Let me give you a hypothetical: Adam Scott misses the cut at the Australian Open, and rather than spend two days sulking in his hotel room, emptying the mini-bar and racking up an enormous room service debt on all the ice-cream; he decides to pop down to the nearest rugby union training session where he spends two hours engaging in the mental freedom – and all important release from his profession – of being a front-rower.
“CROUCH… TOUCH… PAUSE… ENGAGE!”
Adam is now clanging shoulders and heads with the burliest and most grotesque ears the locals can muster. If you are Adam’s manager, who takes a chunk of his client’s gross earnings as his own, what would your advice to Adam be in this scenario?
You got it: “Adam, don’t. Your shoulders are worth more to me than my own children.”
It’s why professional sportspeople choose golf and not rugby, F1 racing or MMA fighting as their second sport.
Golf removes them from the stresses of their own profession, provides opportunity for a recovery walk and takes them away from the noise of their brains – and their smartphones – to a place where the sky is blue, the grass is freshly cut and the birds are chirpin’ – recite me a poem, easy!
Thanks, Happy Gilmore – speaking of athletes who choose golf as their second sport…
Golf is bruise-free and is easily sold to strength-and-conditioning types as a great way to recover both the body and the mind.
Back in my day (never thought I’d say that), golf and cricket were linked like Adam and Eve under that apple tree. The sticks became a key feature of any tour, domestic or international. So much so, I got stopped while walking through Sydney Airport once because a fan thought I was Pakistani great Inzamam Ul Haq. Actually, the two might not be linked… never mind.
I got selected for a tour of South Africa in 2008, replacing Doug Bollinger who ate his own oblique muscle. I tried to very sneakily play a round of golf on the third morning I was there. I woke early on our day off, grabbed a car, and sped out to Del Zalze, Cape Town, which is set at the foot of some of the most breathtaking rock mountains you could imagine. I learned two valuable lessons that day: (1) Never wear grey cotton shorts to golf on hot days; (2) Cricket and golf are romantically connected.
When I got back from my round, there were about 10 of my teammates waiting outside the team hotel with their golf clubs. They were off for a game. And I was off to buy a set of clubs so I could join in the revelry of golfing my way across South Africa. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was trying to hide my lack of professionalism and everyone else was flaunting it brazenly in the face of the coach, who was standing nearby, filling the Eskys with beer while the bell boy cleaned his clubs. If only I’d known, I would have packed my surfboard as well.
So, in the name of good fun and sloppy research, we thought we’d have some fun in attempting to compile a ranking of the best athlete-golfers – professional sportspeople, both current and former – in Australia.
I need to alert you to the challenges of this concept. Let’s call them excuses. Unfortunately, due to privacy restrictions, Golf Australia and golf clubs are not allowed to provide any information on their members. Yes, that includes handicaps. Because golf handicaps have often been used by stalkers in hostage situations for ransom. Stalkers love that sweet info. So, where exact handicaps haven’t been available, we’ve put an asterisk, which denotes conversational hearsay.
And secondly, a lot of sporting clubs must think their athletes are going to release the world’s biggest secrets – like who really shot Liberty Valance – to an Australian Golf Digest contributor, because they are guarded tighter than access to the Queen’s poodle.
Here it is, in order of received handicap and conversational hearsay:
+4 Dan Marsh (retired, captain and coach of the Tasmanian Tigers cricket team)
Son of Rod, nephew of Graham (70 professional wins) and owner of the lowest handicap across any professional athlete turned golfer not named Scott Draper (who went pro and won the New South Wales PGA Championship having already collected five singles titles, one on the ATP Tour, across his 12-year professional tennis career… the bastard!).
Dan is a short-game wizard. I know this because I’ve played with him, a lot, and he does things with the golf ball on his home track – Royal Hobart – that has you throwing money at him, not in an angry manner, but in a “I’ve been thumped and you are a wizard sent from golf heaven – a place where Seve is teaching scrambling skills – who is just too good” kinda way. He’s got those natural cricketer’s hands with his driver and long irons, that has him muscling the ball naturally left to right. It’s controlled. But where he differs from most cricketers-turned-golfers is his ability to send it right to left on demand. Another point of difference is that he has the short game and scrambling skills of a pro. I’ve not seen someone jam so many putts in the hole from inside 10 feet. His stroke is all Brandt Snedeker. It’s short, it’s jabby and it’s money.
