It was a balmy Texas morning, months before the start of the NFL season, but Tony Romo was already getting limber, primed to lead his team on its opening drive. As usual, he attracted interest. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, stood near the entrance of the venue he had created, taking in the action with his trademark stone-faced gaze. DeMarcus Ware watched, too, as did Terence Newman, both stalwart defenders, both looking disappointed that tackling wasn't allowed.
On a nearby grassy patch, Cowboys cheerleaders rah-rahed, midriffs bare and pom-poms shaking. Fans requested autographs. Others swarmed a promenade stocked with team regalia: jerseys, helmets, caps and balls.
Romo squared into his stance, and the crowd fell silent. After all, this wasn't football. The sidelines were the treelines, the hash marks were the hazards and the yardages were measured in distance to the flag. "Pretty cool day to be out on the course," Romo said, after splitting the fairway with his first tee shot. "Especially if you're a Cowboys fan."
Plenty of organizations stage golf outings, but few do so as colorfully as the Cowboys, who have taken to the game with the same devotion that football loyalists reserve for their favorite teams. Once a year, the entire squad turns out from the starting center to the second-string long-snapper for a scramble tournament on a leafy layout in Grapevine, Tex. It's their way of saying thank you to the team's biggest sponsors, on a course that doubles as a Cowboys shrine.
Like Cowboys Stadium, the team's new high-tech arena, Cowboys Golf Club was Jerry Jones's baby. And like most everything the Texas oilman dreams up, it serves as an extension of the Cowboys brand. Its clubhouse, 20 minutes from the team's home field, is a showcase of Cowboys memorabilia, with glass-enclosed exhibits to Cowboys icons. The layout is a tribute to the franchise, too. Tee markers are star-shaped, the putting green is ringed by the same five-pointed logo, and a large blue star is painted across the fourth fairway, a par-4 that's decorated like midfield.
When he built the course in 2000, Jones himself was not a golfer. But he understood jock culture and the symbiotic ties between golf and other sports. As the country's only NFL-themed course, Cowboys GC works two ways: it taps into a wellspring of Cowboys worship, and it celebrates the team's free-flowing passion for the ancient game. Every Cowboys player, past and present, is allowed to play golf for free here. And it is not unheard of to see such titans as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Daryl Johnston strolling through the clubhouse, past photographic altars to themselves. "I've often wondered why other teams haven't imitated this model and built their own golf courses," says Cowboys G.C. director of instruction and Top 100 Teacher Shawn Humphries. "One reason might be that we have the perfect storm of conditions here: A year-round golf season, a sports-mad city, and one of the most recognizable franchises in the world."
Romo is the Cowboy best known for his golf skills, having made a noble run at qualifying for this year's U.S. Open, but the team's link to golf runs decades deep. Former Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka was an avid golfer, and a volcanic one. "Me and Ditka and Dan Reeves used to play quite a bit together," says Lee Roy Jordan, the great Cowboy linebacker of the '60s and early '70s. "It was kind of hard to spend five hours around the foul language that got tossed around." At one point, Jordan recalls, a frustrated Ditka tossed his clubs, bag and all, into a lake. "It was the only way he figured he'd be able to cut his ties to the game," Jordan says.
Roger Staubach played, and so did the great Cowboys coach, Tom Landry. ("The only time I ever saw Landry openly enjoy himself was on the course," Jordan says.) Ditto Pettis Norman, Ditka's fellow tight end, who started for the 'Boys in 1962. In his later years, Norman introduced the game to Rayfield Wright, the Hall of Fame lineman and one-time teammate of Ed "Too Tall" Jones, an 18-handicapper who plays with clubs built for his 6-foot-9 frame. "My height kind of works against me, and so do some old injuries," Too Tall says, "but I won't use them as an excuse."
For Cowboys young and old, golf has long been the subject of locker room talk "It gives you something to bond over other than just football," DeMarcus Ware says and off-season obsessions. When Terry Glenn, the fleet-footed receiver, signed with the Cowboys in 2003, he insisted on a clause in his contract that guaranteed comped rounds at Cowboys G.C. for every golf buddy he brought with him. Tight end Jason Witten plays. Emmitt Smith has a swing coach. Troy Aikman routinely shoots under par.
Even Bill Parcells, the man with all the answers, left questions in the dirt during his four-year tenure as the Cowboys head coach. From 2003 through '06, Parcell's second home was the far end of the range at Cowboys G.C., where he put himself through punishing double-sessions. If other golfers interrupted, he would glare at the offenders, intimidation being central to the coach's shtick.
Just as few PGA Tour pros are ideally built for football, few NFLers are ideally built for golf. As a rule, football's lowest handicappers are quarterbacks, kickers and other grid-iron shrimps. "I'd like to see you try to find a fullback who's a very good golfer," says Daryl "Moose" Johnston, who cleared holes for Emmitt Smith before retiring to a life as a 16-handicapper. "You can tell us to relax, hold the club loose, swing easy. But that's foreign to us. It's just not the way we get things done."
Just as rare is the lineman who gets down to scratch, though Tony Casillas comes pretty close. Despite muscle-bound shoulders and hands that look like battered oaks knobby knuckles give way to fingers that branch in all directions, thanks to repeated breaks and dislocations the star Cowboys defender from the early '90s has a buttery short game. To measure his drives, you'd have to lay three football fields end to end. "You can never really replace the thrill of playing in a Super Bowl," Casillas says. "But smoking a tee shot is pretty sweet."
Like many NFL-ers, active and retired, Casillas satisfies his golf bug on the charity circuit, where Cowboys play a major role. This past June, Aikman hosted the For the Kidz Golf Classic at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. A month earlier, one of Aikman's former teammates, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, inaugurated his own charity event.
Staged at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Tex., and benefiting disadvantaged children, the Emmitt Smith Celebrity Invitational attracted Hall of Famers, including Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen, along with a host of Cowboy A-listers. "When I was growing up, I thought golf was a silly game," Smith said, before teeing off. "But now I know the truth, and a lot of my teammates have learned the same." For Smith, the yards that came so easily on the gridiron are more difficult to come by on the golf course, given that his torso is resistant to turning and his shoulders are as wide as he is tall. But his handicap is 9, and even when he struggled in his charity event, he made more forward progress than DeMarcus Ware, who sprayed the ball so wildly that his playing partners should have been wearing helmets, or Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who made Ware look like Tiger Woods.
"I think I need that Hank Haney school or whatever it is he's doing with Charles [Barkley] and Ray Romano," Ismail said, smiling, after striking an approach shot that looked more like an onside kick. "I might not have Barkley's ugly-looking swing, but the results are pretty much the same."
He could have used a tip from Tony Romo, but Romo was occupied that week, trying to qualify for the HP Byron Nelson Championship. His bid fell short when he played the final three holes in 5-over to finish with a disappointing 79.
Rough day for Romo, but that happens to all golfers. Take former Cowboys placekicker Mike Vanderjagt. In 2006, Vanderjagt was on the 13th hole of Cowboys GC when his cell phone rang. It was Jerry Jones, asking if he could see him, which was less of a request than a command. Vanderjagt shouldered his clubs and drove straight to Jones's office. The meeting was brief, and it carried a mixed-message. On the downside for Vanderjagt, the team had released him. On the upside, he could get back to his round.