"I'm pretty good, but there are a million guys better than me, and those guys are monumentally better than I am."
Trent Dilfer, 38, won a Super Bowl as the quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens in the 2000 season and is currently an NFL analyst on ESPN. Dilfer's an avid golfer (his low round is a 62), and in a recent conversation with Senior Travel Editor Matt Ginella, he tells us his best story of competing against a PGA Tour pro, shares advice on golf in Tahoe and, with the NFL playoffs at their peak, gives his take on former Ravens teammate Ray Lewis.
ON GOLF ...
What's you first memory of golf?
When I was in junior high, a buddy and I were starting to get into some trouble. That summer, before my freshman year, every morning my mom would take us out to this golf course about 15 miles from our house, Rolling Hills in Watsonville, Calif. It's an old public track. I used my grandma's golf clubs, and my buddy had a few irons and a wood from his grandfather's set. Mom would give us five bucks; in 1984 that was a decent amount of money, and she would drop us off in the morning and pick us up at dark. I was always Tom Watson, and my buddy was always Jack Nicklaus. We skanked it around until we learned how to actually get it in the hole. We both fell in love with it.
Who won more, "Watson" or "Nicklaus"?
I think Nicklaus got an early lead, but Watson won more in the end.
Why did you like Watson?
I found out he was a Stanford guy -- not that I love Stanford, but I was from the area. I loved his aggressiveness. Back then he was known for ramming every putt three feet by the hole if he missed it. That's how I learned how to putt; he was my guy. I loved his mentality. I loved that he played good in bad weather.
I see that you have five top 10s in the American Century Championship in Tahoe. You're getting close. Do you prepare for that as though you're a professional golfer prepping for a major?
Yes. The best I can -- and my family would attest to this -- everything I do in golf is to prepare for that tournament. It's not enough based on the fact that I haven't won it, and I'm not nearly the player I was five years ago. I have so many injuries, physically I just can't repeat fundamentally sound moves of my golf swing. What's interesting, and what has got me in trouble there, is that I've never made enough putts. I've gone into the tournament putting great and just haven't holed enough putts. It's the strength of my game, chipping and putting, but I miss a lot of short ones up there. It's not a nerves thing. I haven't been able to figure it out.
You received the 2009 John Brodie Award in Tahoe (which recognizes accomplishments in a chosen profession and the sport of golf), and you wore his No. 12 with the 49ers. Obviously there's some connection there.
Chris Chandler and I have been very close friends forever, and Brodes is Chris' father-in-law. Years ago I was playing pretty good in football, I was playing pretty good in golf and I was thinking I was a hotshot. Brodes pulled me aside one night after a practice round at the Black Diamond tournament in Florida. He had me in my golf spikes, and he was coaching me at football. He was yelling at me on the putting green, "Do this, do that," he was working on my drop, he was just grinding me in my golf outfit, teaching me how to be a better football player. We get done and we have a beer, and he looks at me and he says, "You're a par-shooter as a football player, and you're a par-shooter as a golfer. That isn't good enough." I was a plus-1 or something, and I was a pretty good football player, but that message resonated with me. I wasn't working on the right things. It was that year that I started working on my golf swing; it was that year I started applying the principles of golf and football together, the mental and the emotional and the technical. I had a great football season, and then I won the Black Diamond tournament. I shot 65-67 in the qualifier and beat [Rick] Rhoden on the last hole of the shootout. That was the height of my golfing career. That was when I learned how to go low. A couple of years later I shot a 62 in San Diego to win that tournament, and that's really when I started being sound in all three of those areas: My mental game had to be sharp, my emotional game had to be sharp and my technical game had to be sharp in both football and golf.
Is the Champions Tour a possibility for you?
I don't know. I met with Laird Small at Pebble last year. I told him, "I'm back to being a par-shooter. That's really where I am. I can go out and be around 75 to 70, but the 65s are few and far between." I asked Laird, "What's it going to take?" He identified a few major technical issues that I would have to fix. I just can't hit the ball out of my shadow anymore. I stand up at the ball at impact. I've still got to practice during the football season, and that has really been my issue. My life is too full to dedicate the time to do that right now. My girls are getting older, and they're kind of recognizing that I need a competitive outlet. Maybe this article will be my motivation to go out and start pounding balls and working on my short game during the football season. I've torn both Achilles tendons, I have major bone spurs in my left ankle, I have 12 different shoulder separations, so I have some physical issues that I have to correct before I can get my golf swing the way I need it. But I have the resources to do so, and maybe one of these days I'll get around to doing it.
