Sports Stars, Actors and Politicians hit the Links
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on a golf course? That incredible day when you almost shot level par or maybe your first hole-in-one? Perhaps it was winning a club competition, but for a growing number of ordinary club golfers, it was spending four hours with a celebrity player in a pro-am. For lots of us, the fun of playing alongside a star from another sport, a renowned actor or even a notorious politician is the story we tell most often in the clubhouse bar.
Nowadays, there are increasing numbers of chances to hit the links with the rich and famous because of the pro-am competitions that take place on the day before every regular PGA Tour event and on the Seniors Tour too. And then there’s one of the most prominent tournaments on the Tour where four celebrity golfers are part of the main action: the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in California.
First played in 1937 at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club and hosted by the king of the crooners Bing Crosby, the inaugural winner Sam Snead took home just $500; today the winner’s check is $1.3 million. Crosby would have his name attached to the tournament long before AT&T came on the scene, and his efforts in promoting the game of golf would eventually lead to his place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Crosby was a very accomplished player and so are many of the modern-day stars of stage and screen such as actor/comedian Bill Murray, rock giant Alice Cooper and singer Justin Timberlake. Even celebrity couples will get together for a round of golf including the likes of Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas and his wife, Academy-Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, it is often the athletes from other sports who make the fans gasp with their golfing ability and who achieve the lowest handicaps.
Longtime Dallas Cowboy quarterback and new TV football pundit Tony Romo is thought to be one of the best players out of the NFL in recent years. After partnering with Tiger Woods in an AT&T event a few years ago, Romo was called “a helluva golfer” by the 14-time major winner and has tried on several occasions to qualify for the U.S. Open, although without success. The ex-Cowboy QB boasts a handicap of around three but is far from alone in terms of decent golfers who were NFL passers. They include former QBs such as Peyton Manning—who once shot a five over par score at Augusta National—Brett Favre, Trent Green and Jim Kelly.
There are plenty of current NFL passers who are also extremely competent golfers starting with Ben Rothlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers (he can just about play off scratch), Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (whose swing has been likened to that of former U.S. Open champion Ernie Els) and Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals (who is a celebrity-am regular with a single digit handicap). But there are also plenty of NFL defenders who have game like Buffalo Bills’ defensive end Kyle Williams who can also play off scratch, plus the coaches who like to relax on the links including Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
However, one of the most intriguing stories in recent years about a football player with a love of golf has been Jerry Rice. The legendary San Francisco wide receiver developed his obsession with the sport to such a degree that he landed himself on the Nationwide Tour (now the Web.com Tour) back in 2010.
It was not a very successful venture for a man used to such supreme excellence on the gridiron. Rice finished 151 out of 152 players in one attempt as a golf pro and was disqualified in another. He now sticks to the pro-am circuit.
Almost as obsessed as Rice was former tennis great Ivan Lendl. The eight-time Grand Slam champion, who retired in 1994 and is now famous for coaching world No. 1 Andy Murray, played golf off scratch at one time, Lendl entered several U.S. Open qualifying tournaments as well as two actual European Tour events and three second-tier ones in the U.S. But his golf game never came close to matching his tennis game. Lendl failed to reach the U.S. Open itself and never made the cut in any of the pro tournaments he entered.
Apart from football and tennis, former major league pitchers like Shane Rawley, Mark Mulder and John Smoltz can also swing a decent golf club as can one of hockey’s all-time greats—and the father-in-law to Dustin Johnson—Wayne Gretzky.
But perhaps the most well-known ex-athlete/golfer over the last few years has been Charles Barkley, although not perhaps for the right reasons. The former NBA superstar had a golf swing that almost defied description with an alarming pause on his downswing and a scythe-like lurch at the ball that caused as much hilarity as sympathy. But after studying his technique under the watchful eye of ex-Tiger Woods coach Hank Haney, the basketball star improved by leaps and bounds. He overcame his self-confessed mental block about hitting the ball, and his swing became close to normal.
As ex-NBA stars go, Barkley would have to go some to reach the standards of his former adversary, Michael Jordan. The ex-Chicago Bull has had a +1 handicap and is still a compulsive golfer who has even worked his way into the U.S. Ryder Cup team room as a kind of superstar cheerleader.
So don’t place any bets anytime soon on an ex-NFL quarterback, a retired NBA star or even a former tennis champion making too many waves in professional golf outside of the pro-am events like the one at Pebble Beach. The standards on all the men’s tours—even the senior one—are just terrifically high these days. But, then again, even Charles Barkley can dream.
Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed books—Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School—are available in hardback, paperback or e-book formats on Amazon.