Jerry Rice stood awkwardly on the steep, fescue-covered face of a greenside bunker. He hesitantly placed his left foot below the ball and his right foot above it, struggling to maintain his balance as he prepared to hit his next shot. This offered a striking contrast to Rice’s customary sporting pose — standing gracefully at the line, leaning forward ever so slightly, in complete command of his next move.
Rice caught 1,549 passes and scored 208 touchdowns in his incomparable NFL career, more than any player in league history. Those achievements earned him a landslide induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, but they mattered not a lick on the sixth hole of his inaugural Nationwide Tour start in April. His approach shot had sailed over the green at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, Calif., leading him to this uncomfortable stance. He took a big swing, trying to pull off a feathery, Mickelsonian flop shot — and the ball popped up meekly without moving forward.
Rice scraped it onto the green on his next attempt, made double bogey and trudged away, the magnitude of his new quest suddenly and disconcertingly clear. “That hole right there,” Rice said later, “pretty much brought into reality that, hey, this is a whole different ballgame for me.”
It’s a new game on many levels for pro football players who carry their passion for golf into another realm. Rice’s two-tournament flameout on the Nationwide Tour stirred splashy headlines, mostly because of his NFL-fueled celebrity, but it merely provided the latest example of a football player wandering way, way, way out of his element.
Not one player this side of John Brodie has remotely threatened to make the cut on a major pro tour. Former quarterback Mark Rypien shot 80-91 in the PGA Tour’s Kemper Open in 1992, then 78-87 in the Nationwide Tour’s Tri-Cities Open in 2000. Former placekicker Al Del Greco similarly sputtered in his two Nationwide starts, in 2001 (76-79) and 2003 (75-78).
Or consider this year’s U.S. Open qualifying bids of several active and former NFL players. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (69) reached sectionals, but Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell (83), Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee (81) and former quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver (81) all stumbled in local qualifying. (Those were their scores, by the way, not their jersey numbers.)
The overriding lesson: Golf is hard, man. The game seduces these elite athletes with low scores on resplendent, country-club layouts, full of wide fairways, modest rough, tame greens and friendly hole locations. Then comes tournament time and the courses lash back with narrow fairways, menacing rough, slick greens and wicked hole locations.
Rice’s implosion made the point most powerfully. He shot 83-76 to miss the cut at the Fresh Express Classic, the Bay Area tournament he hosted, and then posted 92-82 in another Nationwide event, the BMW Charity Pro-Am in the Carolinas in May. Rice made an inglorious exit from that tournament, when he was disqualified because his caddie used a range finder in the second round.
Even before then, Rice chuckled and half-jokingly called his transition from football to golf a “nightmare.” His famously soft hands occasionally helped him around the greens (he holed one bunker shot), but his impatience, stiff swing and lack of tournament rounds doomed him to early elimination, just like so many other football players with grand golfing dreams.
“I have so much respect for the pros,” Rice, 47, says. “Until you go out there and compete professionally… it’s just unbelievable. This is something they’ve been doing all their lives. They’re way up here” — he raises his extended palm above his head — “and you’re just trying to take little tiny steps to get there.”
Tolliver was hardly surprised by Rice’s woes. He totes a plus-3 handicap index, even better than Rice’s plus-1, and he’s twice won the American Century Championship, the annual celebrity tournament at Lake Tahoe. Rice has improved in each of his last five starts in Tahoe, topped by his 10th-place finish last year.
“I have a lot of respect for Jerry and everything he’s done in his career,” Tolliver says. “But I think he’ll come back in the NFL before he makes the PGA Tour or the Champions Tour. He’s got to beat us in Tahoe first!
“If you’re not beating the best players in your club every day,” he adds, “and you’re not shooting 68 or better every single day, don’t waste your time. The average person out there has no idea how good Nationwide Tour players are.”
Football does not seem like a logical prelude to a second act in golf. All those oversized humans smacking each other upside the head, all those jarring, high-speed collisions, all the potential for physical calamity.
Very little in football really simulates the entire flow of the golf swing. That’s unlike the abundant parallels between swinging a baseball bat and a golf club; Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt always thought that playing golf helped his baseball swing.
This makes sense to longtime tour pro Jason Gore, who was in the field when Rice made his Nationwide Tour debut. “You’re swinging a club in baseball and hockey,” Gore says. “Golf requires completely different skills than football. And golf is not like riding a bike — it’s something you constantly have to work on.”
