"I'm the best there is. When I wake up in the morning, I piss excellence." Ferrell's character in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
As a golfer, Will Ferrell does not piss excellence. He pisses bogeys. And three-putts. And Newcastle Brown Ale. No matter. His plan: Hone his game, chuck his $20-million-per-movie gig, and make a run at Q-School. Hey, how hard can it be to drop 30 strokes?
"I'm currently 127,000th in the world," he says with a puff of his chest on the first tee of Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, a wide-open Tom Lehman design that twists through a wildlife reserve in Mission Viejo, Calif. "But Tiger can hear my footsteps. He knows I'm coming for him. This is my secret weapon." Ferrell cradles his beloved persimmon 4-wood, with a sweet spot the size of a postage stamp. "She's a bee-yoot. I keep her in the bag to psyche out my opponents. Makes 'em think I'm 87 years old. It's worth $30,000. This baby is going in the Smithsonian."
Hey, Will, what's your power secret?
"Every morning I put a half cup of steroids into my Sanka. And I grip the club as hard as I possibly can, until I can see the whites of my knuckles."
What about first-tee jitters?
"Simple. Before my opening drive, I throw up for two minutes in the bushes." Manly squint. "That calms me right down."
A round of golf with Will Ferrell feels a little like being in a Will Ferrell golf movie, with the star doing what he does best: playing an oblivious tool of a white guy. And a few jitters are understandable as he sets to tee off at high noon on a hot day in Orange County. There's money on the line. (Not to mention a signpost warning: BEWARE OF MOUNTAIN LIONS.) Ferrell, 40, who grew up in nearby Irvine, has gathered seven Delta Tau Delta frat brothers from his days at the University of Southern California. Just your everyday eight-some. ("It really speeds up play," he says.) The game: skins, $300 per hole, to be donated in the winners' names to Cancer for College, which finances scholarships for cancer survivors.
In addition to spit-polishing his swing for the Tour, Ferrell is here to spotlight the charity's annual golf outing on Sept. 28. Fellow frat brother Craig Pollard, 39, founded the charity in 1993 after twice battling Hodgkin's disease. While he remains in remission, last year Pollard had both feet amputated six inches above the ankle after an aggressive infection led to circulatory problems. Still, he walks spryly on prosthetic limbs constructed of titanium, steel and carbon fiber, and can still break 90, which his "big-shot movie-star friend" has never done, he reminds.
"I get asked to do a lot," Ferrell says. "But this is special. It's like a mom-and-pop charity. The money goes right to people who need it, people who can't afford college because they're fighting for their life. And it's hard to say no to Craig, considering everything he's been through. Of course, I'm gonna keep whatever I win today, in case the acting thing doesn't work out. Last year, I lost all the donations playing roulette. Hey, I was trying to double it."
Ferrell is taller and lankier than you'd expect. And hairier. With his shaggy red 'fro (grown for the upcoming basketball film Semi-Pro) and gray-flecked beard, he looks a little like the Blue Oyster Cult band member he played in his famous "More Cowbell!" Saturday Night Live skit. He hasn't swung a club in months, but at 6'3" he's a natural athlete (he was MVP of his high school football team). He makes consistent contact, hates long irons, and if he played more could shoot in the 80s, easy. He lashes a high, handsy fade 240 yards down the right side of Arroyo Trabuco's generous first fairway.
"Sweet mother's milk!" he yells. "Right from the teat!"
"Nice swing for a homeless man!" says the aptly nicknamed Marcel "Beer Gut" Ford, 41.
Adds Pollard, "Man, I'd give my left leg to hit one like that."
"Fill it up! Fill it up again! Once it hits your lips, it's so good!" Frank the Tank, after doing a beer bong, in Old School
John William Ferrell is funny in person, of course, ("Shouldn't I have a manservant do this for me?" he says after raking his own bunker), but he's no Frank the Tank. He's polite, makes eye contact, punctuates good shots with fist bumps, and dutifully sprinkles divot mix into fairway scars. When not in character, he's a little shy, an unwild and uncrazy guy. Fun for him is a quiet day in his Hollywood home with Viveca, his wife of seven years, and their two sons.
Maybe he'll feed a few old phone bills into his paper shredder. (He likes shredding.) A "20-something" handicap, he plays just a few rounds a year and never by himself. He only tees it up with his old college buddies. Around them, he's not a movie star. He's not a guy whose films have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. He's just a dude.
"It's no fun without the guys," he says. "I don't play as much as I'd like, but I enjoy it. And you know the shot that gives me the most trouble? The perfect lie from the fairway, because I'm so rarely there. You know, nice drive, good iron. And you think, 'Wow, I could really make a score.' Then you invariably drive your club two feet under the earth and miss the ball completely. A par or birdie turns into a 7 or 8. Or 15. Maybe that's why the greatest shot I ever hit was back in high school. We'd sneak on, wait for a gap, and go. One day, I hit my ball out of grove of trees through a tiny three-foot opening, landed it on the green and hit a woman in the back of the calf. (Laughs) If I'd had a good lie, I wouldn't have come close."
