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Michael Jordan and Golf: A Beautiful Competition

Michael Jordan and Golf: A Beautiful Competition

Does the GOAT like golf more than basketball?

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The year is 1984. Ghostbusters has just come out, jean jackets are everywhere, the Detroit Tigers are World Champions, and down at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a few students decide to play some golf.

Well, technically not just any students. A young man on the Tar Heels golf team named Davis Love III invited Buzz Peterson, a guard on the basketball team, to play a little golf after class. Not wanting to miss out on any of the fun, but never really having ever golfed before, Buzz’s roommate asked if he could tag along; Buzz and Davis gladly agreed he could come. So they all headed out to Finley Golf Club, the three of them: Davis Love III, Buzz Peterson, and another young basketball player, in his junior year, by the name of Michael Jordan — who ended up walking off his first hole ever with a par. Mind blown emoji.

And just like that, Jordan was hooked. If that is where the story ended, it would still be a phenomenal little anecdote of Jordan’s life. Taken to a course by a young Davis Love III, who himself would go on to become a Major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer. However, that could not be further from the case. Jordan would go on to — and still does — have a deep love for golf, rivaled by almost no one.

Michael Jordan is competitive. Simple statement. But saying Michael’s competitive is like saying “the ocean is big”; in all actuality the ocean is huge and Michael Jordan is extremely competitive. Shouldn’t he be though? He could have never achieved all he did on the court had he not been. His competitiveness gave him an edge not seen in every athlete, even the greats. And for Jordan, that competitiveness is not simply turned off, it is a part of the very fabric which is Michael Jordan. Therefore, the competitiveness would follow him to the golf course as well — sort of like a fifteenth club — and when you combine that with a deep passion for the game, you get some pretty good stories.

Every athlete has something they like to do when they leave the court, the field, the rink, etc., Jordan’s was golf. The man golfed more than professional golfers and then would go play in basketball games. According to the incomparable Charles Barkley, during the summer of 1992, Jordan did just that. Sir Charles said that he had gone out to play a round of golf with Michael before an Olympic qualifier game. After the round, he walked off the course, expecting Michael to be walking with him … but that just wasn’t Jordan. Michael decided to play another eighteen before the game. Then during the team meeting, he made it emphatically clear that he would be guarding the opposing team’s best player. (Mind you, this is the 1992 Dream Team, so they had other guys who could play pretty good defense). How did Jordan play that game, you might ask; he just locked his opponent down, per usual. Thirty-six holes of golf during the morning, basketball perfection at night — just another day for MJ.

MJ in 1987
credit: Chicago Sun Times

It seems as though Jordan played more golf during his run with the Dream Team in 1992 than basketball. Throughout those Olympics, and the months leading up to them, Michael played his teammates and coaches many different times, including his head coach Chuck Daly. Daly and Jordan had an interesting relationship. Jordan’s seasons were cut short in the playoffs for years by the Chuck Daly coached Detroit Pistons, thus creating a fierce and intense rivalry. Despite the rivalry, however, Jordan and Daly had great respect for one another, all the while remaining competitive between the two of them. So, when Jordan lost to Daly in a golf match during the summer of ‘92, he demanded a rematch … at the literal crack of dawn. Michael began pounding on his coach’s door before even roosters start crowing and did not stop until he agreed to a rematch, which Michael won.

Jordan’s competitiveness has not let up since he last laced up his, well, Jordans. In the years since his “final” retirement, he has been seen and known to make (and win) some wild bets out on the course. 

In 2009 — the same year that he was an assistant captain for Fred Couples at the Presidents Cup — Tiger (you know, Woods) bet him that he could not break 92 at Bethpage Black a week before the US Open. Admittedly nervous on the first few holes, Jordan was able to right the ship — thanks somewhat in part to his caddie, Freddie Couples — and card an 86, well below the bar set by Tiger. 

It can also be said that Jordan’s competitiveness out on the course has helped some current PGA Tour players prep for bigger tournaments. Rickie Fowler has openly talked about how playing (and betting) with MJ has resembled feelings of major tournament play. Rickie has said that a good amount of money is thrown around during those matches and that Michael will play you for anything, or as Fowler puts it, “whatever makes you scared”. When you play with His Airness, that has to make playing against other professionals seem easier, right?

In addition to his own golf game, it also seems as though Jordan has a keen eye when it comes to evaluating other peoples’ games, including that of a thirteen-year-old Justin Thomas. Jordan would play Harmony Landing near Louisville during the Kentucky Derby, where Justin Thomas’ father is the pro and Justin would caddie growing up. After a few years, Michael began to notice Justin’s ability, and when it came time for a team match, MJ picked JT to be his partner. After Justin put on a display during the match, the pair won and Jordan tipped his young former caddie handsomely. The two have remained good friends to this day.

Golf — in a sense — is a competition; a competition that is played out in countless different ways: against yourself, against the course, against other golfers. Yet, the word “competitive” can sometimes be used as a negative. I have never understood why though? I have always looked at being competitive as something to be celebrated. You should want to win and compete in everything you do. Sure, you should try to find a balance and not let competition rule you — and maybe Jordan might be overly competitive — but that is why he is Michael Jordan. That is why he has been able to do what he does on the court, in the boardroom, and on the course. That is one of the many things that is beautiful about the game of golf: the competition of it. It parallels life in that way. Just as Jordan has shown, no matter where you are or what you do, you can always compete and strive to win.

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