Before the record 22 Olympic swimming medals (18 gold), Michael Phelps was a U.S. record-holder as a 10-year-old and an Olympic qualifier for the 2000 Sydney Games at 15. It was around that time, he recalls, that swimming seemed a lot less interesting than the sport so many of his buddies were playing. 'I actually wanted to stop swimming and go out for the high school golf team,' Phelps says. 'I'm glad I didn't make that choice.' This past fall, Phelps finally quit swimming and took up golf, and for the foreseeable future, the game will be one of his priorities. He already has begun shooting the Golf Channel series 'The Haney Project,' which will air from late February to early April. He was Davis Love III's guest at the Ryder Cup. And a week later, he played in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship (see his 153-foot putt) in Scotland with Paul Casey. Like so many world-class athletes before him, Phelps wants to become a scratch golfer. 'And,' he says, 'I've got the rest of my life to get there.'
Q: What's your first memory of golf?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is Tiger's shot at, what was it, The Masters? That chip shot was so sick! I could sit and watch it 100 times and still get chills.
Q: But you never played while growing up?
A: I had friends who played, but until a couple of years ago I had never hit a shot. One day, just randomly, I went with some guys to the range. It was kind of fun, and I was just borrowing clubs, so when we finished I said, 'Let's go buy some clubs.' The next day a bunch of my friends and I went out, and I was like, 'Man, I could get used to this.'
Q: You're the greatest swimmer of all time, and probably the greatest Olympian. Where would you rank yourself as a golfer?
A: I'm terrible, and I know that. I've had two lessons in my life, both from Hank [Haney]. I can find a shot here and there that I get super excited about, but if you asked me to duplicate that shot over and over, it'd be impossible.
Q: What's your handicap?
A: What's the max? [Laughs.] The first time I played 18 holes and kept score, I shot 106. That was a little over two years ago. My best score since then is 91, at Longview [now called Fox Hollow, outside Baltimore], where you can play from any fairway.
Q: What'd Hank do with you in those first lessons?
A: It was at my foundation's golf event a couple of years ago. He changed everything: my grip, how I approach the ball, my swing. He wanted me to get in the habit of doing things the right way. After the range, we played a few holes, and I was like, 'I don't want to hit another ball!' And Hank would be like, 'Again! Again! Tee up another one!' It was so frustrating.
Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of your game?
A: I can hit the 3-wood and driver relatively straight-ish. Iron shots are really hard for me, and anything under 100 yards, I don't feel confident enough to let the club do what it's supposed to do.
Q: Any idea how far you can drive it?
A: It's not consistent, but when I catch one it's probably close to 300, or maybe a little bit more. But I need to learn how to hit it in the fairway.
Q: Ever lost it emotionally on the course?
A: Oh, yeah, I've thrown clubs. I launched my 7-iron and managed to get it stuck in a tree. All my buddies were laughing because they know how competitive I am. They love torturing me in the only sport I can't beat them.
Q: What course have you played most?
A: Probably Longview or Caves Valley. I really like Caves. The only thing that kind of sucks is, you've got to walk, and I hate walking.
Q: Michael Phelps hates walking?
A: I'm so lazy! Whenever I was out of the pool, I didn't want to move. I'm definitely a cart golfer.
Q: Most embarrassing moment on the course?
A: A buddy and I were in one cart, and friends in another cart thought they could squeeze through this tight spot, and their cart fell in the trap. It was so bad, in a very deep bunker.
Q: Did anyone see you?
A: We all got in pretty fast and lifted the cart out before anyone noticed, but I was pretty nervous. Not good.
Q: I don't guess there were any beers in that cart, were there?
A: Oh, there are definitely days when you get a few beers in there. It's nice to be out there and not have to worry about anything.
Q: Some people don't accept golf as a sport and golfers as athletes. What's your take?
A: I don't know how anyone could think it's not a sport. Tiger, Rory, most of those guys on the tour? They're definitely athletes.
Q: How do the nerves you feel playing golf, especially in front of strangers, compare to the nerves you felt on the starting blocks?
A: I never really felt nerves swimming. Jumping in the pool is what I've done for 20 years. But I get nervous playing golf in front of strangers. I hate it. 'Fore!' is something you hear from me a lot.
Q: You won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics, and then you used your $1 million bonus from Speedo to launch the Michael Phelps Foundation. Why?
A: I've always wanted to give back to kids. Maybe that's because my mom has been in education for a long time. But helping kids live active and healthy lifestyles, helping them with goals and, especially, teaching them to be water-safe is a great passion.
Q: Step 1 of your 'im' program, is called 'im safe,' as in 'I am water-safe.' Explain.
A: Not many people realize that drowning is the No. 1 or No. 2 cause of death worldwide for kids 14 and under. Our program teaches kids how to swim and how to be safe in the water. A lot of them are afraid, and some parents don't want their kids going near it. One little boy from the Bronx tried and tried but couldn't pick it up. He came back the second year and couldn't pick it up. Finally, in the third year, he learned how to swim. Not only that, he's comfortable in the water and enjoys it. It shows that if you want something bad enough, you can get there. That was me. I was just a kid with a dream. And I didn't let anything stand in my way. I want kids to know dreams can come true.
Q: Is that what you're telling yourself about becoming a scratch golfer?
A: I've been able to pick up so many things so easily, but ever since I picked up a golf club it's been the most frustrating thing ever. But I want this. All I want is to be able to compete with, and beat, all of my friends. And I have friends who are scratch golfers. No one's forcing me to play golf. If it were easy, everyone would be a scratch golfer.
Interview conducted by Craig Bestrom; Click here to visit GolfDigest.com
Photography by Walter Iooss Jr.