How I Spent My Thanksgiving--Greg Raymer


by Greg Raymer

It's a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and I get a phone call from Rich Korbin, the Director of Marketing for PokerStars. Somehow he has finagled an invitation for me to attend the Celebrity Pro-Am that takes place prior to the Skins Game (the long-standing annual golf competition where four top professional golfers are invited to play against one another on Thanksgiving Day weekend on national television for a million dollars). Heck, I didn't even know that there was a celebrity pro-am associated with this thing. And you're saying I might get to play golf with Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Fred Funk, or Annika Sorenstam? You bet I'll go!

The Pro-Am was on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the day before the start of the Skins Game itself. Because I was coming into this event so late, I couldn't fly in on Thursday, as the flights were pretty much booked for that day. Instead, I flew to Palm Springs on Wednesday afternoon. The event organizers had put me up in a place called Casitas Las Rosas, which was kind of like an apartment complex. I had a nice little one-bedroom unit with a kitchen and living room, very comfortable.

I called up Kaitlin, the lady from Trilogy who was organizing my participation, and got set up to play a practice round on Thanksgiving Day. I was paired up with three guys from St. Louis. Raj, a Merrill Lynch advisor, and two of his clients, Andy and John. Merrill Lynch is the main sponsor of the Skins Game, and most of the pro-am participants are clients of theirs. John and Andy are real estate developers, and they and Raj are all 30-something young guys who all play a great game of golf. Their handicaps are 4, 5, and 12, if I recall correctly, while mine is about 20. We played a game called Vegas for $1 a point, and I was told that it was rare to win or lose more than $50 over 18 holes. Well, Raj shot 1 under par on the front nine, and was stuck $160 already. I ended up shooting 91, but because of the weird structure of this game, I was the big winner, to the tune of $178. I did make two birdies, which is huge for me, but I also had my typical 3 or 4 holes where I shot an X. That means, your score for that hole is so high, you just take the maximum and move on. I think John and Andy won as well, so Raj must have lost at least 6 times as much as he told me a typical big loser would suffer. I was pretty impressed that he could shoot a scratch round, and still play client golf at the same time. ;-)

The Pro-Am started the next day bright and early, with breakfast at 7am. They had a long driving exhibition on the range, but I missed it, as I didn't manage to arrive until 8am, just enough time to grab a quick bite at the breakfast buffet. While eating, I started chatting with the guys at the next table over, who turned out to be Major League pitcher Brett Tomko and his brother, both very nice guys. I also signed several autographs for some fans between bites.

After eating I found Rich Korbin, who had flown in from Colorado to check out this event and do a little marketing for PokerStars. While chatting outside I spotted Fred Couples, and went to say hello. He saw me walking towards him, and said something to the effect of "Hey, I know you. I watch you on TV all the time." Well, Fred is well-known for his addiction to watching sports, so I guess that carries over to poker as well. Fred lived up to his reputation as being a friendly and genuine guy, nice to everybody who came up to him, always with a grin on his face. I told Fred that I had moved to a golf course in Raleigh, NC, and that he was welcome to visit anytime if he wanted to trade some golf lessons for poker lessons. He said he might take me up on that, so we will see.

While inside I had been given a gift bag which went to all of the Pro-Am participants. A nice travel bag with some Izod shirts and a hat, as well as a card to fill out for a free made-to-order set of Callaway golf clubs! My Dad is going to get these, and I'm sure he will love them. While taking this stuff back to my rental car, I walked by a huge group of young men and women all wearing the same orange shirt and tan slacks. It turns out that these were all Marines from a nearby camp who had volunteered to be the marshals for the event. I stopped on the way back and took several pictures with them, as well as signing a few souvenirs. A great bunch of guys we can all be proud of.

I also ran into Gary McCord on the way back, and asked him if he was a poker player. He said that he was a magician, and cheated, so nobody would let him play anymore. I went on to the putting green, which was fenced off with a white picket fence and a single gate for the players to enter. It was pretty weird to have 100 people standing around and watching you putt. Can't imagine doing that myself, unless the celebrities doing the putting were Playboy bunnies or some such.

