Game changer: NBA star Steph Curry has game — and a huge stake in golf’s future

October 15, 2019

Stephen Curry has a fierce passion for basketball and golf. With the Warriors, he works his magic from long range. In golf, his involvement has been surprisingly active and intimate — and nothing but a net gain.

An NBA franchise often takes on the personality of its best player. The flashiness of the Showtime Lakers mirrored Magic Johnson’s smile, while the Chicago Bulls’ dominance was defined by Michael Jordan’s seething intensity. During the ongoing championship run of the Golden State Warriors, the tone has been set by their point guard Stephen Curry, with his humility, selflessness and positivity. As the two-time league MVP has emerged as one of sport’s good guys, it has become a common refrain that he makes all those around him better, as players and people. But what forces shaped Curry? What were the inculcated life lessons that would propel him from a mere ballplayer to a universally acclaimed role model? On this topic Curry, 31, offers a story from a family vacation to Myrtle Beach when he was 12 years old.

“I’d been playing golf for almost three years,” he says. “I’d been getting a lot better and was trying to get to a point where I could actually beat my dad [Dell] straight up.” They were all square playing the 15th hole, a par 3 with a pond left of the green. Stephen sniped his tee shot toward the water and out of view. Moments later he was delighted to find a ball on the pond’s edge. After an adroit pitch, he says, “I make the putt to save par and my dad picks the ball out the hole. He looks at it for a second and says, ‘Oh, good putt, Steph. You found your ball over there?’ Yeah, I did. I have momentum and I’m ready to beat my dad for the first time in my life. And he says, ‘Okay, I’m gonna ask you one more time. Are you sure you found your ball over there?’”

Steph Curry graces the cover of the November 2019 issue of GOLF Magazine.

What Dell already knew was that it was a different brand from what his son had been playing. “I just didn’t check it,” Stephen says. “I was lost in the moment.” Dell announced Stephen would have to forfeit the hole. When he got a little lippy, his father took away his clubs and made him walk back to the clubhouse while the rest of the family merrily finished the round. Says Stephen, “Let’s just say I always double- and triple-check the ball when I look for it now.”

This teachable moment is so much bigger than a lost-ball penalty. “It wasn’t about golf; it was about accountability and integrity and some of the other really powerful things the game teaches,” says Dell. That one moment goes a long way toward explaining why Stephen always focuses on the little details, whether it’s the ornate pregame ritual to sharpen his dribbling or the way he makes eye contact with fans, ushers and reporters instead of the superstar’s usual thousand-yard stare. Golf remains a fundamental part of Curry. It now underpins his business and philanthropic efforts; his first line of stylish, modern golf apparel was just released by Under Armour, and he recently pledged millions of dollars to fund a men’s and women’s golf program at Howard University. Golf is how Curry — whose handicap has dipped as low as +1.5 — tests himself mentally in the off-season, competing on the Korn Ferry Tour and the celebrity tournament circuit. It is his escape from the public eye, too. He is teaching his wife, Ayesha, to play (“She can smash it,” he says, with obvious pride) and daughters Riley (seven) and Ryan (four) are getting into it, too, as the room-sized simulator in their house is a favorite play space. (Baby brother Canon is only a year old but already has a roomful of golf swag.) When Dell turned 50, his son gave him the ultimate gift: a surprise trip to St. Andrews to play 36 a day.

When you’re playing [NBA games] nine months out of the year, every other night, it takes a toll. Just to be able to have fun, still be competitive but get to enjoy golf — it’s crazy.

“Golf is not a casual hobby for Stephen,” says his frequent playing partner Kris Stone, Under Armour’s senior director of global sports marketing for basketball. “He’s very serious about always trying to get better. He’s a student of the game. If he isn’t playing, he’s watching golf or talking about golf or thinking about golf.” Indeed, Curry admits that when he’s on the bench during NBA games, his mind sometimes wanders to swing thoughts, past rounds or upcoming golf adventures. He even credits the game with being the mortar that has helped build this Warriors dynasty: “It’s part of it, I will say that.”

