The unique format utilized at TPC Tampa Bay for this week's Encompass Insurance Pro-Am isn't a natural fit for defending champion John Cook.
Cook, who sank a 6-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole here last year to defeat Jay Don Blake, admits he hasn't always been comfortable on a golf course in the company of strangers.
"I learned early on that I wasn't very good with people,'' said Cook, who is seeking to become the fifth player to win the Champions Tour event twice. "I was very shy and wasn't really sure how to approach pro-ams."
Back in the early 1980s, Mark O'Meara gave him some advice.
"He told me to look at it one of two different ways," Cook said. "I could have a miserable time and all my amateurs would as well, or I could have a nice time and have fun with my amateur partners because they would be more nervous than I was. When I started doing that, I started playing much better in those events.''
Cook proved to be a quick learner.
By letting his guard down, Cook's scores in pro-am events started dropping. Once he embraced the format, he won at Pebble Beach, Las Vegas and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
The field here will be rounded out by amateurs, including a celebrity list that includes Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, ex-Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks and Lightning founder Phil Esposito.
Tom Watson, who posted consecutive victories here in 2007-08, won his first pro-am event at the 1977 Bing Crosby. He was so pleased with the format, Watson successfully defended his title a year later.
"I enjoy being on the golf course with these amateurs and seeing how they react under pressure," Watson said, "because they're under a heck of a lot more pressure than I am.''
Nick Price won this event in 2009 and wouldn't mind seeing the pro-am format grow on the Champions Tour.
"It would be good if we had a couple of more like this each year,'' said Price, who is dealing with a sore left elbow.
"It's still stroke play, but there's a different feel to it this week. The only negative is it can take a longer time to play, but it's great for everyone out here and it's a lot more light-hearted.''
After Watson said the final holes at TPC Tampa Bay represent the toughest closing challenge on the Champions Tour, Price lavished praise on the 6,828-yard, par-71 layout.
"This course is in great shape,'' Price said after Thursday's practice round. "This course tests every facet of your game. I pretty much went through my whole bag today. It's a shot-maker's paradise.''
ENCOMPASS INSURANCE PRO-AM
WHERE: TPC Tampa Bay, Lutz
TV: Friday-Golf Channel, 12:30-2:30 p.m.; Saturday-Golf Channel, 6:30-9:30 p.m.; Sunday-Golf Channel, 7-9:30 p.m.
LENGTH/PAR: 6,828 yards/71
FIELD: 81 players
AMATEURS: Include Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Phil Esposito, Joe Theismann, Fred McGriff, Rick Pitino, John O'Hurley, Stone Phillips
FORMAT: 54-hole stroke play event with no cut. Friday-Saturday play will feature one amateur with one professional in a team better-ball format. Low 16 pro-am teams play on Sunday.
PURSE: $1.6 million
WINNER'S SHARE: $240,000
TICKET PRICES: $30 single-day pass, $70 weekly badge