This past weekend, football players Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were center stage in a nationally televised golf exhibition. A few days prior to that, former Major League Baseball pitcher Barry Enright won a golf tournament on the Outlaw Tour in Arizona.
Their “success” is a reminder that athletes from all sports have competed in golf events almost from the beginning of professional sports in America, a legacy that dates to George Wright more than 150 years ago. Wright was the star of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first pro baseball team in the United States. Wright and the Reds later moved to Boston and played in the fledgling National Association, the precursor to the National League. More than a ballplayer, Wright was the first true American sportsman, and — long story short — thanks to the popularity of his own sporting goods store and his own zealousness as an athlete founded one of the first golf courses in the country in Boston’s Franklin Park (a different course in Boston now bears his name). The New York Times, in its obituary of Wright in 1937, called him “the father of the ancient game in this country.”
But for all his accomplishments, Wright never competed in golf on a national scale. That was left to the greats of the more recent generations. This week on Golf Channel you can watch former baseball star Mark McGwire beat the pros in a skills competition and football’s John Elway do the same in a team event while paired with Natalie Gulbis.
But there’s a difference between winning a golf exhibition or mini-tour event and succeeding on the game’s grandest stages. More than a few athletes have competed on the largest golf tours in the U.S. Their status as golfers can be separated into two categories: novelty golfers and those who made golf a second career.
The novelty golfers
Novelty might be too frivolous a word, because we’re talking about a group of golfers with serious chops. It’s just that they weren’t good enough to make golf their second career, and on many occasions — though certainly not every one — they played tour golf by virtue of sponsor exemptions.
Athletes of the highest order are imbued with a special confidence — almost cockiness — that allows them the belief that they can succeed at any endeavor. It’s what made Michael Jordan think he could be a baseball player, and it's why many others think they can succeed on a golf tour. That confidence is both a blessing and a curse.
Jerry Rice played four events on the Korn Ferry Tour from 2010 to 2012, missing the cut in all of them. He later admitted he was out of his league. “The Tour was a great experience for me because I wanted to get inside the ropes and feel what those guys went through,” he said in Golf Magazine in 2017. “And after I played in a couple tournaments, I wanted to get outside of ropes.”
In the past 20 years many superstar athletes who talked a good game have been humbled when taking on the pro tours. In addition to Rice, Hall of Famers from others sports, including Grant Fuhr, Brett Hull, Ivan Lendl, Mike Schmidt and John Smoltz have also played on the Korn Ferry Tour. When he’s done playing basketball, Stephen Curry will get a plaque in Springfield. In 18 combined starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, not one of them made a cut.
Smoltz has played five times on PGA Tour Champions, even qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open in 2018. Johnny Bench made 11 starts as a senior between 1998 and 2004. Between them, they’ve never had a top-50 finish.
Boxer Joe Louis famously appeared in the 1952 San Diego Open. Believed to be the first person of color to shatter the PGA’s “Caucasian-only” clause, Louis shot 76-82, missed the cut, and according to The New York Times vowed “to eliminate racial prejudice from golf, the last sport in which it now exists.”
Frank Souchak played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1939 and in the Masters in 1954, getting to Augusta National one year before his more famous golfing brother, Mike, did.
Souchak, like Tony Romo, was an amateur golfer. Romo has acquitted himself reasonably well in four starts on the PGA Tour as an amateur over the past three seasons. But another athlete turned broadcaster can corroborate that playing in golf’s “major leagues” is not an easy task.
Ken Harrelson retired from baseball in 1971 to try his hand at the PGA Tour. After missing the cut in back-to-back starts that August, he waited nine years before getting another shot in the 1980 Pleasant Valley Classic (another MC). Hawk did make two starts as a senior, finishing a respectable T-37 in the 1994 Ameritech Senior Open.
“I had never failed in anything in my life,” Harrelson told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1986. “With golf, I realized I was nothing special. I started realizing I wasn't such a special dude after all. I accepted the fact I am not omnipotent."
There is no complete list of athletes who have appeared in professional golf events, but some other notable names who belong in this first group of competitors include football’s Mark Rypien, Al Del Greco, and Billy Joe Tolliver; baseball’s Erik Hanson, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and Mark Mulder; hockey’s Dan Quinn (who also caddied for Ernie Els); soccer’s Roy Wegerle and Andriy Shevchenko; and tennis' Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who like the soccer players competed on Europe’s top tours.
Golf as a second act
Romo is a good golfer but having only turned 40 in April is a long way from being eligible for PGA Tour Champions. If he continues to work at his game and remains healthy, he has a chance to graduate to the second group of athlete-golfers: those that were able to compete regularly on a pro tour.
In the formative years of American athletics, some golfers were baseball players who later began playing the sport with the smaller ball. Walter Hagen, for example, famously turned down a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies in order to play in a golf tournament.
