How Michael Jordan became a golfer
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The real story on Charlotte’s most famous athlete and the spark that kindled his love affair with golf
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
Michael Jordan and golf
Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 8, 2017.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- “Y’all mind if I come?”
Michael Jordan was a junior at the University of North Carolina in 1984 when he posed the question to his roommate Buzz Peterson, who was also his teammate on the Tar Heels basketball team. There was another person in their room that day, a new friend that Peterson had recently met in a psychology class.
The friend was Davis Love III.
A few minutes earlier, Love and Peterson had just left their classroom and had been walking across campus to Granville Towers, where the basketball team lived. Love, then a sophomore, asked Peterson if he had ever played golf. Peterson shook his head no.
Love then suggested they go out to Finley Golf Club in Chapel Hill to hit some balls. Peterson was in.
“So we got back to the room -- this is an afternoon class now -- and Michael was in there,” Peterson recalls, “and I said, Michael, meet my friend Davis, he plays on the golf team. I said, we’re going out to the golf course to hit balls.”
Normally, the golf course would offer no interest to either Jordan or Peterson at this time. After all, it was late March and the roommates were supposed to be playing basketball.
But the Tar Heels had just lost to Indiana in the 1984 East Regional semifinals. Jordan had scored 13 points before fouling out in what would ultimately be his last college game. Peterson played just four minutes and scored two points.
Perhaps Jordan was just looking to fill the void left by the abrupt end of the season. Or perhaps it was his natural curiosity and competitive spirit kicking in. Either way, he was intrigued.
And that’s when he posed the question. Obviously, neither Peterson nor Love were going to say no. So off they went to the UNC golf course – a journey that ultimately led to Jordan’s love affair with the sport.
“He started off just tagging along and driving the cart or walking around with us, just because there were so many guys playing,” Love recalls. “He tried to come out and hack it around and hang out.
“And then he wanted to hit a few, and every once in a while, he’d hit a putt or hit a drive or whatever, and then he got more and more interested, so I found just a bunch of shag balls and some old clubs and made him a bag and let him start playing.”
Ultimately, it led to Jordan’s first round that spring. His playing partners were Al Wood, who had preceded Jordan as North Carolina’s basketball star, along with Love and fellow Tar Heels golf teammate John Simpkins.
Jordan admits he was still learning the rules – and more so, just learning to use the right clubs. “When do I hit a 9-iron and when do I hit that 6-iron, blah, blah, blah,” Jordan says.
He doesn’t remember the exact score he shot that day. But like most golfers just starting out, it’s not the totality of the round, but the brief glimmer of hope. The one sweet, memorable moment.
On 17 holes, Jordan recorded a bogey or worse. But on one hole, he made par.
“And I’ve been hooked ever since,” says the greatest basketball player who’s ever lived (argue at your own risk).
Davis Love III wants to set the record straight.
He did not teach Michael Jordan how to play golf. He did not school him on the grip or show him how to address the ball. He merely served as a conduit to helping Jordan find his way to the course.
But the legend is much more fun to imagine.
Love remembers a TV announcer approaching him on the range before the final round of the BellSouth Classic years ago. Love was in contention and the broadcaster wanted to know about his friendship with North Carolina’s most famous personality.
“I knew him in college and I played one round of golf with him at Buzz’s wedding since,” Love recalls telling the announcer. “He’s the No. 1 player in basketball and I’ve been to two games and watched him and he happened to see me at one of them. But I said I don’t really know him.
“Three hours later, on the telecast, it’s Davis and Michael Jordan are great friends. He taught him how to play golf. So, the legend just kept snowballing.”
So if it wasn’t Love, who did shape Michael Jordan’s golf game?
Say hello to Ed Ibarguen.
The director of golf at nearby Duke University Golf Club since 1988, Ibarguen was the head pro at Finley at the time when Jordan became interested in the sport.
Jordan wasn’t the first UNC athlete from another sport to show an interest in golf (after all, it is North Carolina. Pinehurst, anyone?). Ibarguen remembers Lawrence Taylor, a future NFL Hall of Famer, hitting balls on the range. Ditto for Wood, who became a single-digit handicapper on the verge of scratch, and other Tar Heel basketball players such as Brad Daugherty and Rich Yonakor.
And Jordan wasn’t the only basketball player on his own team to take up the sport.
Love, who spent several semesters living in a room at the Finley clubhouse – “That was probably good for my golf game and terrible for my grades,” he now says – remembers Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach, calling to check up on his team.
“One time, Coach Smith said, ‘All the players are down on the driving range,’” Love recalls. “Could you send them back up to the gym?”
But Jordan’s interest was different.
“Michael really got bit by the bug, though, a little more than the rest,” Ibarguen says.
Peterson, a former college coach who was recently named the assistant general manager of Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets – interestingly enough, he was considered the top high school basketball out of North Carolina, ahead of his eventual roommate -- says he and Jordan spent almost all of their free time at Finley.
