You can’t walk into a team facility in the National Football League without finding some link to the game of golf — a ball in a coach’s desk drawer, a sand wedge in a coat closet, a Masters cap tucked into a player’s locker. If many of today’s gridders are recent converts to the church of golf, swept up in the wave of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt had a more organic introduction to the game. His birth certificate reveals plenty, for starters. Born: February 28, 1962. City: Augusta, Ga. The question wasn’t going to be does Ken Whisenhunt love golf, but how much does he love golf?
Arnie’s Army isn’t some historical term to Whisenhunt. Those were his friends and neighbors kicking up pine needles for a better view of the King. That was Whisenhunt, as a youngster, working the scoreboard behind the 18th green at the Masters three years in a row. The first time he played Augusta National, in high school, he birdied the first two holes and shot 75. On a return trip two years ago, he shot 72 and holed a 7-iron from the 11th fairway.
“I went into his garage one time and he has like 15 sets of clubs, at least,” says Rob Brakel, the Cardinals video director and regular member of Whisenhunt’s foursome. “Over at his house, he always has golf on DVR. He’s a typical coach in that he’s always trying to learn. Just like he watches game film of an opponent, he watches golf to see what they do. I guarantee you when he watches a guy on TV hit a tee shot, he’s standing up 10 seconds later and doing it himself.”
Sometimes, the television isn’t enough. Two months after the Cardinals lost Super Bowl XLIII in a crusher to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Whisenhunt had been an assistant for six seasons, he was back in Augusta just as the azaleas bloomed. The Augusta Chronicle presented him with a red, leather-bound scrapbook with articles about the Cardinals’ march to the Super Bowl and the local boy who had coached them there. That Friday of Masters’ week, Whisenhunt and his wife, Alice, were at Augusta National, walking the course and holding hands. Old friends and acquaintances stopped them to say hello and congratulations. The Super Bowl was behind Whisenhunt, if not forgotten, and the NFL draft was still weeks away. The sun was out, Anthony Kim was on his way to 11 birdies, and Whisenhunt was wrapped in golf’s embrace.
“It’s his passion,” Alice says. “It’s his release.”
If it seems like football players (and so many other professional athletes) are tripping over themselves to get in a round at any cost, it’s because they are. Joe Theismann, the former Super Bowl winning quarterback of the Redskins, plays 125 rounds a year and practices two or three times a week. Jerome Bettis, the sturdy ex-Steeler, once shot an 82 at Augusta National. And at the annual American Century Championship at Edgewood Country Club in Lake Tahoe, Nev., where Whisenhunt was scheduled to compete in July, 35 of the 82 players in the announced field had a connection to football, more than any other sport. Sixteen of the 35 were former or current NFL quarterbacks.
“Think about how many snaps a quarterback takes, how strong his fingers are, how quick and flexible his wrists have to be,” says Terry Shea, the long-time NFL quarterback guru, when asked about the links between football and golf. “In throwing a pass, a right-handed quarterback also brings his right hip over his left foot — he is driving his hips through for power — which is a common part of the golf swing. I’m convinced it helps make them good golfers.”
Says Roger Maltbie, the five-time PGA Tour winner, NBC golf announcer and 49ers enthusiast: “In football, the quarterback position requires a certain amount of agility and coordination. I think pitchers and hockey players tend to be good players, too. I haven’t seen too many great linemen.”
Whisenhunt wasn’t a quarterback, but he spent nine years as an NFL tight end and is built like Vijay Singh. While golf is a strategized, five-mile walk — and football a strategized, 100-yard turf war — there are characteristics that flow in both directions, such as focus, mental toughness, and performing in the clutch. Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback and an elite golfer, says he doesn’t separate his approach for a competitive round of golf from a divisional game against the New York Giants. “I use the tools that you get mentally on the course for football,” Romo said during last year’s American Century Championship. “Anytime you’re in a pressure situation or something happens where you have to rely on your mental strength or discipline…the more you’re in those situations, the better off you’re going to be.”
Says Whisenhunt, who plays to scratch: “[Golfers and football players] are different athletes, but if you have to make a 10-foot putt to win a tournament or you have to make a catch in the end zone to win a game, there are a lot of similarities. In that moment, you have to make that play. The guys that can execute are the ones that get past that margin.”
