For Most NBA Players Golf Is Just a Hobby, but for J.R. Smith It's a Way of Life

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For Most NBA Players Golf Is Just a Hobby, but for J.R. Smith It's a Way of Life
Kevin Losani

From the tattoos to the late-night parties to the repeated NBA fines, J.R. Smith has cultivated an image as polarizing as it is sometimes perplexing. Which is why the last place you might expect to find him is in the tradition-bound environment of the golf course, strolling among the swaying trees and serene brooks.   

But not only does the New York Knicks shooting guard routinely hit the links, he's borderline obsessed. And the sport has been a positive outlet in his life, expanding his business networking and professional golf opportunities that reveal insight into who he is away from the court.

At one point in the spring after last season, Smith had played golf for 21 straight days. Through August, he was literally following the PGA Tour as a spectator, attending several tournaments in different states. The Players Championship even allowed him to take over its Twitter feed during the final round.

The 28-year old could be a participant one day. Five years since falling in love with the sport—and with only two lessons since—Smith averages 310 yards off the tee and has an accomplished handicap of 13, establishing himself as one of the best golfers in the NBA. He boasts that the great Michael Jordan, a fellow golf aficionado, won't even play him.

Curious to witness Smith's passion on the links firsthand, Bleacher Report had the opportunity to ride the course with him last month during his eighth annual Youth Foundation Classic at the Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Lakewood Township, New Jersey. At the event, which provides support and scholarships for kids through sports and education, B/R and Smith chatted about his unique summer adventure, the golf connection with NBA players, how hitting the links has opened new doors for him in his life and much more.

 

Bleacher Report: You've basically been simulating the life of a pro golfer this summer. What's that been like?

J.R. Smith: I was following the [PGA] Tour at one point starting in May, supporting Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Keegan Bradley, all good friends of mine. I went to the Wells Fargo Championship [in May in Charlotte, North Carolina], The Players Championship [in May in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida], the Quicken Loans National [in June in Bethesda, Maryland] and The Barclays two weeks ago [in Paramus, New Jersey].

I would watch [each tournament] from Thursday to Sunday and then play the course on Monday. I would say I've probably played 50 courses this summer. Around six a week.

 

B/R: How did you meet Rory, Lee and Keegan?

JRS: Rory and Lee through one of the trainers that works with the Knicks. Then I met Keegan in Boston when we were playing the Celtics. He would come to the games. And then he got the Jordan [Brand] deal [in March], so we started talking about sneakers and stuff like that. I mostly wear Jordans.

 

B/R: So what sparked your golf interest five years ago?

JRS: I was at Rashard Lewis' [basketball] tournament in Houston. He runs a Pro-Am out there every year and I would always play on his team. While I was there, he told me to come out to [Hall of Famer] Moses Malone's golf tournament. I was riding around on the cart, but I wasn't playing. Then Moses is like, "Get your ass out of the cart and play." So I go out there and hit the ball like 300 yards dead center. Just like that; the first hit. I even used the same form I have right now.

 

B/R: How did you do that?

JRS: If I see it [in sports], I can mimic it. I would watch Tiger [Woods] all the time.

 

B/R: That day in Houston, you instantly became addicted to golf?

JRS: Yeah. After that first shot, [Malone] was like, "I bet you can't do it again." I'm like, "Whatever." But I get up there and I couldn't hit it again. I was frustrated. I was like, "Why the hell can't I do this?" He's like, "That's just the way the game is." The very next day I went to go buy clubs.

Jared Zwerling
J.R. Smith's golf bag includes TaylorMade Burner drivers and Nike VR Forged irons, each with his initials "J.R."

 

B/R: Have you always been like that, where the moment you can't do something, you don't stop until you get it right?

JRS: Yeah. I hate not being able to do something, especially athletically. I feel I've got all the athletic ability to do anything I want, so for me to not be able to do something athletically, that pisses me off the most.

 

B/R: Did that happen in any other sport?

JRS: In middle school, I was like that in baseball. I couldn't hit a curveball for the longest. I grew up playing baseball, and I would strike out on curves. So I just practiced, practiced, practiced, and eventually every time they threw me a curveball, I would hit a home run.

 

B/R: In golf, do you know immediately when you hit a good shot?

JRS: You know right away—right before you connect, you feel it. It sounds like it's flush when you hit it. When I hit it on a certain spot, I know what it sounds like, I know what it's going to do. When I mishit the ball, I know it's between tempo, the swing path, feet alignment and hands. There's just so much that goes into it; it's crazy.

 

B/R: When you took those two lessons, what were you trying to fix?

JRS: Using my driver, because my driver is the key to my game. I can hit irons, and chip and putt—that's just all feel—but I couldn't hit the driver for a while. I put it back in my bag because I was too aggressive. [The instructor told me], "Slow down. You're swinging too hard trying to kill the ball." The lessons helped.

Kevin Losani
Smith driving off the tee—his weakest skill when he started playing five years ago, but has since mastered it—at Eagle Ridge Golf Club.

 

B/R: What is the easiest and hardest part of the game for you?

JRS: The easiest is probably putting. The hardest part about the game is to try to master your next shot, and probably getting over the next hole if you're playing good. It's also being able to recover from [a bad shot] and then continuing a good run. I get so frustrated sometimes. I can be like, "Where the hell did that shot come from?" The worst is not being able to correct it, and then you start pressing.

 

B/R: What are you working on these days to improve?

JRS: Just being more consistent with my shots, like if I want to hit it to a certain area all the time. That's the hardest part for me. There are just so many mechanics. Like in basketball, because I've been doing it for a long time, I already know what I did wrong when I shoot. It's my form or my knees weren't bent when I caught the ball—stuff like that. But here, you think you know what you did and then you try to correct it, but then there's something else you did wrong.

