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A good walk gets even better


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Mike Whan considers the pro-amateur events the lifeblood of the LPGA Tour.

The LPGA commissioner told me during the pairings party for the Portland Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club that one of the best things about the pro-am is the relationship formed between the pro and her amateur partners.

"You have a chance to really get to know (the pros)," Whan said. "You can text them and wish them luck, and within 15 seconds, you'll have a message back."

I had to see that one to believe it. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

I was lucky enough to play with pro Pat Hurst during Wednesday's pro-am, in a group that also included Salem jewelers Ralph and Jan Jackson and retired Calgary dentist Norman Cheng.

We were among 49 fivesomes who knocked it around on a glorious Oregon morning. I'm guessing just about everyone had a good time, but I can't believe anyone found it more enjoyable than our group.

Hurst, 45, is an accomplished veteran who ranks 23rd on the LPGA's career money list. The Rolex Rookie of the Year in 1995, Hurst's credits include six LPGA tournament wins (including a major, the 1998 Nabisco Dinah Shore, and the 2006 Portland Safeway Classic) and five Solheim Cup appearances.

It has not been a good year for Hurst — she has missed the cut in 11 of 15 events and has only $41,078 in earnings — but she is just glad to be out playing. In August 2012, she underwent a total abdominal colectomy and thought she would forced to retire.

On Wednesday, Hurst hit the ball like a top-20 pro, leading a team of high handicappers to a respectable scramble score of 12-under-par 60.

Most important to her teammates, she didn't act like a big shot. She made all of her partners feel comfortable immediately, engaging everyone — including Cheng's 16-year-old daughter, Lauren — in conversation during the round and keeping a friendly banter with the entire party.

"I really do enjoy the pro-ams," Hurst told me. "Every once in a while you have a bad experience, but overall, I've had really good experiences. I've met a lot of good people. Whatever you put into it is what you get out of it."

Pro-ams are a major money-generator for the LPGA Tour. Sponsors pay top dollar for the opportunity to get a spot playing alongside the pros.

"Pro-ams are the business part of the deal," Whan said. "We always say it's dinner, so you can have dessert. I come to tournament sites Tuesday and Wednesday and usually leave Thursday for a reason."

For most of the 43 years Portland has hosted an LPGA event, two days of pro-ams have been staged. The last two years, it has been limited to a single day. The top 30 pros on the money list are automatically entered; tournament officials select the other 20. Tournament Golf Foundation President Tom Maletis tapped Hurst, knowing she'd be a great ambassador for both the tournament and the tour.

But it's not just Hurst. Almost all of the LPGA pros are willing participants.

"We don't have to try," Hurst said. "It comes naturally to most of us to have a good time out here."

Maletis has had experience with pro-ams on both the PGA and LPGA circuits. He notices a difference.

"The women pros want to play in pro-ams," he said. "No. 1, it gives them a practice round on the course. No. 2, they understand the LPGA wants to get close to the sponsors. They get it."

The PGA and Champions tours also have pro-ams. PGA events feature one-day pro-ams; Champions tourneys have two.

"Some guys play both events, others play one," said Dave Senko, public relations manager for the Champions Tour. "It's different with the PGA, but on our tour, every guy has to play at least one pro-am. It's an important money-maker for us."

On the PGA Tour, though, not every player enjoys it. And some of them show it.

"If you want to be miserable," Hurst said simply, "life can be miserable."

One other advantage to the LPGA pro-am: The women don't hit their drives as long as the men.

"You can actually play with them," Whan said. "The average drive on our tour is 258 yards, so 40-year-old men can hit with them. On the PGA Tour, (pros) are beyond the good players 70 yards."

I can tell you, none of Hurst's partners were hitting drives anywhere near where she was bombing them on Wednesday. But point well-taken.

Every golf group has a character. Ours was Cheng, 49, an effervescent personality who pulled his left shoulder out of a sling to hit an array of good shots. The shoulder is eventually going to require surgery, but he didn't want to miss what he regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Tiger needs to learn from you how to suck it up," Hurst cracked at one point.

Cheng offered his partners a unique way of lining up putts, something to do with a finger in the air, a method that left us all grinning, especially after he drained a 20-footer for birdie.

"This is the Chinese dentist version (of lining up a putt)," he said. "It works sometimes."

The glass is half full for Cheng, whose rapid-fire commentary drew this from Hurst: "Norman, do you talk in your sleep?"

Like all of us, Cheng was errant at times.

"I hit that one into the water with conviction," he observed after drilling a drive into the wet stuff.

Hurst couldn't help but smile when Whan, playing in the group ahead, left a beer at her ball on the sixth green.

"Should I shotgun it?" she said, shrugging. "Nah. Too early."

We all had our moments. Jan Jackson sank three birdie putts, including a 40-footer on No. 9. I made three midrange birdie putts and lipped out a 40-foot attempt on No. 13.

We all had caddies, an unusual occurrence for those of us in the duffer category. Mine was Harvey Chan, a small business specialist at U.S. Bank who volunteered his time because he loves golf. You did well, Harvey.

So did Hurst's caddy, former LPGA Tour pro Meaghan Francella, who beat Annika Sorenstam in a playoff for the 2007 MasterCard Classic title and finished tied for fifth in the Kraft Nabisco championship and 29th on money list that year. She read putts and kept us on target all day long.

When it was over, the group ate lunch together and shared some chit-chat. Testing Whan's tip, I asked Hurst for her cell-phone number. Then I texted her late Wednesday night after we both attended the Eagles concert at the Moda Center, thanking her for the great day on the course and adding, "What did you think of the Eagles?"

Late Thursday, I heard back from Hurst. (It wasn't 15 minutes, but I'll cut her some slack. The woman has a job to do during her time in Portland.)

And yes, she liked the Eagles.

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