9 PGA Tour Golfers Who Could Have Played Other Sports
The PGA Tour is full of golfers who enjoy playing other sports when they’re not preparing for the next major championship or FedEx Cup event.
Some, such as Jack Nicklaus, were happy to unwind with their athletic hobbies during their downtime. Others, such as Anthony Kim, seem to have been torn between their current profession and other sports that captured their interest from a young age.
From Dustin Johnson dunking basketballs and Sergio Garcia taking penalties, to Hale Irwin lettering in football and Rickie Fowler jumping dunes in motocross, this list features an array of PGA regulars who not only embraced other sports, but also were potentially good enough to have gone pro in them.
With that in mind, let’s dive in and posit on alternate realities where some of our golfing icons may have been heroes in other sports.
Hale Irwin: Football
During his college days at the University of Colorado, Hale Irwin earned a combined six letters in football and golf, per the school’s athletics website.
As a football player, he had a considerable list of accomplishments:
After playing quarterback as a sophomore, he became a two-time first-team all-Big Eight selection at cornerback in 1965 and 1966, making nine interceptions. He was a two-time Academic All-Big Eight team member, and in 1989, he was selected to CU’s 25-member All-Century Football Team for CU’s first 100 years of football.
Irwin also had an impressive list of collegiate golfing accomplishments, including being a medalist at the 1967 NCAA Championships, but the fact that he excelled at two extremely different sports at such a competitive level is an incredible feat all in itself.
Though he left the pigskin behind, Irwin never forgot the lessons of perseverance he had learned from football.
“My mom and dad didn't have money, and no one came knocking on the door with a golf scholarship, so I played football,” he said, per Golf.com’s Connell Barrett. “I wasn't big. It was like a pebble hitting a mountain. But hit that mountain enough and it comes down.”
Dustin Johnson: Basketball
Dustin Johnson is 6’4” and 190 pounds of athleticism, so it’s not surprising he can dunk a basketball (as proved in the above video). But he can also shoot, as evidenced by his victory over Shane Battier in the three-point shootout portion of the Adidas Boost Challenge.
Though the wording of that challenge (“Golfers vs. Athletes”) may appear to some to imply golfers are not among “athletes” like basketball, football and soccer players, none can deny Johnson has the skills to hold his own on the court.
Add to that the family legacy of his grandfather, Art Whisnant, who played center for South Carolina, per Golf.com, and Johnson has hoops lineage to boot.
Could he mark Stephen Curry in man-to-man or take it to the rim against LeBron James? Most would probably agree, no, he could not. But then again, Johnson did choose to focus the majority of his time and effort on golf since well before he turned pro in 2007—and that focus has yielded nine PGA Tour wins and counting.
So who’s to say DJ wouldn’t be balling it up professionally right now, somewhere, had he chosen a different path?
Sergio Garcia: Soccer
Unlike most golfers on tour, Sergio Garcia actually has played another sport professionally.
In September 2010, the Spanish player donned his futbol boots and made a cameo for his hometown side, CF Borriol, in La Liga’s third division, per ESPN.
Some will note Garcia only played eight minutes. Others will remind you he didn’t do much to help his team in its 1-0 defeat to Ribarroja. Still others will point out Garcia is actually Borriol’s club president, which gave him a serious inside track for talking his way onto the pitch.
Regardless of the qualifying circumstance, the fact remains Sergio has had a long (and continuing) love affair with the "Beautiful Game," as evidenced by the video above.
Rickie Fowler: Motorsports
As he explains in the above video, Rickie Fowler has had a lifelong passion for motocross.
Growing up, the now-26-year-old would ride dirt bikes and dune buggies with his family in Southern California. According to Jon Ackerman of Back 9 Network (via Fox Sports), Fowler “was a serious motocross rider up until his freshman year of high school, when an accident broke his foot in three places.”
Career-ending injuries aren’t uncommon in any sport, but Fowler was far too young to retire entirely and, instead, switched his focus to golf. In hindsight, it’s clear that decision worked out well. He still loves motorsports, though, and intends to keep them in his life.
“Down the road I definitely see myself being a little more involved in spending some time in the seat and driving and seeing where that takes me,” said Fowler. “Whether that’s down [in Australia] racing V8s or back in the U.S. racing at Le Mans. Who knows? It could be fun.”
Jack Nicklaus: Fishing
The Golden Bear’s love of fishing was actually very closely tied with his golf legacy—at least at its inception.