 

B/R: What courses do you typically play, and which is the toughest?

JRS: TPC at Sawgrass [where The Players Championship was played] is the hardest course ever. There are so many bunkers and it's really long. I mostly play a lot of local courses [in New York and New Jersey] like the Hudson National, Liberty National and Trump National.

 

B/R: Do you have a usual foursome?

JRS: When I go to L.A., I'll play with CP [Chris Paul], his brother [C.J.] and his dad [Charles]. We play all the time. In Charlotte, I'll play with Steph [Stephen Curry]. When I'm around [New York], I'll play with John [Starks] and Herb [Williams]. And then, of course, I play with my brother [Chris]. He started [golfing] when he was 11 years old. He's got golf trophies and everything. He doesn't play as much as me, but when he does, he's good.

Jared Zwerling
At Eagle Ridge, Smith (center) played with (from left to right): ex-Knick John Starks; Smith's brother, Chris; ex-Knick Herb Williams; and GeeSpin, music director for Power 105.1 FM.

 

B/R: What are CP and Steph's golf games like?

JRS: CP is all right. He needs to work on it because he doesn't play as much as I do. But Steph is unbelievable. Steph and Ray Allen. I haven't played with Ray yet.

 

B/R: Is there trash-talking between you guys?

JRS: Not so much with Steph, but CP, hell yeah. CP is like, when I hit a bad shot, "Way to be yourself, shooting bad shots." If he hits a bad shot, I don't really say too much because he doesn't play as much.

 

B/R: Give me your top five for best golfers in the NBA.

JRS: Steph No. 1, then Ray, me, CP and then maybe Big Baby [Glen Davis]. I heard he's good, but I haven't seen him play.

 

B/R: What's your dream foursome?

JRS: Me, Tiger, Rory and [Michael] Jordan, and there would be super trash-talking. I don't really talk much, though. I'm the same way on the court.

 

B/R: What's your connection like with MJ?

JRS: I've talked to him a few times. I'm always so starstruck that I forget to ask him questions. The last thing we talked about was golf. I tell him, "I'll whup your ass." He doesn't want to play me, though. He plays a lot, like with Keegan Bradley.

 

B/R: Why do you think so many pro athletes gravitate to golf as their second sport?

JRS: It's something you can play forever. It's something you can always do, and it can always take your mind off of [your main sport].

 

B/R: Does that apply to you?

JRS: Yeah. If I have a bad game in basketball, I'll go hit balls the next day just to get my mind off of it. You hold yourself to higher standards on the basketball court, but when you come out [on the course], nobody really expects you to be Rory or somebody like that. You hit good shots, you hit bad shots. Your expectations are lower.

Also, [golf] helps me with my [basketball] shot because I feel like if I want to hit the ball 150 yards super-high with trajectory and try to make it go left or right, in basketball it's pretty much the same. It's like shooting high or flat, or shooting a fadeaway or drifting to the left or right.

Jared Zwerling
Smith hitting out of a bunker at Eagle Ridge, while Starks (white shirt) and Williams (orange) look on in the distance.

 

B/R: Through the closer-knit fraternity in the NBA, fueled by AAU and more events bringing players together, has golf become a greater bond among the guys?

JRS: All the time now, like no one talks basketball. We talk golf. Before, guys would work out on their own. But now, everybody is so joined and we play golf with each other. At the Terminal 23 gym [in New York City], everybody has been coming through to play—even KD [Kevin Durant] and 'Melo [Carmelo Anthony].

Everybody wants to get better, everybody wants the next person to get better, so I think there's more unity. Through AAU ball, we all grew up playing against each other, so you develop those relationships—and they carry over to the golf course.

 

B/R: Does 'Melo have the same shooting touch on the course?

JRS: 'Melo has played, but he hates it. We recently played in Puerto Rico, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., during his charity weekend. 'Melo just can't pick it up so easily. He's not as bad as [Charles] Barkley, but he's not that good, either.

 

B/R: How often do you hear something like, "With all your tattoos and bad-boy image, I would've never expected you to play a pristine and traditional game like golf."

JRS: People tell me that all the time, "The tattoos, the background, there's no way you play golf." Fans, everybody. Even when I get on the course, the [club] pro is like, "Damn, you play golf?" And then they see my swing and they're like, "Oh, s---."

 

B/R: Do those surprise reactions ever lead to new opportunities for you?

JRS: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times when I play Liberty National or something like that, there's a bunch of hedge-fund guys and business guys there. For them to see me out there, they see my passion for the game and they really enjoy that. My group of friends has expanded through golf. Golf gives people a different perspective about me.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Smith: When people call me a "wild child" that "pisses me off the most." He said, "Golf gives people a different perspective about me."

 

B/R: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

JRS: People think I'm just some wild child, that I'm just somebody that bugs out all the time and doesn't care. That's the main thing that pisses me off the most. People who actually take the time to come [to my golf tournament] and get to know me, they know what I'm about. But some people don't really care to come.

 

B/R: Do you think that stems from your occasional antics, like when you got fined last season for untying your opponents' shoelaces?

JRS: I do care about the fines because it's loss of money, but other than that, I like to have fun. I would do [the shoelace thing] again if there wasn't a fine. But now that I'm in my 10th year in the NBA, I take the game more seriously than I did my first five, six years.

 

B/R: I have to ask the age-old question: Do you want to start or come off the bench next season?

JRS: At this point, it is what it is. Whether I come off the bench or start, I'm going to get my minutes. I can't wait until training camp—to get to know all the coaches and Phil [Jackson], and their point of view and what's their plan. That's the thing I'm most excited about.

 

B/R: What about playing on the Tour one day?

JRS: I would do it in a heartbeat.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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