Proceeding to the range, I waited for a spot to open up so I could hit. While I had been hitting the ball mostly pretty well the day before, I was terrible this day. I wasn't nervous or anything, so I don't know what the problem was. I just couldn't find the groove on my full swing all day. Brett Tomko was next to me, and had a pretty good swing, but he wasn't happy with his game either at that point. They say golf is a game of mistakes, so I guess I was going to play some real golf today.

Walking to my cart, I spotted John Elway. Rich was standing nearby, and I knew he was a big Broncos fan, so I said let me introduce you to John Elway. We walked over, and I introduced myself to him, and then Rich. Like so many sports fans and athletes, John is also a big poker fan. We tried to talk him into coming to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, and he appeared to like the idea. If any of his fans come to the PCA and expect to see him, none of this is a promise, but we are hopeful he will be interested in attending. Now, if you listen to Rich tell the story, while I was chatting with John, several fans brushed by and ignored him to ask me for an autograph. The way I remember it, one fan did this, while about 5-10 other fans brushed by me to get his autograph.



Greg Raymer and John Elway

We started the Pro-Am, and I was paired with four very nice guys from ESPN. We were playing a shamble, which is a modified scramble. All five of us hit a tee shot, and we pick the best one. The four amateurs each play their second and subsequent shots from the best drive playing independently. As the celebrity/pro member of the group, I was supposed to play my own tee shot whether they picked it or not, and play out the hole from there. The best individual score, after adjusting for handicap, would count as the team score. As you might imagine, with a 20 handicap, I was either the worst golfer in the fivesome or close to it, so this format did not make it very likely I would be of much help to my team. If they had instead had the good fortune to be paired with one of the professional golf celebrities, then they would have gotten some help.

After playing 9 holes, each group was supposed to switch around, and trade their pro/celebrity for the pro/celebrity from another group. My four guys from ESPN probably had better luck with their new celebrity, a pro golfer. My new guys probably weren't that thrilled with their new celebrity, who did not bust 330 yard drives like the previous one. However, they were very friendly to me, and their disappointment did not show, so I give them my thanks. Talking to a couple of these guys, I found out that they worked for Trilogy, the company who owned this golf course and had built the surrounding community. I made the mistaken assumption that the other two guys also worked for Trilogy. At one point a few holes later, I was talking to Dan, a member of this group who was clearly very athletic, though also clearly not quite up to the level of a professional golfer. In fact, his golf bag had his name sewn into it, along with the phrase "World's Greatest Athlete." I asked him how old his kids were, and had they gotten him this golf bag as a Father's Day gift. He told me no, he got the bag for winning the gold medal in the Decathlon in the 1996 Olympics. "Oh, you're THAT Dan O'Brien" was my intelligent follow-up. Fortunately, Dan is a very nice guy, and didn't hold this mistake against me. I also told him about the PCA, and asked him to contact us about attending.

I was able to provide some help to this second foursome. On our second hole together, a 180 yard par 3, I was last to tee off. One of our group had put his ball on the green, but had left a putt of at least 80 feet. Everybody else had missed the green entirely. I informed them all that it wasn't necessary to test me under pressure like this, because I could perform equally poorly with or without any pressure. I then stepped up and hit a crisp 5-wood to about 10 feet from the hole. Maybe pressure is a good thing for my game. However, I was of very little help to their score over the next 7 holes, so apparently they needed to apply the pressure more than they did. Most of them could outdrive me at will, including one tee shot that Dan busted at least 350 yards. So much for my new and improved 250 yard drives.

The round of golf was fun, even if I played rather poorly. There was a small crowd of observers on most of the holes, and they were very friendly. I even got some nice golf applause on a few half-decent shots. Unfortunately, there had not been much of an audience for the 180 yard par 3 that I hit tight, but a good shot is satisfaction enough in itself.

