfweek's Jason Lusk and Golf Channel's Alexandra O'Laughlin. I had just met Jason a few weeks prior at Streamsong Black, and he's someone I hit it off with right away. I knew and enjoyed Jeff from an overnight trip to the then-in-development Links at Perry Cabin on Maryland' Eastern Shore. I had never met Alex, though I did seem to recall she was a fellow Back9Network alum. Seemed like a good crew.
Our van rolled into the former Trump International Golf Club (it was a brand-licensing play; Trump didn't own the place) about 45 minutes later, at the early stages of dawn. We went through the car wash of pro-am gifts of very nice apparel, and then we enjoyed breakfast with a view, as the golf club abuts the Atlantic Ocean via the Comezon Bay. It was a bit gusty off the water, but it was a perfect morning.
There was some confusion about who was playing with who, but we sorted it all out by 7:30 a.m. Myself, Alex, Jason and Jean Paul Polo from Discover Puerto Rico headed to the first tee. On the tee? Not Josh Teater. Not yet. The PGA Tour has changed its pro-am format to make it a little easier for pros. Now they do nine-and-nine, where one pro handles the first nine holes and then hands off to another for the final nine holes. We'd see Josh on the back, but on the front, we got to play with Martin Piller.
I had met Martin at the Houston Open the year prior, when he and his wife, LPGA star Gerina Piller, were a few weeks away from becoming parents for the first time. He showed friend Steve Elkington and me his gender reveal video, which involved a gun, a target down range and a cloud of blue smoke. With Gerina about to head back to the LPGA in Singapore, Martin was taking advantage of his conditional PGA Tour status to play in the opposite-field event. He's just getting to the good part of being a father, and he was about to learn what it'd be like playing Mr. Dad.
Martin, as he was in Houston, seemed like the coolest, low-key guy. He hardly mentioned we were technically competing together, if at all. He just wanted to put everyone at ease and be encouraging. I don't know if it helped anyone in our group at all, but Jason drained a 35-footer out the gate for birdie, and that sure as hell did.
Martin birdied No. 2. I birdied No. 3. Alex birdied No. 4. J.P. birdied No. 5. I almost drove the par-4 seventh about 360 yards out and made my own birdie. Martin holed a bunker shot on No. 9 for birdie.
We were 7 under through nine, had something going, and yet it seemed like we were playing the most casual round. Martin didn't have to be the center of attention, and I'm sure it's not always that way. I talked to Jason about him rebuilding a 1965 Mustang. J.P. and Alex were mulling how they'd film content about the day later. Dan, who walked with us, had his conversations, too.
And in a blink of an eye, those first nine holes were over. It felt a lot more sudden because Martin jarred his bunker shot while none of us were really paying attention, but we were at a great place heading into our second nine. Martin departed, and I hit up the beer cooler inside the starter's tent off the 10th tee. I made a rookie mistake not realizing all the coolers on the front had beer in them, so I missed out -- probably to the aid of my performance -- on thirst-quenching Medalla through the opening nine. That was going to change on the back, as the sun was in full view and it was getting a little toasty.
I'd heard Josh Teater was a good guy and perhaps a little understated. He's probably played in a pro-am 200 times in his life. He's done it. However, he handled it like it was our first time instead of one time too many for him.
The wind had picked up and was a two-club help by the time we teed off on No. 10. Teater took the safe play with a 3-wood down the middle, and I went up to our box and absolutely wailed on a driver (like always). It got within 50 yards of the green. Teater sauntered up after hitting his approach shot with his own ball and said, "So, who's responsible for this?" I smiled, then chunked my pitch shot. Freaking golf.
Over the course of nine holes, he asked us pointed questions: whether we cared if the pros could now wear shorts, if we liked some of the new Rules of Golf. Basically, he asked our view on the red-meat stuff that drives golf Twitter. He was genuinely curious what we thought.
On the 12th hole, which Alex birdied with a pitch to gimme distance, we got to eat some incredible Puerto Rican brisket right on Coco Beach. That moment -- the beach, the sun, the breeze, the brisket and the golf -- was perfection.
And then we managed to bungle the next two holes trying to be too aggressive, making goofy pars that no winning shamble team ever makes. It got so desperate on the 13th hole that we boulder-hopped onto an island in a hazard in hopes of finding a drive we could use.
Some of the poor play was probably the heat. Some was the Medalla started to do its thing. But we had to rally. We birdied the par-5 15th. Jason made a tricky putt to birdie the par-3 16th before Josh could even read the result of his own tee shot.
Then we got to No. 17. J.P. nearly drove the green. Alex drove over the green, into a back bunker. And then the sky opened up in a typical Puerto Rican rain storm -- hard and heavy for less than 15 minutes, giving way to as-you-were conditions. Maybe sensing we were about to get it, J.P. chipped to about 2 feet to save birdie and keep the momentum going.
We drove our carts over to a Port-a-John farm under a tent and waited. Our walking scorer said one team had already posted 16-under total. He couldn't see the full leaderboard, he said, just the best score and the average score. Based on our mental accounting, we figured we had to make albatross on the par-5 closer to tie.
For the pros, the finishing hole at Coco Beach is about 600 yards. If it plays downwind, plenty of pros can get there in two. Josh pounded a drive, probably a good 300 yards, leaving himself a long iron into the green.
We, on the other hand, had a 100-yard advantage and nothing to lose. I walloped a drive over the corner of the slight dogleg in the hole and hoped it would be good enough to give us a clear shot at a miracle deuce. It did. We had 165 yards in, on a flier lie, to a pin in the front right of the green.
None of us got even close to dunking it. No one even hit the green.
As Josh caught up to us (again, the nature of teeing off so far ahead of the pros on each hole), he knew it was me who hit the drive, and he shouted, "Hey, why didn't you play this hole from where I did?!"
I shouted back, "Because you had to hit a 4-iron in, and I could hit a 9-iron!"
He nodded and laughed.
It was an anticlimactic finish, ending on a birdie when we thought we needed two better. But our foursome couldn't have more enjoyed playing with Martin and Josh. Our group was chill about the whole thing, and they were, too. It was a great, albeit random, match.
Josh told us the Tour gave the go-ahead on shorts in pro-am and practice rounds, in part, because they talked to enough sponsors that felt playing with pros in their full work uniform was too intimidating. Pants, shorts, whatever, that didn't matter. What made the experience fun and memorable was that it, frankly, was just like playing golf with my buddies at home. There was no pomp and circumstance. Half the time, we barely acknowledged we were playing golf. But Coco Beach was a beautiful playground, the hospitality from the tournament and the players was phenomenal, and I walked away a personal fan of both guys. That's what golf is supposed to do: be the backdrop for revealing someone, making new connections and strengthening old ones.
We didn't win. We finished sixth, or something like that. The winning team came in at 19 under, though they were initially listed at an absurd 31 under. We finished at 15 under. Most importantly, we finished. Because about 10 minutes after we got under the clubhouse veranda for lunch, the skies opened up for the next two hours.