Rypien had not really been working on his golf game when he teed off at TPC Avenel in Potomac, Md., in May 1992, barely four months after he won Super Bowl MVP honors for the Washington Redskins. His appearance was mostly meant to bring exposure to the event, and it was a success on that front — sizable crowds greeted him at every tee box and green. They saw a football player longing for a tidy, rectangular patch of grass, free of annoying hazards.
Rypien was a three-sport star in his younger days, like many NFL quarterbacks, and figured his hand-eye coordination translated to golf. It did in some settings — he won the inaugural celebrity event at Tahoe in 1990 — but that’s not the same as competing on the PGA Tour, as Rypien learned all too quickly. He recalled shaking nervously when his name was announced on the first tee and he reached down to put his peg into the ground.
On a strategic level, Rypien moved his ball from left to right and the course often required players to move it from right to left. On another level, the whole scene — ropes, galleries, scoreboards — rattled him.
“When we play golf with our buddies in our own little world, the atmosphere is a lot easier, simpler and less stressful,” says Rypien, now 47 and living in his hometown of Spokane, Wash. “The setup of the course [on Tour] is incredible — you don’t appreciate that as much watching on TV as you do standing on the tee box trying to make par.
“And the skill set [difference] is glaring. There’s a small gap between the best players in golf and guys on mini-tours — and a large gap between those players and us.”
Del Greco, the longtime placekicker, learned a similar lesson in his two starts on what is now the Nationwide Tour. He advanced through Monday qualifying at the first tournament, in Gainesville, Fla., but his optimism vanished after one practice round.
He had struggled with his wedges and consulted Tour pro Chris Couch, who helped him secure a 60-degree wedge. It was the first time Del Greco had used the club, so he went to the practice green to work out the kinks.
He promptly bladed one shot out of the bunker, watching in embarrassment as the ball rifled across the green over the head of another player. The incident shook Del Greco’s confidence to the point he had “no chance” in the bunkers the rest of the week. “I just felt out of place,” says Del Greco, now 48 and the golf coach at Spain Park High outside Birmingham, Ala. “I was a football player who was a pretty good golfer among guys who played college golf and were very good players. And you find that out very fast.”
Del Greco found similarities in the plane of the golf swing and the plane of the kicking motion. But he discovered one vital difference — he had time to regroup (and practice) when he missed a field goal. Not so when he hit an errant golf shot.
All of this makes what Brodie achieved all the more impressive. He was a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback who spent 17 seasons in the NFL, all with the 49ers. Then he spent 15 years on the Senior/Champions Tour, where he earned more than $735,000 for his career. Brodie also played in two U.S. Opens.
The highlight was his victory at the 1991 Security Pacific Senior Classic at Rancho Park in Los Angeles. Brodie shot 66-66-68, then made birdie on the first playoff hole to beat Chi Chi Rodriguez, who won 22 times on the senior tour, and 1969 Masters champion George Archer.
Remember Brodie the next time a football player, or any pro athlete, jabbers about making the Champions Tour at age 50. Dozens of pro athletes in other sports believe they can contend in golf’s elite ranks. Brodie, who began playing at age 15 and was deeply committed to golf even during his football career, is the only one who’s done it.
Rice realizes he’s an extreme longshot to earn a dime on the Champions Tour. He would need to wholly devote himself to golf to have even the slightest chance, and he’s unlikely to do that with so many corporate outings, endorsement deals and motivational speaking appearances on his calendar. Life as a full-time NFL legend, and part-time golfer, has its perks.
Those two Nationwide starts left Rice discouraged about where his golf game stacks up against the pros. He declared after the BMW fiasco that he was “probably done” playing in Nationwide events, though his business manager, Sasha Taylor, later said Rice will compete in next year’s Fresh Express Classic, where he will again serve as tournament host.
He shrugged off the criticism he absorbed for his pro golf experiment, stung more by his scores than by any harsh reviews. “I think I brought more publicity to those tournaments and more recognition to those players,” Rice says. “I don’t think this is a joke. I’m very serious about it and I want to get better, but I’m just getting my feet wet.”
Rice first swung a golf club in 1987, early in his NFL career, and soon became frustrated by his inability to hit a little, white stationary ball when he could routinely torment defensive backs. More than 20 years later, he still savors the challenge of golf, although he knows he might never conquer it.
“Hopefully it’s all going to come together one day, maybe way down the road,” Rice says, laughing. “This game humbles you. Golf is a game you love — you’re on Cloud 9 when it’s good to you — but it can also be very, very nasty.”