I drove back to my hotel room, and got cleaned up, as this was the big night. Merrill Lynch and Tiger Woods were hosting a big party at the golf club, and it was going to be a good time for all, I was sure. All or most of the pros and celebrities were expected to be in attendance, as well as most of the amateur participants in the Pro-Am. The party started at 7pm, but Rich called me at 20 minutes before 7, asking me where I was. Slow down, Rich, 6:40 is not fashionably late. ;-)

When I arrived a little after 7pm, I found Rich, and he told me he needed to introduce me to Tom, the photographer. Tom had been hired to wander around the party and take pictures, but Rich had paid him to follow me for a while, and get shots of me with various celebrities. I found this pretty amusing, but since Rich had already paid him, I made it a point to find some of the celebs and introduce myself, at least for the photo opp. Our first goal was to find Tiger, and get a picture with him.

First we had to find out if he was around or not, which wasn't hard, as he was unexpectedly surrounded by a large group of people. As I slowly moved towards him, Rich and Tom came up behind me, and kept telling me to be more aggressive, to just push myself in there and say hi. Not my style. So, as I came towards him, he started walking away from his group, and away from me. I kept trailing him out the first room and into the next, until he finally slowed down for a minute. As I walked closer, he turned towards me, grinned as he saw me, stuck out his hand and said "I know you, and no, we're not playing any poker together." Of course, I wanted to know why, as I had heard he enjoyed gambling. He said he mostly played blackjack, at which point we got into a conversation about card counting. I told him he could probably get away with counting cards as effectively as anybody in the world, as what casino would ever want to bar him, even if he was winning? As our chat continued, I told him that if he wanted to improve his poker game, I would trade him some poker lessons for golfing lessons. I also invited him to the PCA as well, telling him what a great group of poker players would be there, and how much fun it would be for him and us. I think he liked the idea, but I suspect his calendar is a bit full, even that time of year, so I'm not holding my breath.




Greg Raymer and Tiger Woods

Later on I was outside getting some of the great crabcakes at the buffet, and I saw Paul Azinger. Now here was somebody I needed to talk to. One of my last trips to Foxwoods, a floorman had told me that Paul had been in there a few weeks prior, during the Greater Hartford Open golf tournament, and had asked if he could be introduced to me. The floorman had informed him that I wasn't at Foxwoods much, even though I lived nearby, and was out of town a lot. However, since he had been asking for me those several weeks ago, I wanted to see what he wanted. I walked up to say hi, and mentioned that I had heard he was looking for me. He said it was nothing in particular, he had merely heard that I lived near Foxwoods, and he was hoping I would be around so he could meet me. He asked me a lot of questions about online poker and PokerStars, and is clearly very interested in playing poker and getting better at it. I also invited him to come visit me in North Carolina and trade some golf lessons for poker lessons.



Paul Azinger, Greg Raymer, and John Elway

While Paul and I were talking, John Elway walked up and joined us. He was also an extremely friendly and likable guy, who was also very interested in learning more about poker, both live and online. The amazing thing is that all of these great athletes tell me how impressed they are when they watch me and other pros play poker on TV. They say they don't understand how we stay so calm when making million dollar decisions. I think they have it backwards. All we have to do as poker players is to think. The execution of those thoughts isn't that hard. On the other hand, they have to think, figure out the right play, and then they have to physically execute that decision. And often under just as much or more money pressure than a poker player. I know I'm impressed when I watch these guys perform on TV, and it's hard to imagine that they are impressed with us for playing poker, but somehow, they are.

While I would have enjoyed hanging out at the golf course the next two days and watching the Skins Game itself unfold, I also wanted to get back home and spend some time with my family. The only downside of my new life is that I am on the road a lot, and don't get to see my wife and daughter as much as I would prefer. I have to thank Cheryl for letting me go to this golf tournament and miss Thanksgiving at home, and for all the other inconveniences she has put up with in the last year and a half.


Brad Willis
@BradWillis in PokerStars news