The first time Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob met Steve Kerr was on a golf trip, and that initial impression was so strong he later offered Kerr his first-ever head coaching job. When it was time to get to know his star point guard, Kerr organized a round together at Pebble Beach. In-season golf outings often require three foursomes, with key cogs like Klay Thompson and (the recently departed) Andre Iguodala joining various coaches and staffers. The Warriors try to stay at resorts with their own golf course, and Kerr has been known to rejigger the departure time for the team charter to ensure 18 holes can be squeezed in. One of Curry’s favorite playing partners is Jonnie West, the Warriors’ director of basketball operations who, according to Stephen, “is now in a golfing royal family” having recently married LPGA starlet Michelle Wie. Says West, “We joke a lot about the Warriors golf team, and there is no question Stephen is the captain.” Why is golf so important to the team’s winning culture? “It’s the camaraderie,” Curry says. “It’s the sense of normalcy in terms of doing things outside of basketball that can take your mind off the game for a little bit. And I think for me, Andre and Klay, and even Coach Kerr when he gets to play, you need that type of a release. When you’re playing [NBA games] nine months out of the year, every other night, it takes a toll. And so just to be able to go out and get some sunlight, have fun, play a game, still be competitive, still kinda keep that mental sharpness, but get to enjoy golf — it’s crazy.”

At his Howard University presser, Curry shared the spotlight with young Otis Ferguson
AP Photo

Because the game has given Curry so much, he is eager to give back. The Howard endowment came out of his role as a burgeoning hyphenate; Curry’s side gigs now include tech entrepreneur and entertainment executive. At Howard in January, his production company Unanimous screened the documentary Emanuel, about the 2015 racially motivated mass shooting and subsequent spiritual renewal at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Curry is executive producer on the film.) Afterward, he did a meet-and-greet with the undergrads in attendance. “Every student had a passion, a vision, something on their mind to change the world or in their community,” Curry says. “It was empowering and encouraging to hear.” An engaging young man named Otis Ferguson IV told Curry he had been advocating to bring back Howard’s golf program, which had been abandoned decades earlier, and his dream was that it be nationally competitive at the Division I level. Curry, who memorably led Davidson on a deep run during March Madness in 2008, was so impressed by the message and the messenger that the wheels began turning that very night.

Curry has pledged to fund the men’s and women’s programs for their first six years, beginning with the 2020–21 season, but this is hardly an exercise in vanity check-writing, as he is also on the committee to hire the coaches and will be personally designing the team uniform, of which he says, “It’s gonna be stylish. It’s gonna turn some heads.” (Curry also convinced his friends at Callaway to donate all the gear the program will need.) Around Howard there is a deep appreciation that Curry is investing so much in a university to which he has no direct ties. “Mr. Curry represents what is great about America,” says Howard president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick. “His social activism without political rhetoric speaks volumes of who he is. I hope in all of the cynicism we sometimes see and hear every day we can take pause and recognize there is a lot to be happy about because of people like Stephen Curry.”

Indeed, bringing golf back to a historically black university is only one part of Curry’s vision of radical inclusion. He is an ambassador for the PGA Jr. League, which seeks to add a rah-rah team element to a sport that often attracts lone wolves. Curry is also partnering with PGA REACH, which provides scholarships for boys and girls with financial needs or from military families to help increase their access to golf. In September, the first annual Stephen Curry Classic, at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, raised half a million dollars for PGA REACH. (The co-beneficiary of the tournament was the Eat.Learn.Play. Foundation, which Curry cofounded with Ayesha, who has become a culinary mogul; the foundation provides nutritional food and financial support for summer camps and youth sports in underprivileged communities.) Everything that Curry is doing in golf comes down to one theme: “It’s all about engagement and access,” he says. “We want to reach kids who don’t know anything about the game of golf, or think they aren’t interested, or maybe they are but, hey, they don’t have equipment or can’t get on a course or any of those things. We’re trying to grow the game and do some pretty cool things that hopefully raise awareness of how fun golf is, and also kinda change the culture around it a little bit.”

Culture is a key word here. Curry is now a member at California Golf Club, which is every bit as good as nearby Olympic, and he is a frequent guest at other glittery private joints, but he fell in love with the game at public courses. Growing up in Charlotte, he took lessons at Larkhaven Golf Club, a muni that Dell calls “a goat track.” Stephen played for his high school golf team—surely the only NBA player ever who can say that—and his fondest competitive memory is breaking par for the first time at the conference championships of his senior season. As an undergrad at Davidson, Curry haunted the on-campus Covington Golf Course, which is comprised of exactly three holes. Curry sardonically refers to it as “Covington National.”