“I'll tell you what, we'd wake up in the morning, we were out there,” he says. “It was stop at McDonald’s, get you an Egg McMuffin, on to the course, get a hot dog at the turn, and it was all day long.”
Smith, who died in 2015, and his then-assistant, Roy Williams, who is now the Tar Heels’ head coach, were also keen golfers. Smith was taking lessons from Ibarugen, with an occasional check-up from Love’s father, and he eventually suggested Jordan do the same.
“He came into the Finley golf shop and introduced himself,” Ibarguen recalls. “I obviously knew who he was. He clearly wasn’t the Michael Jordan he would become, but he was a good basketball player, and a nice young kid.
“Actually kind of shy in those days.”
Ibarguen ended up teaching Jordan until the NBA star moved to Florida several years ago. The two still play together frequently and are Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup stalwarts.
“I asked him if he was really interested in learning and he said he was,” Ibarguen says. “We started out, we just hit it off. I mean, we ended up having a lifelong friendship.
The first task was finding clubs that would enable Jordan to be successful. But it wasn’t his 6-foot-5 frame that poised the biggest challenge. Ibarguen was able to make him some extended clubs until Jordan could be fitted for a set.
“The interesting thing about Michael is he's got such long arms that I think we extended them maybe one inch,” Ibarguen says. “A lot of people would think 6-5, you might extend them more.
“But the real problem was his grip size because his hands were so large. Even making the grips the size of baseball bats, they were still pretty small. So, it was a bit of a disadvantage for him initially.”
Ibarguen, who is a master professional of the PGA of America, says Jordan was a “tremendous” student.
“Obviously, he had great hand-eye coordination,” he says. “He was really bright. He would observe very, very carefully. You would show him how to do a shot and he could do it in ten or 15 tries.
“The hardest thing he had to learn was trying to be a little more stationary because his sport was basketball where he was shooting, moving to a stationary target.”
Ibarguen says Jordan attacked golf like he did basketball. He wanted to master the game and consequently, he put the kind of time in on the range so he could.
As Jordan progressed, he would come down to Durham (where Ibarguen now works) when the NBA finally closed up shop each season to get ready for a celebrity event at Lake Tahoe.
“Of course, it's North Carolina and it's hot,” Ibarguen says. “I would work him out. He said my practice sessions were tougher than Phil Jackson's twoadays. So, we'd work real hard and he'd go and try and play in the tournament, which was always nervewracking for him.
“I remember they used to have big battles with the Detroit Pistons. He said, I would rather go five on one against those guys than have to stand on the tee and have to hit this tee shot with all these people lining up both sides of the fairway.”
In 1990, Buzz Peterson got married. The wedding was in Asheville, North Carolina. Michael Jordan was the best man. Love and the man he calls his fellow “redneck,” Daughtery, a fishing buddy as well as a former UNC basketball player and budding golfer, were among the groomsmen.
While the bride and her attendants were getting ready, the men went to play golf. It was six years after Jordan first took up the sport.
“It's just amazing that for a guy who couldn't hold a club, didn't know what he was doing, to being really, really good that fast,” says Love, who used to trade golf clubs for Kenny Smith’s basketball shoes. “It was pretty incredible.
“He went from a beginner in '83 or '84 to (where) he was probably a 10 handicap. Holy cow. Whatever it was, baseball or whatever, he was pretty good at it. Competitive, and good hand-eye coordination.”
Peterson, for his part, was just worried whether they would all make the early evening ceremony at the Grove Park Inn.
“I almost got scared because I kept telling Michael, we've got to go, we've got to go,” Peterson says, chuckling at the memory. “We were playing probably 27 holes or whatever and the wedding was at 6. The only thing he wanted to do that day was outdrive Davis.
“He said, I've got to outdrive him just one time. I said, Michael, you're not going to do it. He's not going to let you do it. Davis has got a little competitive nature in him that's quiet. So, of course Michael never did, but we did make the wedding just in time.”
Jordan had his chance earlier in the week, though, when the group was playing Reem’s Creek Golf Club in nearby Weaverville. Inexplicably, Love had all but topped his drive and Jordan was licking his chops.
“(He’s like) oh, I got it,” Peterson recalls. “Of course, that time Michael just OBs it because he went too hard at it. But he wanted to hit it out there with him, and that's the only thing he really cared about. Heck with the score, let's outdrive him.”
All this may be karma, though.
Jordan broke one of Love’s persimmon drivers when they were in college. The group had just made the turn, and Love had run into his apartment at Finley to get something.
“(Michael) said, hey, it may be his clubs (that let him hit it so far),” Peterson recalls. “We've got these old clubs because they were giving us scrap clubs they got and don't use, and they're like X500 shafts, like swinging a tree. That was the worst thing for us.
“So he goes in there and grabs Davis' driver, hits it on the hosel there halfway up, and the next thing I know, I see the ball barely going anywhere, but I see this club head just floating in the air to the lefthand side.”