If you could play only one course for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What club do you hit when you play the 16th at Cypress? (220 yards.)
Three-wood. I played it twice last year. I hit it to 15 feet the first time I played it, and the last time I was there I birdied 13 and 15 to get back to one under, and then I put two in the water at 16.
Have you ever birdied 16?
What would you do to fix the game of golf?
I don't have a lot of complaints with the state of the game. I like that technology has flattened out. To me, I don't like that all these new courses are so huge, especially in terms of the par 3s. I don't mind the 600-yard par 5s or a 460-yard par 4, but to play four par 3s at 185, 216, 228 and 238 yards, is ridiculous. I don't like that they've stretched the par 3s out so much and they put 30,000-square-foot greens on them; I just don't like that. My favorite courses are the old ones that have tiny little greens, and they're sloped so that if you short-side yourself, you're done. I like a course hard and fast with rough. You've got to be able to put it in the fairway, I think you should be penalized if you don't.
It sounds like you understand architecture of courses; do you familiarize yourself with who designed the courses you play?
I used to a lot more than I do now. I used to read every golf magazine front to back; I was addicted to Golf Channel, read Rotella, read every golf book. That was me until about 2000; for the last 10 years I'm not nearly as psychotic with how I follow the game. My favorite courses are by Mackenzie; my favorite modern-day architect would be Fazio. Although some of my favorite courses are Nicklaus courses, and I know they're usually the exact opposite.
If you take my entire golfing life, my favorites are the older courses, the more traditional and the more authentic. You asked me my favorite course; my second favorite would be Pine Valley. My third would be Merion. Then Shinnecock. I just fall in love with the old classics.
You lost your son [Trevin, of heart disease at the age of 5 in 2003], which is horrific. How have you used golf to raise money and awareness through your charity?
My foundation, TD4Him, is in my son's memory. Through golf you get intimate time with people. You have the time before and after the tournament where you can share the message. When you're a celebrity, golf is a great opportunity to engage people. You get to go around and talk to them as they're playing golf, shake their hands, jump into their world a little bit.
When you go through something like losing your son, you can't just check out of life. I think I used that line once when I was at a speaking engagement and I was talking about my son. I said, "I had a choice: I could walk off the course or I could go dig it out of a buried lie in a bunker." That's the approach we've taken as a family. We're not going to check out; we're going to keep pressing on, moving forward and live life to the fullest regardless of what has happened to us.
You've had a chance to go against some tour players. Who's the best you've ever played with?
I played Grand Cypress with Lee Janzen in the late '90s. I was playing pretty good, and Mark Russell, the tour official, is a real good buddy of mine, and Mark got us together, and this was back when Lee was winning some U.S. Opens. We go to the range, Lee comes up, we do our pleasantries, and he says, "How many shots you want?" I go, "I probably need more than this, but I just can't ask for more than two a side from anybody." And he goes, "Oh, no, no; that's not enough." And I said, "OK, just because you said that, I want only two on the front."
I shoot two under on the front, and he shoots even, and so I win 4-2-0 [with press bets] on the front, I think. Now, I've just beaten him 4-2-0 on the front, getting two, but he makes me take three on the back.
I make double on 10, so I'm 1 down. We get to 11, it's a par 3, and we both hit it to 15 feet and make par, and we're walking to the 12th hole and he says, "This is why you need three, because I'm going to make seven straight birdies on you." And I kind of looked at him funny, like, I love that this guy's talking smack but he's serious: He's calling seven birdies.
I shoot even from there on out -- I think I made a birdie and a bogey -- and he made seven birdies straight. The hardest putt he had was on 18, he had about a nine-footer left to right downhill, and he made it. As soon as it left the putter he just started walking toward the hole. He calls it on the 12th tee and then executes it to perfection, and it was never hard. He never once had a putt until 18 where there was any doubt that it was going to be a birdie. He strips me, obviously -- you do the math; he was giving me three shots.
It was at that moment that I just realized that they're so much better than people give them credit for. I say this all the time, that they're so much better at what they do than you can comprehend. And I'm pretty good, but there are a million guys better than me, and those guys are monumentally better than I am. So, that's my best tour story. What's funny is that John Ellis, a future tour guy, who's a good buddy of mine, just recently played in the Frys and finished 25th or something, and he played a practice round with Lee, and he asked Lee about that story, and Lee remembered it perfectly.
ON TRAVEL ...