“It wasn’t much, but we had so much fun there,” says Bryant Barr, Curry’s freshman roommate at Davidson and now the president of SC30, the company that manages his investments, brand partnerships and philanthropic efforts. “We still laugh about those old stories.” This is the culture Curry is trying to promote: friends having a blast on the golf course, without all the stuffy trappings of the sport that can be so off-putting, particularly to young people.

As Curry spreads this gospel (27 million followers peep his musings on Instagram), he is fast becoming one of the game’s most important ambassadors. It doesn’t hurt that he always looks so fresh, with his trousers tailored tight and high, the better to show off his flashy footwear and even the colorful socks he designed. Curry’s cameos at the Ellie Mae Classic — the annual Korn Ferry Tour stop in the Bay Area — created such a stir that he says with amazement, “Even Jack Nicklaus tweeted me!” Curry admits that the first time he was to tee it up alongside hardened touring pros, in 2017, “It felt like the NBA Finals for sure. I was just on an adrenaline rush and so anxious to get out there and play.” When he shot a very respectable 74, bettering the scores of some two dozen fellow competitors, “I felt like I won the tournament!” Curry says.

Curry can drain 3s against the NBA's best, but he also has range from the golf course with some monster drives.
Christian Hafer

The next year he opened with a one-under 71 and Golf Twitter nearly melted. Of course, Curry learned a hard lesson the next day, when on the third hole he pumped two straight drives out-of-bounds en route to an 86. “At that point, my world just started spinning,” he says with a laugh. “I had so many swing thoughts, I didn’t know where I was on the course.” Curry’s good shots are Tour-caliber, but he knows what separates him from players who consistently shoot in the 60s is managing misses and mitigating damage. “[Pro golfers] can recalibrate like that and turn a bad hole into kind of a springboard for an amazing comeback or a great round,” he says.
“I did not have that talent.”

Still, when he tees it up with his pal Jordan Spieth — they once shared a memorable game that included President Obama — Curry gets only two a side. All of this makes it natural to wonder if, when his first-ballot Hall of Fame hoop career ends, Curry will give professional golf a go. Clearly his mind has wandered in the same direction: “Maybe when I’m really done playing basketball, I’ll do the true grind, the Q-School route, and see if I got what it takes to make it after maybe putting some significant time into my game,” he says. “But I always kinda tread lightly with that question ’cause those PGA guys, even the Korn Ferry Tour guys, they’re unbelievable talents. And they’ve devoted their entire life to it. So yeah, I have the confidence to be out there with them, but I know how hard it is to make it.”

In the meantime, golf will remain his obsession, not his job. The other day Curry was strolling down the 2nd fairway of the Stanford Golf Course, carrying his own clubs. At 6’3”, 185 pounds, he has the sinewy, supple build of the young Tiger Woods, and he generates some of the same terrifying clubhead speed. After smashing a drive on a long par 4 into the wind, he was left with a 7-iron approach. He summoned a gorgeous high cut to a back-right pin, leaving a 15-footer for birdie. What feels better, hitting a pure iron shot like that or swishing a three-pointer? “There’s no better feeling than flushing an iron and the ball doing exactly what you want it to do,” Curry says with a grin. “I think I take for granted making threes — percentages say I can knock it down whenever I really want to. But I’m chasin’ that flushed iron every single day.” Of course, the chase never ends. This is felicitous news for all of golf, which will benefit greatly as Curry continues to affect the sport that has done so much to shape him.

Steph’s Course-Savvy Style

The SC30 Range Unlimited capsule collection for Under Armour dropped this fall. The 14 pieces include headwear, socks and apparel, and are highlighted by the Curry 6 SL spikeless golf shoe, which is modeled after Curry’s namesake UA basketball shoes. The entire collection is available for purchase at underarmour.com. Here’s what Steph is rocking in the photo below:

– SC30 Golf trucker cap; $30.
– UA Range Unlimited Iso-Chill printed shirt; $85.
– UA Range Unlimited slim-taper pants; $85.
– UA Curry 6 SL shoes; $160.
– UA Range Unlimited Iso-Chill streamlined shirt (inset); $85.

Christian Hafer