On cliff's edge

Lessons learned from a week inside the ropes and out of my comfort zone at Pebble Beach
Eating crab in an Orlando restaurant one Saturday night, Kira Kazantsev had no idea what was in store for her days later.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It was the Saturday night before the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and I was sitting in Orlando at a chain restaurant with some CMN Hospitals work colleagues after a long day of shooting a new Children’s Hospitals fundraising campaign for the golf community called #PlayYellow. I decided to allow myself the indulgence of ordering snow crab and while I was mid-crack of a crab leg, likely dabbing up some butter, my phone rang.

The caller? Steve Jon, CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, a.k.a. the man who makes all the recommendations for the pro-am field at Pebble Beach. I had met Steve and his wonderful team two years earlier when I played in the Pure Insurance Championship Pro-Am, which also takes place at Pebble Beach. When I saw that he was calling, I assumed that he would want me to come down to do some social media, or maybe they needed help with something?

When I answered, all he said was “How would you like to play in the AT&T Pro-Am?” To which I responded, “I’m sorry, WHAT?”

I didn’t finish my snow crab. It turned out that a participant was considering pulling out due to a health concern. When Steve and the tournament organizers thought about who they could replace him with, the good folks at the MPF somehow landed on me. I wouldn't know for sure until Monday morning if the spot would be available, so I was wracked with anticipation and insomnia. In fact, once I finally fell asleep that night I ended up oversleeping and missing my flight home from Orlando the next morning. I spent Super Bowl Sunday in the airport trying to get home.

Finally, on Monday at 10 a.m., Steve called and said one simple sentence: "You’re in." By 2 p.m., I was in the car from my home in San Francisco, headed down to Pebble Beach. By 6pm, I was at Clint Eastwood’s party. And that was the least exciting thing that happened all week, if you can believe it.

Tuesday Practice Round

I played the week as a 16 handicap, which meant I was given a stroke on all but two holes. Making pars and birdies was my path to helping the team. I’ll be honest: walking into Player Dining on Tuesday morning was pretty surreal. There’s DJ ... And over there Spieth ... Oh hey Jason Day ... What’s up, Pat Perez?

On the driving range, Patrick Reed warmed up in the spot next to me and offered some calming words. Chris Stroud walked by and offered some friendly advice. My buddy Chris Harrison happened to be playing a practice round at Pebble later that day and was kind enough to include me. Chris, Colt Ford, Pat Monahan and I played all 18 holes of Pebble that day while I walked around in absolute bliss.

Wednesday Practice Round

First of all, watching Day work is unbelievable. The attention to detail and routine is stunning. His caddie’s book was color coded for things like wind, temperature, grass, moisture, etc.

Pat Monahan and Chris Harrison had big plans to play 9 holes at Spyglass Hill Wednesday morning with none other than Jason Day. Fortunately for me, their fourth dropped out. Ever the available one to play golf, I happily filled in the spot. First of all, watching Day work is unbelievable. His attention to detail and routine is stunning. His caddie’s book was color-coded for things like wind, temperature, grass, moisture, etc. It was a display of golf expertise I had never seen in person. Beyond all of that, he turned out to be one of the nicest and most down-to-earth guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. His wife Ellie was even more impressive and kind. Jason took the time to give me advice, walk me through dealing with nerves and actually get to know me. This guy is the real deal and it was a dream to be a part of the foursome that day.

Kira and Jason Day during the practice round at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

After the round, we headed back to Pebble Beach for, to me, the dreaded hole-in-one challenge. Okay, it wasn’t exactly “dreaded,” but it was certainly my first big test of nerves for the week. Imagine being broadcast playing golf live by CBS in front of hundreds of in person fans while Gary McCord, Clint Eastwood, and Jim Nantz call your shot. Oh, also, you’re the only woman and no one really knows who you are. You’re walking around with Wayne Gretzky, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Ray Romano, Michael Peña, Alfonso Ribeiro, Kelly Slater, Andy Garcia, just to name a few, and you somehow have to convince yourself that you belong here, in this crazy bubble on a platform in the middle of the 17th tee at Pebble Beach.

Each golfer gets two shots at the par-3 hole-in-one challenge for charity. After waiting for what fely like ages, I finally walked up to take my shot.

Shot 1 inner monologue: OMG OMG OMG, back swing, AHHHH! I yanked it 30 yards left and left it 20 yards short of the hole. Behind me, Alfonso was yelling “Kira, SWING THROUGH!” over and over again. I took a deep breath, put on my best Miss America smile and swung the darn club through. I landed on the green 20 feet from the hole to the surprise of many (including myself) and the eruption of cheers. I did it. What nerves? In the adrenaline, I ran up to Clint, Gary and Jim and shook their hands.