You live in Saratoga, Calif., but you have a house in Incline Village, Nev. What three public courses would you suggest if someone was going on a golf trip to Tahoe?
I think Tahoe is one of the hidden gems in the country, and I've played a lot of golf around the country. You can't beat the smells and the clean air and just the way it makes you feel. The giant pines, the shadows that stretch out over the golf course make an incredible environment. And the elevation, it gives you confidence when you have back-left pins from 178 and you're choking an 8-iron and you're trying to get it back there, there's something to it. If you only had time for three, you have to play Edgewood for the scenery, and it's where the American Century Tournament is played. I think you have to play the Champ Course at Incline Village. And I'm going to say Old Greenwood in Truckee because the first time I played it I was seven-under after 10, so I have good memories there.
What happened the last eight holes?
I played 'em even. I made a birdie and a bogey coming in.
If I offered you an all-expenses paid trip to Pinehurst, Pebble or Bandon Dunes, which would you choose?
I haven't played Pinehurst or Bandon Dunes. I'll go with Bandon because I hear the golf is just ridiculous. There's not a lot of other stuff going on, which I like. When I take a golf trip I'm not trying to do anything but play golf and play some cards at night. I'm going to beat you at golf and beat you at gin -- that's my objective every time I go on a golf trip.
How do you kill time on a plane?
I sleep 75 percent of all plane trips I take. I love red-eyes from West to East. I take Ambien to make sure I sleep. I always stay on West Coast time, and I'm always so fried when I come back, I usually sleep naturally.
Do you have any specific travel tips?
My best tip: Be strategic with how you pack. One of the best investments you can make is in a great carry-on. I have the Tumi foldable garment bag; it's the best bag out there. I got two guys at ESPN to buy it because they liked mine so much. I also try to hydrate three days before my trip. If you drink a lot of water the day you leave, you spend the whole flight peeing.
One movie for a long flight?
I think you have to be careful with comedies because you end up laughing out loud and the people next to you think you're crazy. "Remember the Titans" is a movie I've watched when I can't sleep. It's long, it has a great message, and it gets you fired up for whatever you're doing when you land.
ON FOOTBALL . . .
You have the same number of Super Bowl rings as Peyton Manning, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino combined. How good is that?
[Laughs.] I was pretty fortunate to play with a pretty darn good defense. In my opinion, the greatest defense of all time.
In 2000 you replaced an injured Tony Banks, and the Ravens had lost a couple games. Was Ray Lewis telling you, "Hey, don't screw it up"?
No, no, no. I was never once told, "Don't go screw it up." The greatest gift I brought to that team, more than anybody else: I think I knew who we were. I sensed it in training camp, when I had just come from Tampa where, in '97, '98 and '99, we were statistically one of the best defenses in football. And then I went to training camp in Baltimore and said, "It's not even close how much better this team is on defense than the teams I had just played for." And it might not show up statistically, but as a whole, the mentality, the ability to create huge plays defensively, I just sensed it. I had a very clean, crisp understanding of who we were as a football team, and I played the position specifically to that. I didn't take undue risk or unnecessary risk. I was aggressive at times, but only if I had matchup advantages.
Ray Lewis, at that time, was at his peak, and now, 10 years later, the guy is still running around making big plays. He has to be by far the best defensive player you've ever played with.
There are three players in my almost 20 years that I've been involved in this league that I can't wrap my brain around: Brett Favre, Reggie White and Ray Lewis. Even though it's my job, I try not to explain them. You can't explain how good they are, how they've defied the odds, how they've played so long, how their bodies held up. There are so many aspects to them that are just unexplainable, so I don't know what to say except Ray Lewis is a flippin' freak. Last year I was challenged to go study him on tape and explain how he has lost a step and how he's not the player he was. I went and studied the tape and I said, "I can't do that. He's different than he was when I played with him, but he's every bit as effective."
In your career as a quarterback you threw for 20,518 yards, which is about three golf courses' worth. That doesn't seem like a lot.
I have no problem saying this: I feel like I never reached my potential as a player. I retired 14 years into my career and said, "Gosh, I never reached my potential." I never was as good as I should've been. I had all the talent in the world, as a young player, and just never did it. That's really a major regret. But all the lessons I learned makes up for that.
Back to golf for one last question: You're standing over a three-foot putt for your life, and you can either putt it yourself or you can call Tiger or Jack to putt it for you. What do you do?
I want to putt it. I've always been that kind of guy. If I die I want it to be because it's something I did. You know what I'd be thinking: grip pressure, keep my body still and hit the back of the hole. [Laughs.]