+3 Brendon Goddard (retired AFL player for Essendon and St Kilda)
Goddard has every reason to be disappointed with his No.2 ranking because, by my calculations, there is no doubt he is the best golfer of the pile. The courses Goddard is regularly playing on the Melbourne Sandbelt and beyond are a much tougher proposition than the soft, back-to-front sloping greens of Royal Hobart. With a Division 1 pennant record of 5-1 for Metropolitan in his debut season, against the very best of the Victorian club golf scene (a hotbed of aspirational VIS athletes), Goddard has proven he has the composure under pressure to perform away from the social mindset that so often catches out great club golfers, and athletes, when they play tournaments. With some work on his pitching, Goddard is certain his best golf is ahead of him. Could he turn pro? More on that later.
+1 Braith Anasta (retired NRL player for Australia, NSW, Canterbury Bulldogs, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers)
In 2011, Anasta played the NSW PGA Championship and shot a thousand. It happens. Tournament golf and social golf are the greatest divide for athletes whose life has been in other sports. Anasta felt this. A life’s work, we’ve written about it here. No default setting. He is currently managing a stable of young golfers – including Dimi Papadatos – for whom he caddies for occasionally while holding his remarkable club handicap. Rumours swirl he has blown out to 3 but we don’t believe it.
*+1 Ricky Ponting (retired Australian Test and ODI cricket captain)
“Ricky was awesome. Boy, he has a really solid game. He can bomb it. He has a nice putting stroke. You can tell he’s a scratch player just by when he sets up and hits one shot.”
These aren’t my words – this is from Jordan Spieth after a round with ‘Punter’ during a pro-am at The Australian Golf Club in 2017. Ponting’s ball-striking is pro-level. He is on another planet from the guys I have played with on this list. His clubs seem to make a different sound than everyone else. But, he’d be the first to admit that his inconsistent putting is what would hold him back from competing with the game’s elite.
+1 Greg Blewett (retired Australian Test and ODI cricketer)
You might think Greg is just the father of golf prodigy, Sam Blewett, who went viral when a video of him smacking Greg in the mouth with a club was so popular it even drew the attention of Rory McIlroy. But Greg can seriously play. After his retirement from an international and domestic cricket career, he went on to represent South Australia at the Interstate Series of 2012. PGA Tour star Cameron Smith was a representative for Queensland in the same year, so that’s something.
*0 Todd Woodbridge (retired tennis star, 16-time Grand Slam doubles winner as a member of “The Woodies”)
Woodbridge says two of his great highlights in life are winning the Coolum Classic with great friend Payne Stewart and claiming the Victoria’s Sir Dallas Brooks matchplay foursomes with daughter Zara when she was just 12.
*0 Don Pyke (retired AFL player, current head coach of the Adelaide Crows)
No doubt seeking refuge on a golf course somewhere after the Crows’ 2019 season.
0 Mitchell Lewis (AFL player at Hawthorn)
It is said that Mitchell was so good at golf as a junior that he was seriously considering pursuing it as a career ahead of football. Maintaining a scratch handicap during the rigours of an AFL season is sign enough for us to believe.
0 Tim Mohr (AFL player at Hawthorn)
The switch from western Sydney to Australia’s golf capital has done his golf game no harm at all.
1 George Gregan (retired Wallabies legend)
The No.1-ranked rugby player on the board. He plays as you’d imagine – smart.
1 James Hopes (retired Australian ODI cricketer)
His brilliant all-round ability apparently extends beyond the cricket field.
1 Ben Ikin (retired rugby league player for Australia, Queensland, Gold Coast, North Sydney and Brisbane)
In February this year, Ikin tested himself against the pros at the Coca-Cola Queensland PGA. Ikin admitted to his nerves getting the better of him in his opening round, an 11-over 81. In fact, he made the comment that across his entire rugby league career, he’d never experienced a beating heart like that of his first foray into competitive tournament play. This is a man that played State of Origin rugby league, where he could have lost an eye in any tackle in the halcyon days of no suspensions, yet it was tournament golf that cut him in half.
*1 Jon Holland (Australian Test cricketer)
I’ve played with Jon and he is smooth. Admittedly, it was at Brookwater, one of the toughest courses in the country, and he shot low 80s to my mid-80s, but you could see the low marker in him. Just a beautiful tempo from a backswing that hangs at parallel.
*1 Dean Jones (retired Australian cricketer)
*2 Moises Henriques (Australian cricketer)
2 Elliot Opie (South Australian cricketer)
2 Sam Fisher (retired AFL player for St Kilda)
Fisher spent his formative years as a golfer in the South Australian junior programs and could have pursued it had he not been lured into the football system. Many golf observers have mentioned Fisher as being the golfer on this list with the most potential to make it as a pro.