“I started out not doing much fishing. And then when I went to college, my college coach at Ohio State, Bob Keppler, was a fly fisherman,” said Nicklaus, per Golf Digest’s Matt Ginella. He went on to explain:
Kepp took me up one day and evidently I picked it up fairly quickly. And so, what we'd do when I was at Ohio State, is he'd look up at the sky and say, "Nick, it's too nice a day to play golf today. Why don't we get these other guys started off and you and I will go fishing.
So we'd get the other guys started off and we'd get in the car and drive an hour where there were some stocked trout streams. And that's where I started fly fishing, with Keppler. And we'd probably do it seven or eight times a season during the spring.
It’s hard to imagine the young legend playing hooky from golf practice, but it happened (and his love of fly-fishing never subsided). Combine that early aptitude for catching trout with a lifetime of worldly experience in the sport, and it starts to look like the Golden Bear’s nickname could have applied to his fishing career as well.
Arnold Palmer: Pool
It’s well-known that Arnold Palmer and legendary The Hustler actor Jackie Gleason palled around in Florida for a time in the 1960s.
CBS even filmed a match between the two in 1960 called, Sunday Sports Spectacular: Jackie Gleason with Putter and Cue, per Golf.com’s Mike Walker.
“Jackie and I were friends, and we had played golf before and shot pool,” said Palmer. “CBS wanted to get us together for the show…I was a fan of Jackie's show, and we had a lot of fun together.”
Though it was no surprise Palmer got the better of Gleason on the course, it’s worth noting Arnie was no slouch on the pool table either.
“I could beat [Gleason] at pool, golf, whatever,” Palmer told Golf Magazine in 2010 (via Golf.com). “The only thing he could beat me at was drinking.”
Anthony Kim: Basketball
OK, so he didn’t score in the 2010 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game (a confession from the video above). Anthony Kim has high standards for his hoops game, though, and that comes from a lifetime of passion and practice.
In 2009, the 5’10” Kim sat down with Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz—and Diaz’s commentary suggested the golfer may have been more enthusiastic about basketball than his current vocation:
As a gifted athlete who excelled in basketball and loves watching football and ultimate fighting, Kim admits he can't help finding golf a bit nerdy. He candidly says that if he were 6-4, he'd be aiming for the NBA. Asked straight up if he loves golf, his answer, after a pause, is a bit tortured.
Kim himself said, “Well, I love competing. Whether it's golf, whether it’s basketball, whether it’s talking trash to my buddies, especially those who play other professional sports, I love running my mouth and just being competitive. Now, I do enjoy playing golf. But could I live without golf? Yes.”
While at the University of Oklahoma, Kim also made a habit of practicing with the University of Oklahoma's basketball team, according to Golf.com’s Cameron Morfit.
Could he make the NBA at his size? That’s a stretch. Could he have played professional ball somewhere else, had he not focused on golf? That’s a different matter.
Ernie Els: Tennis, Rugby, Cricket
According to Ernie Els’ official website (no bias there), the South African was a promising multi-sport athlete in his youth: “As a youngster, he was outstanding in cricket, rugby and tennis. At the age of 13 he won a significant regional tennis event, the Eastern Transvaal Junior Championships.”
Relatively early on, though, Els (obviously) switched over to golf. Just one year after that tennis triumph, he won the World Junior Golf Championship in San Diego by defeating a young Phil Mickelson, among others.
Els began competing against professional golfers at age 16 and eventually turned pro in 1989. The rest—70 victories, including four major championships—is history.
Could the South African have gone pro in a sport other than golf? It’s difficult to tell, considering he was so young at the time, but his early success gives us reason to believe.
Adam Scott: Surfing
He may see it as a form of relaxation outside the pressure of competitive golf, but Adam Scott takes his escapist surfing seriously.
“Surfing is a way for me to switch off and get away from the whole world, really,” said Scott, per Golf.com’s Mike Walker.
“I know my ability in surfing. At some point you've got to take off on something, but I don't charge big waves. I'm less of an adrenaline junkie than I once was. Surfing had that element with me for a while, but it's less and less now. I'm not going out there to scare myself.”
Scott may not be pushing the envelope when it comes to his extracurricular athletics, but then again being laid back clearly doesn’t prevent you from being an excellent surfer (as Jack Johnson’s entire career to date has proved).