I could die happy.

Thursday Morning Round 1: Monterey Peninsula Country Club

I met my pro partner, Ryan Armour, on the range. (Important to mention: Ryan and his wife are two of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.) All week, Ryan was patient and kind, coached me through the tough moments and reminded me to relax and have fun. Joining the foursome for the week was Alfonso Ribeiro and his pro Jason Gore. Both of them were extremely generous with pep talks and support throughout the week. I was comforted by the fact that no matter what, I was going to have an amazing time with these guys and they were going to make my Pebble Beach experience special.

My front 9 play of MPCC left much to be desired, to say the least. I yanked more than a few drives, chunked several shots, and dribbled a fairway wood or two, among other woes. There wasn’t a par in sight. The pressure of being there, the galleries and the sheer magnitude of it all suddenly made an appearance in my muscles, and they were not cooperating.

But as we made the turn, the crowds seemed to have less of an effect. The constant reminders from Ryan, Jason, Alfonso and my caddie, Chris, to relax, started to sink in and I made a par, and then another, and then another, and then scrambled for some key up-and-downs for two more pars, and then we made it to the par 5 16th hole. My caddie said, “This is usually a par 4, but I think for the tournament they’ve made it a par 5. I’m not sure; let’s play it as a par 4 anyway.”

Shot 1: Drive down the middle
Shot 2: 165-yard 6 hybrid to the second cut, just off the green, pin-high
Shot 3: Short chip to within two feet
Shot 4: Putt rolls in for...par? No! The putt rolls in for birdie and a net eagle for the card!

Team Armour was at 8 under for the day with a birdie from Ryan.

As we walked off the 16th green, Alfonso came over, grabbed my shoulders and said “You belong here, kid.” It was the single best stretch of golf I had ever had and gave me the confidence I needed to start thinking that I could actually do well in this thing.

(Important to mention, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed were in the group behind us all week, so the gallery situation was a bit crazy. Even crazier, walking out of the scoring office to run into them and pass casual "hellos" every day.)

Alfonso Ribeiro and Kira high five on the eighteenth hole green during the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.

Friday Morning Round 2: Spyglass Hill

Rain was going to become a factor on Friday. As a result, they moved the tee times up one hour and our group had the very first tee time. My 4:30 a.m. wakeup call and pitch-darkness warmup for the 7:00 a.m. tee time was rough but well worth it when we walked off the 18th green that day just at the start of sprinkling rain. I had played 9 holes at Spyglass a few days before in that awesome foursome with Jason Day. But on this day, it was cold and wet from rain the night before, not to mention the nerves came back and I wasn’t doing well on the front 9…again. But, like clockwork, as we rounded the back 9, Ryan grabbed a birdie and the par streak began with some really key up and downs. They weren’t pretty, but they were pars. We finished 5 under for the day and 13 under overall.

Saturday Morning Round 3: Pebble Beach

This was it. We had to do well to make the cut. It was more pressure than I have ever felt, even when competing for Miss America! On the front 9, I was able to bag two pars for net birdies. But then we were up and down with bogeys and pars for the next few holes, so the round began to show its teeth. And I began to panic. I knew we had to get to at least 18-under to make the cut. As the number of opportunities to make birdies dwindled, we were sitting squarely at -16. We needed just two more with four holes to play.

Ryan carded a birdie with an insanely clutch putt and as we came to number 18, we were still at only 17-under. Either he had to make birdie or I had to make at least par to get us within the cut line. In that moment, the pressure of doing well and making the cut slipped away and the excitement of what we had achieved as a team set in.

I was playing the 18th hole at Pebble Beach on Saturday during the AT&T Pro-Am. The fairway became my runway. Waving at fans, hooting and hollering, dancing and running between each shot, I just could not contain the immense joy I felt in being there.

Shot 1: Straight and long drive lands right of the tree in the fairway
Shot 2: Giant group of fans congregates around me, 165-yard 6 hybrid lands 105 yards short of the green to fanfare from the crowd and high-fives all around.
Shot 3: Pitching wedge into the rough just off the green
Shot 4: Little chip to 2 feet
Shot 5: I roll the putt in for PAR (net birdie)!

As we ran off the green and into the CBS Tent to for the post round interview, Amanda Balionis told me that I had made the cut. All I could do was dance on live television. I was one of two women to make the Sunday cut. All this in my first appearance at Pebble Beach, and as a last-minute addition to boot. It could not have been a more special moment.

My immigrant parents, who walked the course with me that day, spent every spare dime they had (which was not much) on golf lessons and equipment for me from age 3-14, before I decided to quit. That day was the first time they had seen me play competitively in 13 years. I was there because of their investment and foresight that golf would be an incredible opportunity for me. The emotion of having them there in that moment was almost overwhelming.