2 Brent Stanton (retired AFL player for Essendon)
2 Jack Riewoldt (AFL player at Richmond)
*3 Daniel Wells (AFL player at Collingwood)
*3 Steve Johnson (retired AFL player for Geelong and Greater Western Sydney)
3 Paul “Fatty” Vautin (retired NRL legend)
3 Sam Groth (retired Aussie tennis player with 11 singles titles)
When Groth retired from tennis in late 2017, he was an 18-marker. Today, he is playing off 3. That is some unbelievable improvement. It shows that with a little time and some focused practice, you can make serious ground on your golf handicap. Not surpisingly, the man who still holds the world record for the fastest serve in tennis also hits the golf ball out of sight.
4 Ben Dunk (Australian T20 cricketer)
Long-drive contest? We may have just found our winner. Dunk hits the ball with a back swing as long as John Daly when he was rolling. He has a wirey frame, like Rory and Rickie, and uses his freak flexibility and hand-eye co-ordination to get it out there.
5 Mathew Suckling (AFL player at Hawthorn)
5 Jack Gunston (AFL player at Hawthorn)
5 Luke Bruest (AFL player at Hawthorn)
5 Ryan Schoenmakers (AFL player at Hawthorn)
As a primary school student, Schoenmakers was offered a scholarship into the Henley High school golf program. He’d been performing well in the local schoolboy tournaments, and with a handicap of 9 in Year 6, it was felt that he could make an impact had he chosen to focus solely on golf. He chose to play a broad range of sports and his AFL premiership medallion suggests he
*5 Oscar McDonald (AFL player at Melbourne)
*5 Devon Smith (AFL player at Essendon)
5 Daniel Rich (AFL player at Brisbane)
6 James Sicily (AFL player at Hawthorn)
A playing partner of Sicily tells us that he plays golf in the same manner he plays his footy – angry!
6 Jamie Lyon (retired NRL player and Manly captain)
Loves golf so much he started hosting his own golf tours.
7 Alyssa Healy (Australian Test/ODI/T20 cricketer)
Yes! Our highest-ranked female athlete on the list is someone to truly celebrate. Healy can seriously play. She impressed Karrie Webb during a recent pro-am with her length off the tee, and if you get a chance, jump on the Golf Australia organisation’s Facebook page and hunt for some footage of Healy, skipper Meg Lanning, Elysse Villani and Rachel Haynes having a group lesson. Healy’s husband, Aussie spearhead Mitchell Starc, is a 10-marker himself but doesn’t make our elite list of seven-handicappers and below.
7 Lleyton Hewitt (retired Wimbledon and US Open champion, 30 singles titles)
7 Julian Wilson (Australian surfer)
Remember the mad Aussie surfer who swam towards Mick Fanning while he was being attacked by a shark? He calls Noosa Springs his home course. His favourite is St Francis Links in South Africa, where he made his first hole-in-one and also the country where that epic shark encounter took place.
*8 Shane Warne (retired, Australia and Victoria)
*8 Glenn Maxwell (Australia, Victoria, IPL)
10 Mitchell Starc (Australia, husband of an elite 7-marker!)
*10 Aaron Finch (Australian ODI captain)
*10 David Warner (Australian Test opener)
*Low markers Jarryd Lyons (Brisbane), David Zaharakis (Essendon)
*9 Angus Brayshaw (Melbourne)
*Low markers Corey Oates (Brisbane), Andrew McCullough (Brisbane), Dane Gagai (Souths), Adam Reynolds (Souths).
*10-15 Kyle Feldt (North QLD), Luke Keary (Roosters), James Tedesco (Roosters), Jake Trbojevic (Manly), Tom Trbojevic (Manly), Cameron Smith (Melbourne), Johnathan Thurston (retired, North QLD), Mitch Aubusson (Sydney Roosters), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers), Sam Burgess (Souths)
Rugby Union – The Fan Boys Award
Led by captain Michael Hooper, the Wallabies are winners of golf’s Biggest Fan Boys award. Only recently, during a trip to South Africa, the team played the Lost City and Gary Player courses at Sun City. On non-training weeks, they can have up to 20 players riding the bus to the nearest course.
The most consistent crew includes Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Rhys Hodge (a team insider says Hodge plays the most, but is by far the worst!), Rory Arnold and Dane Haylett-Petty.
Jack Maddocks is said to be the team’s best player, but actually plays the least. It is thought he holds a single-figure handicap. It is important to note that when the team has upcoming games, they restrict their golf to nine holes so as not to negatively impact their preparation.
