In a classic “This Is SportsCenter” commercial, Landon Donovan—clad in his Team USA uniform—gets frustrated with ESPN’s office copier, prompting the machine to print out a red card for the soccer star. In real life, Donovan received only one red card in his illustrious career, but it was some bad behavior early in his life that, in a roundabout way, led to his love of golf.

“I wasn’t a very well-behaved kid in school,” says Donovan, who came up with a golf incentive to act better when he was in third grade. “I made a deal with my teacher that every day we would write down if I had a good day or a bad day at school. After I had so many well-behaved days, I would get to go play golf with my mom.”

Donovan said the plan was more about spending quality time with his parents, who divorced when he was 2, than the activity, but he fondly remembers playing the six-hole executive course at Crafton Hills College near where he grew up in Redlands, Calif. The green fee was $4, but the bonding time he got with his mom was priceless. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time for anything other than soccer as Donovan grew older and morphed into an American prodigy on the pitch. He turned pro at 16 and headed to Germany to begin his career with Bayer Leverkusen. Golf, once again, served as an important— albeit rare—diversion.

“I was all by myself, so it became something to do when I just needed something different or interesting,” Donovan says. “There’s so much peace walking a golf course by yourself. It’s fun now to play with friends because I’ve gotten better, and you can compete, but I really enjoy playing golf by myself, too.”

Donovan, 42, plays most days at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in Southern California, whether it’s by himself, with friends or with his three young kids—and he is playing well. After taking his first golf lesson in 2023—something he regrets waiting so long to do—Donovan went from barely breaking 100 all the way to an 8-handicap in a matter of months. He works with Chris Mayson, who was recently named one of Golf Digest’s 50 Best Teachers in America. Working with Mayson gave Donovan enough confidence to put his game on public display at this year’s Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, a celebrity event that is also an official LPGA Tour tournament.

‘I made a deal with my teacher: If I was behaved, I would get to play golf with my mom.’

The week also allowed him to catch up with his good friend Mardy Fish, a four-time winner of the event, who, like Donovan, has been open about dealing with mental-health issues. “It’s unique for successful males in our culture to be willing to be vulnerable, and so we really connected over that,” says Donovan, whose battle with depression caused him to take a four-month sabbatical at the start of the 2013 Major League Soccer season. “I can’t exactly explain why I’m at peace with it, but I’ve been through some really hard times like most people, but I’ve also had a ton of work on myself through years of therapy. When you have years and years of therapy, and you start to find peace in it, then it doesn’t seem so scary or haunting at all.”

Donovan has long admired that professional golfers often turn to sports psychologists and wishes more athletes followed their lead. “In team sports, you can get away with it a lot of times if you’re mentally a little bit fragile,” Donovan says. “But in a sport where it’s just you and the ball, there’s nowhere to hide, so in golf, not only is it accepted, it’s almost mandatory—and it should be in all sports.”

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Donovan competes in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in January.

Julio Aguilar

While Donovan is learning how to compete in an individual sport now, he has always excelled as a team leader. Playing predominantly in Major League Soccer, he won a record six MLS Cups, is the league’s all-time leader in assists and has the league’s MVP trophy named after him. However, playing for Team USA was where Donovan made his biggest mark. He starred for the team that made the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, and he produced a true “where-were-you-when-thathappened?” moment with his stoppage-time goal in 2010 that advanced the Americans out of the group stage in dramatic fashion.

Since retiring from playing in 2019, Donovan has worked in TV and as the head coach of the San Diego Loyal, a United Soccer League expansion team, for three seasons before the team shut down in 2023. Most notably during his coaching stint, Donovan drew praise for his team walking off the field and forfeiting a 2020 game in which the referee didn’t issue a red card to an opposing player who used an anti-gay slur against an openly gay San Diego player.

“When you create a culture on a team where they genuinely care for each other and love each other, it’s not a hard decision when you see someone abused,” Donovan says. “Life is more important than one soccer game. I was proud to be their coach at that moment when they were willing to make a stand.”

While Donovan was disappointed to see the franchise fold, it led to his personal golf boom, including a trip to Cabot Cape Breton last summer, which was even more special to Donovan since his dad is from Nova Scotia. Still, Donovan isn’t ready to travel or play the celebrity golf circuit on a full-time basis just yet. “I love, love, love playing golf every day, and I would be happy to get away with that for the rest of my life,” Donovan says, “but I know I need to do something relatively productive, or I’ll go crazy. I think my next step will be in the youth soccer space because I care so much about the sport in this country and us succeeding.”

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Former Los Angeles Galaxy great Landon Donovan poses with his statue and mother, father and sister during a 2021 ceremony unveiling the Landon Donovan statue at the Dignity Health Sports Park in California

Shaun Clark

Donovan has also stayed involved in soccer as part of Fox Sports coverage, where he is a colleague of Clint Dempsey, the other name that always comes up when discussing America’s greatest male soccer player of all time. Golf can’t settle that debate between the longtime teammates and rivals, but Donovan hopes it can bring them even closer together: no red cards, just a scorecard.

“There was always an undercurrent of competition, but now that we’re both retired, we both really respect and appreciate each other. Our relationship has grown tremendously, and it’s been really fun,” Donovan says before adding, “We haven’t played golf yet, but we will.”

As a soccer icon in the United States, Donovan wants to help grow that sport, but he’s also enjoying getting his children into the game he first fell in love with as an unruly third grader. He just hopes they’re able to stick with it better than he did. “I don’t expect that any of them are going to play at a high level,” Donovan says, “but I just want them to have the support to be able to play for the rest of their lives.”

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This article was originally published on golfdigest.com