Whisenhunt still remembers the first time golf crossed his radar. When he was 12, he noticed one day that his father and older brother had left the house for hours. Soon, Whisenhunt was joining them for rounds at Augusta’s muni course at Daniel Field. “They had a deal where, as a junior golfer, you could play as much golf during the week as you wanted for nine dollars a month,” Whisenhunt says. “I had a buck twenty-five for a drink and a cinnamon roll. That was my lunch.”
The game quickly became a part of him, but so did football and baseball. As a college freshman at Georgia Tech, Whisenhunt walked onto the football team — he eventually won a scholarship — and left the school as the team’s second all-time leader in receiving yards.
After he retired from the NFL in 1993, Whisenhunt threw himself into golf. In 1994, while living in Roswell, Ga., he tried to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. At his qualifying site — ?St. Ives Country Club in ? Duluth, Ga. — he shot a 1-under 71 to take one of five spots. But later that month, at the championship site at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., Whisenhunt shot 79-84 ? and failed to advance to match play in a field that included Allen Doyle, Buddy Alexander and the winner, Tim Jackson. Whisenhunt, then 32, had a realization: “I can’t do this for a career.”
The following year he was hired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, his first stop in a steady rise to the pinnacle of his profession. Still, golf continued to beckon him through the years.
Arizona is a great place for a golf nut like Whisenhunt to live and work, even if he can’t take full advantage of the weather. From the summer through the winter, his coaching duties keep him off the links and at the Cardinals practice facility, watching game film, holding practices and running meetings.
“[Coaching] is a seven-day-a-week job,” says Whisenhunt, who at best steals one round during the Cardinals’ bye week and an occasional bucket of balls. In the offseason, Whisenhunt plays golf on the weekends and a few holes during the week, and he loves talking about the game. When he receives new golf equipment, which is often, “It’s like Christmas for me,” he says. (Whisenhunt plays TaylorMade R9 series clubs and his Adidas golf shoes have “Cards” inscribed on the heel.)
From tee to green, Whisenhunt’s golf buddies say, there’s not much that he doesn’t do well. He’s a big hitter, steady with his irons, a sound putter, and he has a surprisingly deft touch for a big man. “If he could play as much as he could, he’d be somewhere between a plus-2 and plus-4,” says Bill Rosemeyer, a member of Treesdale Country Club in Gibsonia, Pa., where Whisenhunt also holds a membership. And his physical skills might not even be his best asset. “He never takes a hole off,” Rosemeyer says. “There are times when he doesn’t have a swing and he’ll just grind it out.”
“With any high achiever, that competitive desire runs deep,” says Mark Dalton, the Cardinals vice president of media relations and occasional Whisenhunt playing partner. “He’s probably the most analytical person you can meet. He’s got a civil engineering degree from Georgia Tech, so in every scenario he likes to understand all the moving parts, whether it’s a game plan or a topic unrelated to football. And he likes to win. Even if it’s the American Idol office pool, he likes to win.”
Says Brakel, who’s only beaten Whisenhunt once on the course: “He’s yet to beat me in Ping-Pong, and it’s killing him.”
Whisenhunt’s table-tennis skills may be wanting, but the places that football and golf have taken him more than make up for it. Several years ago, he found himself enjoying a round at Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania with Arnold Palmer, who is royalty everywhere, but especially in Augusta. Whisenhunt had waited most of his life to ask Palmer about one of Whisenhunt’s childhood friends named Bert Harbin. When Whisenhunt and Harbin were kids, Harbin’s room was like a shrine to Palmer — photographs, posters, you name it. “What’s with all the Arnold Palmer stuff?” Whisenhunt remembers asking Harbin in their youth.
“He stays in the house during the Masters every year,” Harbin said.
And now, years later at Latrobe, Whisenhunt was with Palmer, walking down the middle of the fairway.
Whisenhunt had to know.
“Mr. Palmer,” he asked. “I had a friend that I used to stay with when I was a kid, and he says you stayed at his house every year for the Masters.”
“Bert Harbin?” Palmer said.