With a perfect lie, he shanks his persimmon approach on the par-5 third and nearly turns a photographer into a soprano. "Sorry! I thought you'd want a close-up, in case you didn't have your telephoto!" He drops, swings again and finds a trap, leaving himself a 50-yard downhill bunker shot to a front pin. Will, you know this is the hardest shot in golf, right?
"Yeah. And I love it." He seems to grow larger when he becomes Will the cocky wannabe pro. "I relish the opportunity." Just one problem. "How do I hit this?"
Treat it like a three-quarter-swing wedge from the fairway: Hit ball first, and accelerate through. "OK, here goes." He does as directed and knocks his Titleist to the front edge. "Hey, it worked." Minutes later, he's asked about the best tip he ever got. A slice fix, perhaps? Maybe a putting drill?
"Actually," he says slurping his Newcastle, "that bunker tip was the best tip I've ever gotten. Thanks, Golf Magazine!"
"I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel." Buddy, on his journey to New York City, in Elf
After a par on the 295-yard sixth for his first skin of the day ("I'm gonna buy a new sound system!"), Ferrell pounds a fade on the 540-yard seventh, to a chorus of "Grizzly Adams!" and "Hot Pants!" (He's wearing green shorts and matching socks.) Several loose shots follow, though, and he stands on the green measuring a 20-footer.
"Is this a par 8 or a par 9?" he asks.
"A par 9, movie star," Beer Gut tells him.
"OK," he says, grinding over the putt. "Then this is for eagle." He misses. Walking off the green, he looks up and he notices an unmistakable white-and-orange storefront sign in the distant hills, a sight you'd only see on a public course. "Hey, anybody want anything from Home Depot? A circular saw? Power drill? It's on Golf Magazine."
The group erupts in laughter. Once again, Ferrell is playing to the guys who years earlier, in the Delta house, gave him the confidence to perform. Had he not joined, Ferrell may not have grown the stones to try stand-up, which led to the Groundlings improvisation troupe in Los Angeles, which led to New York and Saturday Night Live, in 1995. (Entertainment Weekly called the new cast member "intolerably annoying.")
"It all started with me doing stunts for these guys, just to crack them up," he says. "It was my stage, the first phase of my career." There's the time he suggested the frat "go gay" to save on pricey coed mixers. And the time he donned a wide-open robe, stumbled into the first row at the homecoming game while swigging from a tequila bottle (actually apple juice) and shouted "GO TROJANS! RUUUUUN! RUUUUUN!"
"It was a safe area where he could work on characters and stunts," says Emil Wohl, 39, the fraternity's then-president. "There were a lot of Delts in an English Lit class. The professor was lecturing on Leaves of Grass one day when we hear a knock at the door. Will bursts in wearing a janitor's uniform, welding goggles, a hard hat, big rubber gloves, a cigarette dangling from his lip and holding a bucket. He says, 'Someone puking in here? I got a call someone puked!' Then he walks seat to seat, holding this bucket. But the professor liked it! To me, that sums up his appeal. He's funny and subversive, but he's never mean-spirited. There's a sweetness underneath."
Ferrell showed impeccable timing even when he wasn't going for a laugh, Pollard recalls. "I was going through chemo," he says. "I was bald, but nobody in the house knew how to deal or how to talk about it. It was tense. One Monday night we wore coats and ties. Will walks up to me with one of those rainbow-colored wigs you'd see at sporting events, and he just plops this crazy thing on my head. And everybody laughed. It broke the tension. He's still that same guy."
"I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal." Ron Burgundy, Anchorman
While he's a big deal, Ferrell, unlike his scotch-swilling alter ego, doesn't feel like one. He won't cop to any movie-star behavior. C'mon... You don't make your assistant separate your M&Ms by color? No drug-fueled bacchanalias? "Well, my socks are made of hemp. I can light them on fire, if you like." He laughs. "I feel really lucky to be where I am." Then he actually seems to mean it when he says, "I stop and wonder, 'What am I gonna do when this ends? What's my next job gonna be?' It's like I'm at a Hollywood party and everyone is dressed up in tuxedoes, but instead of a tuxedo, I'm wearing a tuxedo T-shirt and was invited by accident. One day it will end. Until then I'm enjoying every minute."
By the time the eightsome reaches the course's water-lined 18th, no one's paying much attention to the skins tally; they're swapping stories, taking pictures, draining their last beers. Turns out, Ferrell has only one skin, despite several dubious "drops" in the rough that are actually tosses closer to the hole. ("Who we kiddin', right? It's all for charity.") Pollard is the big winner, having sunk a putt on the 16th for $2,200 in the name of Cancer for College. "Not bad," Ferrell says. "Think how good you'd be if you had your feet!"