Originally published June 23, 1996
Think that horrendous 90 that Michael Jordan shot Friday in the Celebrity Golf Association Chicago Classic reflected the game of a weekend duffer? Think again.
Golf used to be Jordan’s hobby. Now it’s much more than that.
After shooting his uncharacteristic 18-over-par round and submitting to media interviews, Jordan and Kent Sirois, the head professional at White Eagle, headed to Stonebridge, a nearby course in Aurora.
Jordan hit balls under Sirois’ direction, then shot 80 in a second 18 holes with Sirois, the Blackhawks’ Bernie Nicholls and Stonebridge pro Steve Phelps. Though the practice round was arranged spur of the moment at a private club, about 200 were on hand when the foursome reached the 18th green. Afterward Sirois and Jordan were back on the Stonebridge range until 8:30 p.m.
“We tried to quiet his legs down and have him swing more shallow,” Sirois said. “We had him hitting fades, left-to-right shots, which is what he wanted to do. His timing has to be better because the width of his arc is so big — just like Tiger Woods’. Michael knows it takes time to learn to play this game.”
On Saturday, Jordan took a lesson from Charlie Long at his golf center near White Eagle before playing his second round in the Chicago Classic.
The heavy-duty practice regimen didn’t help much immediately — Jordan shot 89 on Saturday and fell to last place in the tournament — but it did impress Sirois.
“All Michael wants to do now is play,” he said. “He can be almost as good as he wants to be if he puts in the time. He’s got a very good short game. He could get down to scratch if he hits a lot of (practice) balls.”
Jordan can be expected to do that in summer because golf has claimed a major place in his life. He has created a significant niche for himself in the sport he grew to love after taking it up in college.
Davis Love III, son of one of the world’s most famous golf teachers and now one of the top players on the PGA Tour, got Jordan started in golf when they were students at the University of North Carolina.
The opportunity to play became even greater after he joined the Bulls. The image-conscious PGA Tour was looking for inroads into the African-American community, and Jordan was it.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had Jordan on the tour’s television shows. The Western Golf Association made him a board member, and he played in the Western Open’s pro-celebrity shootout and pro-am.
When Jordan’s game showed promise, the WGA awarded him a sponsor exemption to the 1991 Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Mich. Jordan was paired with Phil Mickelson, now the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour. Jordan shot 85-81 and missed the 36-hole cut. Mickelson shot 65-67 and dominated the tournament.
“The way Michael looked after the second day of the Western Amateur I haven’t seen since,” said Peter de Young, for 15 years the WGA’s tournament director and regular Jordan golf partner. “That was real competition, not a club’s member-guest.
“He told me later that was the best experience he ever had in golf. He was so grateful to have the opportunity to play at that level and see what he could do.”
Coming up short that week didn’t curb Jordan’s competitive urge on the links. He displayed it in private games instead of public tournaments. Tales of his golf-course gambling surfaced, which threatened to damage his image.
Jordan weathered that controversy and stuck with golf.
Jim Karvellas was the radio voice of the New York Knicks when he conceived the idea for a celebrity circuit. He shared his dream with Jordan.
“I got the idea in 1988 or 1989,” Karvellas said. “Mike said to count him in.”
Jordan was a charter player member of the CGA, although he’s scheduled to complete only his seventh tournament in six years today at White Eagle.
Two years ago, de Young invited Jordan to play with Arnold Palmer in the Ameritech Senior Open pro-am at Stonebridge in Aurora. A gallery of 15,000 showed up to watch.
Despite Friday’s and Saturday’s ragged rounds, de Young insists Jordan’s game has grown. His involvement with the sport definitely has.
Jordan joined Wynstone, a private club in Barrington featuring a course designed by Jack Nicklaus. That was his Chicago golf base until recently when he switched to the three-year-old Merit Club, a Libertyville layout that has been selected to host a future U.S. Women’s Open.
“Michael’s a solid country-club 5-handicap, and he can play to that anywhere,” de Young said. “And he won’t (tee off) from anywhere but the tips (back tees).”
Jordan shot a 70 at Shoreacres two years ago while playing with de Young and had a 72 at Evanston last year.
“Michael knows more about golf, especially in course management, than he did three years ago,” de Young said. “He doesn’t try to hit it through trees and take the driver out of his bag on every tee the way he used to.”
Although Jordan’s aborted attempt at baseball curtailed his time on the golf course for two summers, it had a positive effect.
“He’s hitting his irons farther because he learned in baseball how to move his legs into the shot,” de Young said. “We used to be one club apart. Then it got to be two, and now it’s three. He’s become longer than anybody I’ve ever played with.”
“I’m not hitting my tee-ball (drives) now,” said Jordan, in assessing the state of his game. “That’s my biggest problem. My chipping and putting has been pretty consistent.”
While his game may be lagging, his position in the golf industry is not.
The Michael Jordan Golf Co. Inc. was formed three years ago. It was the brainchild of Chuck Reeves, then the lead project manager for the Jack Nicklaus Development Co. that built Wynstone. A Wynstone member and Jordan playing partner, John Mitchell, brought Reeves and Jordan together. They gathered investors and added Steve McLennan, a PGA pro who was director of golf at Pebble Beach in California for eight years.
Last October, the first Michael Jordan Golf Center opened in Aurora. The center is a $3 million facility that has 80 hitting stations, some of them covered for winter use; a large short-game practice area, and a 4,900 square-foot clubhouse that includes a pro shop.
On March 29 the Michael Jordan Golf retail store opened in Water Tower Place. Steve Skinner, vice president of Jordan Golf, said two more learning centers are being planned, one in Denver and the other in either Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta. Two more retail stores are in the works in the Chicago suburbs. They should open within nine months.
At the Water Tower Place opening, Jordan explained his expanding role in golf.
“I can’t teach kids, I can only expose them to the game,” he said. “I think, through ventures like my golf center and the store, can provide an outlet for kids to get to know the sport. Maybe one day I’ll have a golf course, too.”
Skinner said Jordan Golf constantly is approached about golf-course deals, “but we’ve decided to focus on practice centers. We want the driving range concept perfected first.”
Skinner believes Jordan’s golf involvement extends beyond his love for playing the game.
“He was never exposed to it as a child,” Skinner said. “When Chuck approached him he really got hooked because he could get kids involved in it. He took it from being a country-club sport because he thinks it’s a great game and he never had a chance to learn it when he was younger.”