Kira and Alfonso Ribiero interviewed by CBS's Amanda Balionis following the third round.

Sunday Morning Final Round: Pebble Beach

The weather was not on our side on Sunday. After having our tee time delayed by an hour, we finally got to hit our tee shots off of No. 10. I even took my jacket off because it got warm for a second. But nature had other ideas, and just as I walked up to hit my approach, it started to rain. Then it started to hail. We took cover under umbrellas for about 30 minutes and then watched the greens crew come out to roll the greens for another 15 minutes before play was suspended.

Two hours later, play resumed, but it had already been a long day and we still had 18 holes to play. But the experience of playing on that Sunday was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. It was eerily quiet and it was an incredibly long and exhausting day. I didn’t play particularly well, other than a par-3 birdie that carded me a net ace and a few other pars here and there. But the magic of having my family there to experience every step with me and the weird high that came with finishing the last hole in near darkness and running from shot to shot to make it in time was something that I will hold on to forever as one of the greatest golf experiences I have had, or ever will have.

my advice to anyone who is scared of something is not to put those fears aside because that’s impossible, but to go for the big things and operate to your best ability within those feelings of fear and discomfort, because in those moments growth occurs and we are better for that growth.

My biggest takeaway from the week, is that when I was asked to do this, my first emotion was fear. What will people think? Will golf fans judge? Will the tour players judge? Am I ready for this? What if I mess up? And I did mess up a ton. But getting through the week despite that fear of failure has given me a newfound sense of confidence in that you truly can exceed even your own wildest dreams and expectations. Those aren’t just words - they are my reality. So my advice to anyone who is scared of something is not to put those fears aside because that’s impossible, but to go for the big things and operate to your best ability within those feelings of fear and discomfort, because in those moments growth occurs and we are better for that growth. We become better humans.

And this experience, this game, has made me a better human.

Up Next

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Kira recounts an exciting week at Pebble Beach

I’d like to give a huge thank-you to all of the people that gave me a pass on work obligations for the week and said that, no matter what, I had to be at Pebble.

Thanks to all of the fans that wrote me messages and comments and were so incredibly supportive of my Pebble experience. Thanks to my friends and family who made the trip to walk extremely difficult golf courses through some very brutal weather with smiles on their faces. In fact, when I made the cut, my fiance drove up from his Marine Corps drill weekend through the night from Camp Pendleton so that he could walk the course with me on Sunday. To all of my friends who couldn’t make it but sent me so much love, thank you! Thanks Jim Nantz for saying my name. Thanks to the folks at AT&T for your hard work all week and for having me. Thanks to the greens crews for dealing with a crazy weather week and making the course beautiful for us to play.

Thanks to my caddie Chris Marin for being the Pebble Beach Golf Links ninja and literally never steering me in the wrong direction. Also, you are one patient man and I really made you work hard, for which I appreciate you so much. Thanks to Ryan Armour for being a dream partner and an amazing mentor in golf. Thanks to Alfonso Ribeiro for being an incredible playing partner and hype man. No one was more excited for me than you. Thanks Chris Harrison for always taking the time to include me in things and for being such a steadfast supporter of mine. Huge thanks go out to the team at the Monterey Peninsula Foundation for choosing me for this honor and for your hard work all week, especially Steve Jon and Morgan Matthews.

I look forward to many more epic golf experiences and sharing them with the Golf Advisor Family. Thanks for all of the support and I hope to see you on a golf course soon!

Kira K Dixon (formerly Kazantsev) is a reporter for Golf Channel's Golf Today and Golf Central shows and Special Contributor to GolfPass. Kira grew up playing golf and was Miss America in 2015. 
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This was a great article! Thank you for sharing this experience from your real emotions. What a privliege to have the opportunity! I admire most how your recognized the compassion and support from other and your family! And way to go Mr. Fiance.

I am just being to learn golf myself (at 53) although my mother wanted me to play when I was younger....so Kudos to your parent's sacrifice to provide this gift of golf to you!

Heading to Pebble in August........

Wishing continued birdies and eagles!


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Congrats on your success.

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Great blog on your experience at the Pro-Am. I was a Marshal at MPCC, on hole 16 on Thursday and was so impressed and PROUD that you represented women everywhere with your guts to play and play well. I was also the Marshal on #6 on Sunday, still impressed by your play on a difficult weather day. I love your quote too!

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Great story and thanks for sharing. What I wouldn't give to be able to play that course and that tournament.

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Followed you on Friday, talked to your nice mom enjoyed your glow and great golf shots!

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Thanks for sharing your amazing experience! Congratulations! Go back next year and win the thing!

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Good show. What a wonderful experience and story. Dreams do come true:)

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On cliff's edge