15 Chris Goulding (Australian Boomers)
An improving player who has dropped four shots since the end of the past NBL season. He’s a self-proclaimed golf tragic who partners up frequently with Sam Groth at The National Golf Club on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
10 Ash Barty (2019 French Open champion)
Loves hitting the course when she’s not hitting forehand winners
13 Adam Le Fondre (Sydney FC)
16 Scott Jamieson (Melbourne City)
16 Jamie McLaren (Melbourne City)
10 Luke Brattan (Sydney FC)
In late 2018, Brattan revealed his post-soccer career plan to join the PGA Champions Tour during a podcast hosted by Fox Sports’ Adam Peacock. At that time, he didn’t have a handicap, but was a regular on the local courses. He has a nice enough swing, but like we’ve read above, this doesn’t always translate into success under the pressure of your own thoughts and the muscle memory of your life’s work in another sport.
>>> Which brings me to my conclusion, one that I will steal from an e-mail conversation I had with Mike Clayton, the former European Tour player, course designer, golf writer and one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met. I’d asked him about his view as to whether Goddard, Blewett or Ponting could make it as a tour pro. His response sums up so eloquently what I’ve learnt from my own journey as an aspirational amateur golfer:
If they’d played golf seriously as 13-year-olds with the aim of being pros, yeah, they could have done it. The thing is there is a massive difference between golf and tournament golf (Bobby Jones). Everything is different – the feel of the swing, the emotions and how the brain works. As kids we all learned to play with the nerves and the tension and learnt how those things affected our swings and putting strokes. We learned how to get around when things weren’t going well. There is a saying in golf: you have five swings: (1) Practice swing; (2) Practice fairway swing; (3) Practice-round swing; (4) Tournament swing; (5) The swing you use on the last four holes when you have a chance to win. They will all look the same but sometimes feel wildly different. You can’t learn that playing social golf or by being great under the pressure in another sport. You have to ‘learn to survive the first hour’ (Mat Goggin) as I assume batsmen have to learn the same in cricket – to ‘survive the first 10-15 minutes’ – or tennis and how to hold your serve when you serve first in a big match.
Greg Blewett played state golf for SA, so he must have figured out how to ‘play nervous’ but the reality is there is very little chance they could play well enough to be a competitive pro simply because the foundations for that are built as teenagers… while they were mastering cricket and AFL.
A life’s work.
On ya, Clayts. You’ve just killed the dream of millions. Good one.
The Great Unknown
Kalyn Ponga (Rugby league superstar for Queensland and Newcastle Knights)
This guy is just a beast. Check this out: in 2010 he wins the New Zealand Junior Golf Championship. In 2013, he starts playing Aussie Rules and is placed in the Brisbane Lions Academy. In late 2013, at age 15, he signs a four-year deal with the North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL after being pursued by six professional clubs from three different sports, turning down the Broncos, Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters, Queensland Reds and the Brisbane Lions.
Other notable athlete golfers around the world
+1.5 John Smoltz (American baseball legend)
Hall of Fame pitcher qualified for the US Senior Open last year at The Broadmoor and missed the cut after rounds of 85-77. Has eight holes-in-one, including one on a 300-metre par 4. Plays out of Hawks Ridge in Atlanta.
+0.4 Tony Romo (retired NFL player)
Former Cowboys quarterback retired to the TV booth and dabbles in pro golf. In March last year he shot 77-82 during his US PGA Tour debut at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship
0 Stephen Curry (NBA basketballer)
Golden State Warriors superstar has competed in the Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic the past few years, shooting 74-74 in 2017 and 71-86 last year. One career ace, with a pitching wedge on the 129-metre third hole at the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay in California.
0.5 Pete Sampras (tennis legend)
Winner of 14 Grand Slam titles doesn’t have recent scores posted, but his golf swing says scratch player.
1.9 Michael Jordan (hall-of-fame basketballer)
Apparently his handicap hasn’t changed since 2013. Has been a high-profile US team supporter at the Ryder Cup.
2 Kelly Slater (11-time world champion surfer)
“When the waves are no good, we always say the golf course is six to eight feet and offshore,” the 11-time World Surf League champion tells us. He travels the world and takes advantage of the golf scene: favourite course is Kingsbarns in Scotland.
2 Ivan Lendl (tennis great)
Winner of eight Grand Slam titles, he plays mainly at Torrington Country Club in Connecticut and Windsor Club in Florida.
2 Harry Kane (English soccer star)
Striker for Tottenham captains England’s national team. Kane often plays even-par golf. He plays at the Centurion Club in Hemel Hempstead.
2.5 Rafael Nadal (tennis superstar)
The 18-time Grand Slam winner puts his game on display in charity events and was in Tiger Woods’ gallery at the 2017 Hero World Challenge. In 2018, he hosted the first Rafa Nadal Golf Challenge.
8 Tom Brady (NFL legend)
The Super Bowl champion could be a plus-handicapper with a focus on just golf.