The week before the Fourth of July, a group of men and women with very different career journeys all gathered at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The resumes in attendance were impressive, to say the least. There were Olympic gold medalists and Super Bowl champions, baseball Hall of Famers and Wimbledon winners. This eclectic group of accomplished athletes was gathered for the ICON series tournament, described as, "a truly unique sporting event, bringing together the world's biggest sporting icons to compete in a series of competitive team matchplay format events."
Set up like an amateur Ryder Cup of sorts, there were two teams comprised of 13 athletes each. The American team, led by Fred Couples, faced off against the Rest of the World team, captained by Ernie Els. Each squad was rife with star power. Pudge Rodriguez vs. Marshall Faulk. Ash Barty vs. Michael Vick. The teams battled over the course of two days in various iterations of match play featuring different combinations of athletes capped off by a final day of singles matches.
For all of the walking examples of athletic excellence, though, only Couples and Els dedicated their lives to golf. There were a few athletes, like John Smoltz, who were nearly as good at golf as they were at their chosen profession, but the field was mostly comprised of athletes who played golf in their spare time. Because they are or were professional athletes, they're much better than your average Joe out there on the course. But golf isn't like football or basketball. It is a different beast entirely, even for men and women who made a living off their athletic prowess.
Several of these athletes spoke to The Big Lead about how much different golf really is.
Michael Phelps has been retired from competitive swimming since the 2016 Olympics and, to hear him tell it, has spent all his free time since on the golf course. The self-described golf junkie compared the mental aspects of swimming and golf during a press conference before heading out to the course.
"I think when I was swimming, it was the preparation that made me do everything that I did, right?" said the 23-time Olympic gold medalist. "I’d just get off the block and basically fall in, be on that autopilot, be in that matrix field. For me, I probably haven't hit 50,000 golf balls to be able to do that, or 100,000 golf balls to be able to have that same kind of mental approach to do it as I did in swimming. Do I hope to get there? Yeah, one day. I don’t know when that’s going to be.
"For me, I have to stay out of my own head on the golf course. When I get in my own head, it’s not good. Whereas it’s the direct opposite with swimming. I can be in my head, piss myself off, and do what I need to do. But I can’t get angry out there because the ball will then go all over the place."
Andrew Whitworth retired much more recently, riding off into the sunset after winning Super Bowl LVI with the Los Angeles Rams this past February. He's happy he'll have more time to golf, but told The Big Lead that no athlete can just dig down and will themselves to succeed in the way an offensive lineman might outmuscle a pass rusher.
"There’s still a focus and determination to grind and work on your swing and and find a way that you swing the best," he said. "But really, I think the difference is, on the football field and maybe other sports, there's a lot more movement involved. You’re getting frustrated and almost trying harder or gripping down and digging in deep and stuff like that. It’s the same thing but it's totally different in golf. It's more about learning how to relax in those moments and just trust your technique and swing it properly. But as soon as you grip down and try harder, usually that's when the game starts going all over the place. It's kind of learning how you change that focus as an athlete and how you adjust."
Ben Roethlisberger, another recently-retired Super Bowl champion, has played golf since he was young and said the never-ending pursuit of greatness in golf is why so many are drawn to it.
"There's different aspects of golf that you've got to practice," Roethlisberger said. "Your short game, your putting, your long game, things like that. There's a lot of similarities (to other professional sports), which I think is why a lot of athletes enjoy coming out here and doing this because, to many, golf is a leisure activity. For us, I think it is, but it also brings that competitive juice out because you're never gonna be good enough to be on tour. But you're always going to strive for it."
JR Smith was invited to play the ICON tournament after a season playing on North Carolina AT&T University's golf team while he went back to school to earn his college degree. He said it was a tough adjustment to go from basketball to golf because the NBA is notoriously a make-or-miss league while golf is not quite that.
"It's hard for me because basketball's a game predicated on making shots and golf is a game of misses," the NBA champion said. "It's like it's the complete opposite. So for me, it's like, how do I understand that I'm not gonna hit the shot that I really want to hit as consistently as I think I can shoot the basketball when I think I'm making every single shot."
Golden Tate is a talented athlete even amongst his peers. He spent more than a decade playing receiver in the NFL and recently joined the West Coast League to play center field for the Port Angeles Lefties. He's also an avid golfer and explained to The Big Lead why he thinks golf appeals to so many athletes across the sporting spectrum.
"See, with football, all the thinking is done during the week and before the ball is snapped, identifying coverages and so forth," Tate said. "Golf is like, I mean, one degree is enough to put you in the water. That's kind of the scary part of it, just trying to reciprocate the same swing. As a golfer, like we all say, we just want to be boring golfers. Hit the fairway, hit the green, two putt, one putt and be done with. It never works like that. There's so much adversity that you deal with. Today I might hit the driver incredibly and I might hit my irons well and might put chip like sh-t and then tomorrow I might hit my irons and my driver like sh-t and might chip and putt amazingly.
"I think that's why so many athletes love it because it's such a mental grind. It never all clicks. You're just trying to minimize your errors. You're gonna hit balls thin, you're gonna hit some of them fat and you're gonna try to draw the ball and cut it. But on those times that you do that, if you can still miss, you know, six or seven yards instead of 30 yards, you can bounce back from that."
Golf is unique. Even in team match play, everything can come down to one player needing to make one shot to earn a win. It isn't a group effort. It's something the athletes above aren't used to; even Phelps, who won 16 Olympic medals in individual events over the course of his career, thinks the mental challenge of golf is unlike anything else he's experienced before.
Yet that is the beauty of the game. It doesn't matter how many rings you've won or how many records you hold. Out there on the course, it's just golf ball and golfer. A challenge unlike any other, and one that some of the most accomplished athletes in the world are drawn to.