"Just relax," my caddie said to me encouragingly and without the least bit of sarcasm. Relax? I was on the 1st tee of the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin in Las Vegas on Oct. 16 with my four partners for the day: John Daly, the gifted bad boy of golf; Darius Rucker, lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, the hottest band in the country; Richie Sambora, guitarist for the famed New Jersey hair band Bon Jovi and husband of Melrose Place vixen Heather Locklear; and Peter Morton, millionaire owner of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Vegas, where I was staying. Relaxing was not the issue. Staying upright was.
After what seemed an eternity, I summoned the strength to lift my club. Then I swung down, actually making contact with the ball, and through. "We have liftoff!" I exclaimed to myself. Well, what we had was a pull hook, but I did get the ball in the air. I wanted to quit right then, while I was ahead. I knew what could happen.
In fact, a few days before, it had happened, on a public course back home in New Jersey before I flew to Vegas to play in my very first pro-am, Fairway to Heaven II, sponsored by the cable music channel VH-1. It had been my only practice round before the celebrity-filled event, and the results had not been propitious: I lost three balls, dented my eight-iron on a rock when I tried to chip out of the woods, and was nearly decapitated by a wayward shot from an adjacent fairway. To top it off, I shot the first 70 of my life—on the front nine.
All of which explained why, five days later and four hours before teeing off in the pro-am, I had decided there was only one thing to do: Make sure I picked a lucky golf cap to wear. I settled on my old MIT cap from graduate school. The cream-and-crimson-colored hat struck just the right note. If I played decently—a huge if since I am a short, overweight female reporter with a handicap close to five touchdowns—then I would look kind of cool in the cap. But if I skunked, the lid would provide a handy explanation for my ineptitude: I was a nerd, probably never even played the game before.
Armed with my lucky cap, my 10-year-old Wilson starter set and a dozen balls my father had given me from his found-ball collection, I took the early shuttle to the TPC. Which was a good thing, because it took me an hour to force myself out of the club-house and onto the practice range. When I finally did, I walked past Melrose Place's Daphne Zuninga and movie actor Stephen Baldwin and found a place to swing between singers Amy Grant and Alice Cooper (an inspired pairing if ever there was one). With a pile of practice balls the size of Vesuvius beside me, I began to hack away. I hacked absolutely every ball into the ground. My caddie, Jim Bonnie, seemed stricken and quietly urged, "Keep your head down, relax.... That was a little too fast—just relax." I finally got a ball in the air, then a few more. I was actually starting to feel comfortable when I suddenly heard the announcement that my group was teeing off in a few minutes. I took some quick putts on the practice green, missing all but a one-footer.
The others in my group were nearby; Rucker and Daly were posing for a photographer. I took a deep breath, walked over to my partners and introduced myself. Daly took a few quick draws on a cigarette before flicking it away. Soft-spoken and laid-back, he was surprisingly warm. He remembered me, though not by name, from a tournament I'd covered a month earlier. Rucker was, if possible, even more laid-back. He is tall and stocky in a soft, teddy-bearish kind of way—Winnie the Pooh with a goatee. When I told him I was writing a story for SI, he said sincerely, "That's cool."
I was feeling slightly sick to my stomach when I stumbled in a haze toward the tee, negotiating my way through a small crowd that had swallowed up Daly and Rucker just ahead. When I finally arrived at the tee box, a large man wearing Oakleys and a scowl stepped in front of me, raised his hand and intoned firmly but politely, "Excuse me—players only through here." Head down, I hesitated, thought about bolting for the parking lot, then kept walking forward, muttering to the security guard as I passed, "I'm a player." It sounded ridiculous, of course. I almost said instead, "You're right. I'm an impostor. I promise to go quietly." But I thought of the story I had to write. I thought of the magazine. I thought of the hotel van not coming back for another six hours.
The format was a scramble. Each player in a group hit his or her own tee shot. Then each hit his or her second shot from the spot where the best drive landed, and the third from the spot of the best second shot, etc., until the ball was in the hole. My first drive—that pull hook I mentioned earlier—landed on the downslope of a mound to the left of the fairway and behind some trees. We used Daly's 296-yard drive instead. I was the fourth player to hit my second shot, a nice, high eight-iron that landed softly in the center of the green, some 20 feet from the pin. Morton, though, had played a beautiful fade and was only 15 feet away. Rucker stepped up first to try the putt and drained it. Birdie 3. Only 10 minutes into the tournament and my team was already on a roll.
At the par-4 2nd hole, I hit a decent tee shot about 180 yards down the right side of the fairway, and my effort received a smattering of applause from the gallery of 20 or 30 fans. We used Morton's drive, some 25 yards beyond mine, but none of us hit the green with our second shots—in fact, Sambora and Rucker flat-out duffed theirs. Not even Daly got it onto the putting surface, coming up short and to the left. It was Rucker, again, who went first with his third shot, pitching in from 10 yards out. Two holes. Two birdies. Daly yahooed; Sambora shook his considerable hair in disbelief; I high-fived Hootie.
By the turn we had seven birdies, two of them off Rucker's putter. I contributed a couple of missed putts, one near whiff and a lost ball that disappeared into a rocky valley well short of the green on the 163-yard par-3 5th hole. To make it worse, I let the team down on this hole. None of the men had gotten his tee shot onto the green, and when they turned to me, the last player to hit, Daly implored, "Come on, Ame, we need you." Seconds later my ball could be heard ricocheting among the rocks below. I had never felt so low.