Many years later, Raymond Floyd turned down a contract offer from the Cleveland Indians to make golf his career. J.C. Snead actually played a few years of minor league baseball before making the switch. Esteban Toledo was a low-level professional boxer for several years before ending his career with a 12-1 record, according to the PGA Tour. Hale Irwin was a college football star, and more recently Gary Woodland played college basketball.
But none of these athletes qualify for our second group, which is limited to players who reached the top level of one sport before embracing golf at its highest level.
Sam Byrd might have been the first major leaguer to turn to golf. An outfielder for the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds for eight seasons, Byrd played left field in the bottom of the ninth inning in the fourth game of the 1932 World Series, replacing Babe Ruth in the Yankees lineup.
That half-inning appearance in the Fall Classic makes Byrd the answer to a trivia question: He's the only athlete to appear in the World Series and the Masters. Byrd excelled as a golfer after leaving baseball at the end of the 1936 season. A full-time PGA Tour regular by the 1940s, he won six times in that decade — including a one-stroke victory over Byron Nelson at the 1945 Texas Open — and played in five Masters, with a third-place finish in 1941.
Ellsworth Vines, matriculated to golf after graduating from a successful career in tennis, where he won three majors, including singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1932. Vines joined the PGA Tour after World War II, and although he had no Tour victories was good enough to win several professional tournaments, including the 1946 Massachusetts Open. He had five runner-up finishes on Tour from 1946-1948 and was T-3 in the 1951 PGA Championship.
“Golf was a great challenge to me, and I was very competitive,” Vines once told Tennis magazine. “I like to play the other guy’s game and beat him at it.’
Another tennis player, Frank Conner, had a long career on the PGA Tour and later became a successful player on PGA Tour Champions. Conner, Vines, and Pete Bostwick Jr. are believed to be the only players to compete in the U.S. Open in tennis and golf.
John Brodie was the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player in 1970 as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Before that he was a star at Stanford University, good enough to eventually be enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame.
But for all his time at Stanford, Brodie didn’t participate in spring football drills. No, he missed that grind by competing for the Stanford golf team. And he didn’t abandon during his pro football career, playing on the PGA Tour in the football offseason of 1959 and 1960 and qualifying for the 1959 U.S. Open.
A competition junkie, Brodie knew his performance in both sports would suffer if he kept double-dipping, so he focused on football. “I learned that as a pro you could only handle one sport at a time if you were to succeed, and my sport is football,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1971.
Upon retiring from the 49ers, Brodie returned to golf. He played in the U.S. Open again in 1981 and joined PGA Tour Champions in 1985. He claimed his lone win on tour when he beat George Archer and Chi Chi Rodriguez in a playoff at the 1991 Security Pacific Senior Classic in Los Angeles.
Baseball pitchers Ralph Terry and Rick Rhoden were also members of PGA Tour Champions, although neither matched Brodie’s success.
The distaff side
Fewer female athletes have appeared on golf’s biggest tours. There is no senior tour and there are fewer major-league sports for women to come from.
So while Elena Della Donne and fellow WNBA star Kristi Tolliver are among those women with a passion for golf, they have not had an opportunity to appear on a major golf tour.
Many long-ago amateurs — Margaret Curtis and Lottie Dod come quickly to mind — were two-sport stars, winning titles in tennis and golf. And in the early days of professional women’s sports, Joanne Winter and Barbara Rotvig played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League before joining the LPGA in 1950s. Tennis great Althea Gibson and fast-pitch softball star Joan Joyce were LPGA members in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.
Credited with breaking the LPGA’s color barrier, Gibson never won a tournament but did finish second at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open, losing in a playoff to Mary Mills.
Joyce didn’t win any LPGA events either, but an ex-softball player named Bonnie Bryant did. After five years on the major-league softball circuit, Bryant joined the LPGA in 1971 and won the 1974 Bill Branch Classic. She is the only lefty to win an LPGA tournament.
There is one woman who doesn’t fit into either group of golfer-athletes and is deserving of a designation all her own. Not just a Tour player and much more than a novelty, Babe Didrikson Zaharais epitomized greatness in golf, as she did in nearly every other sport that she played.
The Babe won two gold medals and one silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. With professional sports for women barely existing in the 1930s, she then tried her hand at exhibitions. She played baseball, basketball and bowling and even competed in diving events and billiards tournaments.
By 1935, she found her way to golf, competing in several PGA Tour events in the 1930s and 1940s. As an amateur golfer, Didrikson Zaharias won the Women’s Western Open three times and the Titleholders Championship once. — events that are now recognized LPGA majors. She was one of the founding members of the LPGA Tour in 1950 and completed her career with 41 victories and 10 major titles.
Her last major title, the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open, came one year after she was diagnosed with colon cancer, the disease that would take her life in 1956 at age 45.
Future two-sport athletes have a long way to go to match the Babe.