Dreaming big as Round 1 approaches

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Here's everything you need to know about Roland Thatcher: On the Nationwide Tour, players are allowed three pro-am "drops," meaning on multiple occasions they can decline an invitation to tee it up with a quartet of 21-handicap CEOs, glad-handing their way through a cumbersome five-hour round. Thatcher, however, has yet to bow out of any Wednesday event -- and doesn't plan on doing so anytime soon.

"I just can't do that," he says.

Actually, yes he can. With only a trio of tournaments left on this year's schedule, Thatcher could blow off each of the remaining pro-ams, if only his conscience would let him. It's just that as the leading money winner on tour for much of this season, he feels a responsibility to uphold the status of such a position.

It's an honorable stance and one which resulted in an 8 a.m. tee time at Black Creek Club on Wednesday, Thatcher grouped with four fine (and fine-playing) Southern gentlemen while I looped my first 18-holer for him in advance of my professional caddying debut at this week's Chattanooga Classic.

If Tuesday's lightning-quick nine-hole practice round was Introduction to Caddying 101, the pro-am served as an upper-level class. No longer was I being asked simply to lug the bag from shot to shot and tend to the flagstick on greens; Thatcher was now asking for my assistance on everything from club selection to yardage distances.

Anyone who's played the game recreationally knows how to find yardage. It's not brain surgery; simply find the nearest marked sprinkler head, then pace off the distance to your golf ball. If the hole is cut in the back of the green, take an extra club. In front? One club less.

For a precision player like Thatcher, though, getting an absolute proper distance requires checking the pin sheet and doing some fifth-grade math. If you have trouble adding 14 to 167 -- that would be the number of paces into the green that the hole is cut, plus yardage to the front -- then this gig ain't for you. On top of that, a caddie needs to formulate the distance to carry a greenside bunker or creek, all the while adjusting for elevation, wind and slope of the green. If that seems like a lot of variables, it is.

How'd I do? Well, we made a few birdies, nobody got injured and my loop still had a smile on his face when we walked off 18.

Of course, so did his pro-am partners. Like any good pro competing with folks who shelled out a few grand for the outing, Thatcher remembered everyone's name, cheered for their putts to drop and made small talk in between shots.

But Thatcher isn't just nice; he's a thoughtful, engaging personality, who actually seems to enjoy teeing it up and shooting the breeze with strangers. Prior to this week, I'd heard from people who grew up playing amateur golf with him in Texas, those who competed against him when he played collegiately at Auburn, and current peers, but not one had a discouraging word to say about the 30-year-old, eighth-year professional.

If that doesn't have you rooting for him, then try this: He owns perhaps the most unique sponsorship deal in professional golf. In exchange for placing a logo for the Houston-based Saint Arnold Brewing Company on his shirt sleeves, Thatcher receives a monthly payment … in beer.

"It's a product that I have been using ever since I got out of college," he says with a laugh. "They get free advertising. I get free beer. No money involved."

Sort of makes Tiger Woods' $100-million Gatorade deal pale in comparison, doesn't it?

While Thatcher won't be making Woods-like money anytime soon -- then again, neither will any other athlete on the face of the planet -- he'll run with Tiger's crowd next year as part of the "big tour," as players refer to it here on the Nationwide circuit. A two-time PGA Tour member, Thatcher has already locked up full status for the 2008 season, but is still seeking more. Based on a rule instituted last year, the leading money winner on the "small tour" not only receives a promotion, but remains immune to the reshuffles, alternate status and Monday qualifying issues that plague many of the tour's nonelite, while earning inclusion into fields at the Players Championship and various other invitational events.

As a veteran of Q-school for six years running, those are luxuries he's never been afforded. In 2004, Thatcher finished 177th on the money list, despite finishing just one stroke out of a playoff at the Reno-Tahoe Open. He fought his way back the next season, only to move up to 173rd.

What did it teach him?

"Well, I learned I wasn't good enough those first two years," he said. "You get a chance to see how the superstars and the guys who you idolized growing up handle themselves, and how they perform when they've got so many other distractions going on. And you get a chance to learn what it's really like to be a professional golfer. It's a transition that you can't really describe until you make and you can't really prepare for until it happens."

For Thatcher, it will happen -- again -- next year. Or sooner. A victory this week would propel him to an in-season promotion, just in time to compete in the PGA Tour's final two events of the season.

Of course, a victory this week would come with a rookie looper on the bag. But you can't fault me for already thinking big on a Wednesday.

Coming Thursday: Round 1

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com