Golf & Music

Saving Grace

When they're offstage, performers find golf is music to their ears

Adrain Young

Young at home in Lakewood, California and on stage (below).

Joey Terrill

December 2006

Golf and music go together naturally. Sam Snead, a self-taught trumpet player, moved like a melody. Johnny Carson's practice swing and Doc Severinsen's orchestra always finished in sync.

Golf and musicians--particularly rock musicians--are another matter. Rockers are often rambunctious rebels whose uninhibited behavior and id-driven songs are meant to challenge and even change the status quo. Golf is proudly staid and tradition-bound. One group rocks out, the other zones in.

It's logical that a brick wall would exist between the two. So how is it that more rock musicians than ever--not to mention musicians in general--are playing the game? It's a question with many answers, but it took the most extreme event in the life of one of the most extreme frontmen in rock history--Alice Cooper--to dislodge the first brick.

In the early '80s, at the same time he was going on stage draped in a live boa constrictor and chopping up baby dolls, Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) was drinking a quart of whiskey and a half a case of beer a day. "I would vomit blood, and then reach for the bottle," he says. "I was going to die."


Photo: Courtesy Adrian Young

When Cooper emerged from the hospital, he had a plan. Although he had played only a few booze-soaked rounds of golf in his life, he would immerse himself in the game. The first year, he played 36 holes every single day. During the next 24 years, he has remained almost certainly the most avid (and totally sober) celebrity golfer in the world. "I traded one addiction for another," says Cooper. "But golf is the crack of sports. Once I took it seriously, I loved it, and I've never tired of playing. It absolutely saved my life."

Today, at age 58, Cooper carries a 5.3 Handicap Index, placing him 11th on Golf Digest's inaugural ranking of the Top 100 in Music. The game he displays at celebrity events has inspired musicians of all genres, but especially formerly recalcitrant long hairs and metal heads.

"Growing up, Alice Cooper was Beelzebub, the devil, very mysterious, a little scary," says Darius Rucker, lead singer for Hootie and The Blowfish, the hosts of the musician golf-apalooza called Monday After the Masters. "At the same time, to other musicians, he's always been the definition of cool. So here's this guy with a look and musical style that is so foreign to golf, and he's striping it down the middle and on the green, and he looks so happy. It's just like, 'Wow!' It's given every musician permission to play."

A huge admirer of Arnold Palmer, Cooper is proud of his role as Pied Piper. "I guess the juxtaposition gets people's attention," says the shock-rock icon, who is in the process of writing Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: My Twelve Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict. "I'm glad the wall is coming down."

Of course, there was a time when there was no wall. In 1957, Bing Crosby, the founder of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, crooned the golf anthem, "Straight Down the Middle." Don Cherry had a successful recording career as a singer while playing in nine Masters, and Jimmy Demaret took any occasion to show off his pipes. Pop giants like Dean Martin, Perry Como, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams were avid golfers, and as the end of the Eisenhower years merged seamlessly with the prime of Palmer, golf, in a Rat Pack sort of way, was cool.

But as rock 'n' roll became the dominant genre in the Age of Aquarius and post-Watergate, golf became an easy symbol of Establishment conformity. Any musical reference to golf was invariably ironic, as when the cover of Devo's 1978 album, "Are We Not Men?" featured a campy portrait of Chi Chi Rodriguez. Among most music fans, golf became decidedly uncool.

Still, some edgy rock 'n' rollers were closet golfers. Neil Young, whose mother was a local amateur champion in Canada, played often, and upon arriving in Los Angeles in 1966 he told record executive Ahmet Ertegun, "I'm a golfer. Can you get me in a country club out here?" Heavy-metal bands Judas Priest and Def Leppard would discreetly play while touring. "It's all part of heavy-metal golf," guitarist Glenn Tipton told Sports Illustrated in 1986. "Usually before teeing it up, a bolt of lightning comes down and scorches the earth: Judas Priest, keep off."

Robby Krieger, guitarist for The Doors, grew up a member at Riviera Country Club and still belongs. "No one really noticed when I played, but they would have noticed Morrison," he says. "Jim was definitely not a golf type."

Nor were the great majority of rockers. Huey Lewis recalls at the 1985 recording session for "We Are the World," having a conversation about a course he had just played when a bemused Bob Dylan interjected, "Are you guys talking about golf? Outrageous."

"At that time, for a lot of years, no record label wanted it known that their rock musician played golf," says Lewis. "Image-wise, the words 'golf' and 'sellout' were pretty much synonymous."

But in 1986, Lewis and his group, The News, released the album "Fore!" featuring the hit "Hip to Be Square." In the early '90s, VH1 commercialized the trend, starting the Fairway to Heaven celebrity tournament that drew on mutual admiration.

"Rock stars want to be pro athletes, and pro athletes want to be rock stars, so they all wanted to play together," says VH1's Rick Krim. "It created a lot of good buzz for golf."

At the same time, Stephen Stills was hanging out with PGA Tour players Payne Stewart, Larry Rinker, Mark O'Meara, Donnie Hammond and Peter Jacobsen, showing them guitar licks while they taught him golf. "Those guys did me such an honor," he says. Adds country-music star Vince Gill: "Musicians and golfers understand each other. We know what it takes to have to perform. We know there's a lot of alone time."

The unofficial golf club of musicians started to become more populous and diverse. Outer-limits performers like Marilyn Manson and Iggy Pop were spotted playing. Celine Dion bought her own golf course, and so did Willie Nelson. Singer Anne Murray said she learned the game on the beaches of Nova Scotia, much as Seve Ballesteros did in Pedrena. According to Graham Nash, even Dylan began to play the odd round at Malibu Country Club. "One funky-looking dude on a golf course," says Nash. ("I swing it like a baseball bat," Dylan told Der Spiegel in 1997, listing his handicap at 17.)

As rockers aged, country clubs were filled with people who had listened to and admired their music. Those who had been on the opposite side of the Cultural Gap began to die off. Conversely, the musicians have generally toned down the craziness. "In the '80s, it was about a six-pack of beer, three shots of tequila and who knows what else, and getting buzzed," says Mick Fleetwood. "I've got war stories, and they were fun, but golf is so not about that for me. It's about balance, a wonderful thing."

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