The same story was offered up, unsolicited, in recent interviews with Ibarguen, Williams and Love. And turns out, the club is among the memorabilia Love recently lent to the World Golf Hall of Fame for the exhibit to accompany his induction next month.
“He will still tell you we set him up on it,” Love says. “… And actually he probably did me a favor because the driver that I replaced that one with through a friend of my dad’s is the one I used from 1985-1997.
“Michael had a huge influence on my driving career. He broke the gamer, so I had to go get a new one.”
Will Michael Jordan make his presence felt this week at the PGA Championship?
In a way, he already has.
Jordan Spieth enters with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam. If he wins at Quail Hollow, he would become the youngest member of a club that currently includes five golfers. The current youngest is golf’s version of Michael Jordan – Tiger Woods.
Twenty-four years ago, Jordan Spieth was born in Dallas, Texas. His dad Shawn picked out the first name. He named his son after his favorite athlete.
Michael Jordan will never be able to accomplish what his namesake Jordan Spieth has on the golf course. But the basketball Jordan, who retired three times and had a second “career” as a minor league baseball player, did cause a bit of an uproar once when he suggested to talk-show host David Letterman that he might play the PGA TOUR Champions once he turned 50.
Instead, the 54-year-old who has built his brand into a billion-dollar enterprise, is content to play nearly every morning with the likes of Luke Donald, Ernie Els and Keegan Bradley at home in south Florida. The father of five spends the afternoon with his twin daughters, who are 3 years old.
Jordan lives about 5 minutes from the first tee at The Bear’s Club. He has two custom-made golf carts with extra length for his legs and a sound system so loud that “you can hear the base in your chest if you turn them up,” Ibarguen says.
Els has been impressed with Jordan’s game, particularly around the greens. The four-time major winner says on a good day, the man who has six NBA championship rings can shoot around par and in the upper 70s on an average day.
“When we play, we like to needle each other,” Els says. “He’s always playing music in his cart and I don’t always approve of his music. So, we have a lot of banter with that.
“(I’m like) play some of my music. But he likes his music because he wants the kick-my-ass music. He’s a wonderful guy.”
So wonderful that he put together a video for Love to show at the 2012 Ryder Cup, which was held in Chicago at Medinah, which is one of the two dozen or so clubs where Jordan is a member. (“I’m all over the 14-club rule,” he once said.)
It was a collection of Michael Jordan highlights – although not what you might expect.
“Never put the ball in the basket,” Love recalls. “It was passes or urging his team on or whatever. … It was about him being a supporting role to the team and making his teammates better.
“It was a great message to our guys.”
Unlike some athletes, who might take advantage of not having referees around, Ibarguen says Jordan is a stickler for the rules – even to the point of sometimes calling him to make sure he was doing it correctly. The way Ibarguen sees it, that’s due to the tremendous respect his friend has for the game.
That said, Jordan is not above some trash-talking when he’s on the course. Ibarguen, who said the ribbing was “merciless” the first time he lost to his buddy, calls it the Michael Jordan edge.
“And it's funny when he’s playing with other people, everybody’s always wanting to gamble with (him),” Ibarguen says. “Well, you know, Michael’s happy betting a dollar; he's happy just doing it for personal pride. But he gets all these people that come on up and say okay, how much are we going to play for?
“Michael just basically came up with a standard, he said, I'll play for whatever makes you nervous. Which was a great line.”
And at the most inopportune times, Jordan’s particularly fond of mentioning the name of a tournament where Ibarguen missed the winning putt. Sometimes, though, Jordan gets as good as he gives.
One year when Williams was coaching at Kansas, he remembers playing with his home pro, Randy Towner, and Jordan between breaks at the Jayhawk basketball camp.
Jordan was lamenting how straight Towner was hitting the ball while his own drives were more erratic.
“Randy just looked at him and pointed his finger at Michael and tapped him in the chest and said, 'NBA,' and then turned to himself, tapped his finger at his own chest and said, 'PGA,'” says Williams, who once played with Jordan when he shot a 69.
“He said, Michael, there's a gap there that you're not going to cross. ... It was one of the few times that I've ever seen Michael Jordan speechless.”
Ibarguen says Jordan’s lost some of his length off the tee of late because he is so focused on keeping the ball in play in order to be competitive in his daily games with the TOUR pros at The Bear’s Club. And when he gets a chance on the 18th green – watch out.
“Maybe Jack Nicklaus has more birdies on the 18th hole, but Jordan is pretty close,” Ibarguen says. “He’ll be losing all the bets, he’ll press all the bets and somehow or another he will end up dropping a 16-foot putt for birdie on 18.
“How many seconds were left when he hit that shot in ’82? 17 seconds? He says all the time when you’re playing with him and he makes a big putt, he’ll go 17 seconds. He loves the pressure of when it means something. He really, really takes joy in that.
“It’s that sort of spark that he misses as an athlete in retirement -- and golf has replaced that.”