Celebrity swing: Why the stars flock to golf

Two of the joys of golf are its longevity and its reach. Anyone can play the game and at just about any age. There are no barriers and with little need for physical prowess, it is attractive to all sections of society.

Actor Jamie Dornan unwinds by playing a practice round at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews last year.

The game has been popular with celebrities for years. From Bob Hope and Terry Wogan to the current crop of Justin Timberlake, Jamie Dornan, Jessica Alba, and Jodie Kidd, golf is seen as a perfect opportunity to relax for a few hours and enjoy the downtime the fairways offer.

The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship has become a magnet for these celebrity golfers and if you’re into ‘celebrity-spotting’, East Lothian this weekend is as good a place to be as any.

The cult of celebrity doesn’t just embrace the media world as JP McManus proves. He was paired with Pádraig Harrington for his two victories at this event (2002, 2006), and Pádraig also happened to win the overall tournament on both occasions.

It is no surprise that many of the amateurs include sports stars: Michael Phelps, Ian Botham, Gary Lineker, and even Oscar Pistorius have taken part.

So why is golf so popular with celebrities and is their participation good for the game?

In answer to the first question, ask yourself why you took up the sport and why you enjoy playing it. I suspect celebrities — who are just like you and me — will give a similar answer to yours.

Here’s what Olympian Michael Phelps had to say: “This is a passion that I have and I’m going to do everything I can to improve and get to where I want to be,” Phelps told Golf World’s E Michael Johnson.

“I have friends that are single-digit and scratch golfers that I would love to be able to compete with. I know it is a very challenging sport. It’s the most humbling sport I’ve ever played in my life.”

OK, so some others have taken a different approach. There can’t be many golfers who went busking to raise money to pay for green fees… and then turn into global superstars as a result. If the stories are true that’s exactly what happened to Justin Bieber. According to a Rolling Stone profile, Bieber played his guitar on the steps of a local theatre to drum up $20 (€17) for green fees. He came home with $200 (€170).

And then there’s Cameron Diaz who, in her role in Something About Mary, had to hit golf balls at the range with Matt Dillon. She’s a serious golf fan although her enthusiasm may reflect a celebrity’s famed lifestyle. “It’s kind of like crack cocaine to me,” she once said of golf. “I’m getting my clubs fitted and I’m very excited.”

It is Justin Timberlake, however, who strikes a chord familiar to all of us: “Golf is my getaway,” he told Craig Bestrom in a US Golf Digest interview, in 2008.

“For me, golf is one of those things where you go out and forget about everything else.”

Golf has proved infectious for many celebrities, sometimes long before stardom came along (Timberlake joined his first golf club when he was 12) and sometimes as a result of it.

Look at Kevin Costner (Tin Cup) and Bill Murray (Caddyshack) — two passionate golfers — or Jack Nicholson, who took up the game aged 50.

As to the second question — is celebrity participation good for the game? The answer has to be ‘yes’.

OK, so Bill Murray should never design his own line of golf clothes and should never, ever be paired with John Daly, but overall when the general public see Matthew McConaughey, or Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Alice Cooper or Jamie Dornan hitting balls and having a good time then what better way to promote golf?

When Michael Phelps holed a 53-yard putt at the 2012 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, his celebrations were genuine and fun to watch. How can that not be good for the game?

When Samuel L Jackson has a clause (allegedly) in his movie contracts that allows him two days free a week to play golf, those who don’t appreciate the game may be tempted to look a bit more closely.

And when you realise that Will Smith (star of The Legend of Bagger Vance) plays off a handicap of 15, golfers everywhere will realise that even the biggest stars in the world have to come back down to earth when it comes to golf.

Which all leads to one final question… who is the best ‘celebrity’ golfer? To be honest, that’s a difficult one to gauge as handicap systems operate in different ways in different countries.

Kenny G, the saxophonist, plays off 0.6, while rock ‘n’ roll legend Alice Cooper plays off 5.3 and tries to play two rounds a day, even writing a book Golf Monster: My 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict, on how golf helped him get over his addictions. Cooper plays off a handicap of 7, as does Mark Wahlberg.


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