You’re 66, but you came to golf late in life. You’ve said you went from Playboy to Golf Magazine. How did you get hooked?
It was over 20 years ago. I had a skiing accident and tore up my left knee, so I couldn’t play tennis anymore. Jack Nicholson and I are friends. We decided to give golf a try. I remember being on a driving range and drawing a 4-iron and not conceiving that a ball could go that much farther with a draw. I can still see it now: low and piercing, compared to my high balloon balls. I’ve been chasing that 4-iron draw for years, trying to get it back [Laughs].
Does your dad, Kirk, play?
He used to but gave it up. My father got divorced when I was young, so I would go visit him. He took me out on the course. One day something happened that put a crimp in my game and his. I was about 15. I hit an iron, and I hit him right in the nuts. I mean, direct hit! He dropped to his knees trying to shake it off. All I could say was, “There lies Spartacus.”
No wonder he quit. What’s Jack Nicholson like as a golf buddy?
He keeps a unique score. When something goes wrong, he blames it on “C.E.”: Caddie Error. He has a creative scoring system, but he never gambles, so I say whatever makes you happy.
You’ve called golf an addiction. What’s addictive about it?
It starts when you get to the course. You feel like a kid playing hooky. It’s like you shouldn’t be allowed to be doing this. There’s the emotional rush when you play well. And with the swing, you have those days when you think you finally figured it out. You have it! Then, the next day, it’s gone. But for me, it goes even deeper. When you play a course like Royal Dornoch in Scotland or Royal County Down in Ireland—magical, classic links courses—between the setting and the people, it becomes a spiritual experience.
It sounds like you love to play in the British Isles.
I once shot a 79 at St. Andrews. That was special. Of course, I was just happy to not hit it into the Road Hole hotel.
It takes nerve to break 80 at the Old Course. In terms of fighting butterflies, are there parallels between golf and acting?
Absolutely. Golf and acting are both the art of learning to relax in uncomfortable situations. It’s uncomfortable to stand in front of a bunch of cameras and people. It’s the same in golf. I’ve played in a lot of pro-ams. You feel that tension. I still get nervous doing movies. It never goes away.
Really? After more than 40 years?
I had terrible stage fright when I started acting. It didn’t come naturally to me. It helped being on [the TV show] The Streets of San Francisco in the ’70s. But I remember my first movie. It was called Coma. I was nervous and sloppy. I hadn’t prepared like I should have. I played a doctor. In the opening sequence, I had to say “metatarsus” [a group of bones in the foot], but I was nervous and kept saying, “meta-TORS-is.” I did 65 takes. I was on my knees, afraid to open my mouth. I felt like Rory on the back nine at Augusta. It taught me a lesson about practice and preparation.
Your most memorable role is Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, which won you the best-actor Oscar in 1988. What kind of golfer would he be?
Gordon was one of my most enjoyable roles. He’s a rascal. It’s always fun to play a rascal. He’s got the house in Southampton, so he’d be playing Atlantic [Golf Club] and all those other great Long Island courses. He’d be one of those guys who looks like a single-digit but can’t score. And he’d probably be good for a mulligan or two, at least.
What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been on the course?
I once played with John Daly at Pebble Beach in the mid-’90s. He hit a 3-wood 305 yards uphill. Talk about intimidating! I enjoy watching and playing with the girls. LPGA players have a game I can relate to.
The girl you play with most is your wife, Catherine. What’s the secret to landing a woman 25 years younger than you?
[Laughs] The secret? Make sure you want to land her, because you have to keep up with her. And it helps if she works. There ain’t no sugar daddies here.
It helps if she plays golf, too.
Yes, we play together a lot. That was the big closer when we met. First, I find out we have the same birthday. Then, I ask her if she likes golf, and she says, “I love golf.” I got misty-eyed. I used to see married couples on the course, having fun, drinking brewskis together, and that seemed so appealing. Now I have that with Catherine.
How’s her game?
She has an amazing follow-through. Me, I never finish my swing. We played an event at St. Andrews, and the next day on the front page [of a Scottish paper] they ran two pictures side by side: Catherine with a full, perfect finish, and me looking off-balance. Everybody’s taking the piss out of me, because she looks perfect and I look terrible. I look at the picture and say, “That’s a putter in your hand, Catherine!” She’d posed for the picture!
But image is everything. A lot of movie stars play golf. Who else do you play with?
Sam Jackson has become a very good player. We were at Loch Lomond [in Scotland] when some Europeans challenged us to a match. They called us a couple of “Hollywood poofters.” Sam didn’t take kindly to that. He was a college football player, and that type of talk gets him going. He took that to heart, and we kicked their ass. That was fun.
You’ve had a lot of lessons, right?
I’ve taken lessons with Butch Harmon, Dean Reinmuth and Jim Flick. Butch watched me [hit] and didn’t have much to say. I wasn’t having a good day. When your teacher goes silent, that’s not a good sign. I used to be a 14-handicap. But since I got cancer, I’ve changed my expectations.
Before you announced early this year that the tumor was gone, your bout with cancer was very public. What toll did chemo and radiation take?
The radiation knocks you out. Right on your ass. You can’t swallow. You lose weight—I lost 40 pounds—and muscle mass. I’ve gained about 20 pounds back, but I don’t have the stamina and strength I had before. In terms of my golf, I’m two, three clubs shorter. I can’t walk 18 holes. I walk nine. I’m not gonna reach those par 4s in two, so I practice my short game to make up for it. During the treatment, obviously, there’s no golf. But all along, I couldn’t wait to get back out there.
Cancer changed the way you play golf. Has it changed the way you experience golf?
Yes. I have a deeper appreciation for a lot of things, and golf is one of them. You appreciate driving to a course instead of driving to Sloan-Kettering [cancer hospital in New York]. I enjoy the peace and the camaraderie more. When I began going through this, I developed a stronger connection with my friends and family. And I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from strangers. It’s one thing to get fan mail. It’s another thing to get letters from people with only so much time left, telling me that they feel like they know me. I’ve experienced a bonding, a new closeness and connectedness with mankind. That translates to your golf buddies and savoring and appreciating those rounds. We all take golf with friends for granted. We treat it as just another day, rather than treating it with more specialness.
When did you know you’d won your battle with cancer?
When they grabbed my tongue and said the tumor’s gone. That was a big moment. There was a lot of celebration, because if they don’t get the tumor with radiation, they have to do surgery. And for an actor, that’s not good. It’s funny. People say “fight cancer, battle cancer.” But you can’t fight cancer [clenches jaw and does an impression of his father] in a Kirk Douglas-Spartacus way. Sure, you fight, but by staying relaxed, at peace, not frustrated or angry. I see this now in how I conduct my life. I’m more relaxed, less combative. You deal with what’s in front of you. You let things come to you. It’s the same in golf. It’s not often you can force a shot and have it work out. You take what the game gives you, even if it’s one of those days where you can’t tell if you hit it off the hosel or the toe. And you take what life gives you, rather than fighting, resisting it. Just move forward. Golf pisses me off sometimes. I still can’t believe a 230-yard drive and a 3-foot putt count the same. But I love it.
It sounds like you have a golf-life Zen philosophy.
How’s golf like life? You get another hole, and you get another day.