April 14, 2009

My Game: Michael Peña

Michael Peña first got into golf overhearing conversations on a movie set.

Michael Peña first got into golf overhearing conversations on a movie set.

Editor's Note: In "My Game," a weekly series, GolfDigest.com asks noted personalities to expound on their experiences in golf, and what keeps bringing them back. This week, actor Michael Peña, whose credits include "Crash", "Million Dollar Baby" and the new film with Seth Rogen, "Observe and Report", talks about his start in the game after listening to James Garner and Jack Lemmon talk obsessively about golf on a movie set. Pena's passion was rewarded recently when he recorded an ace during the third round of the Bob Classic.

I'm from the south side of Chicago, the son of working class parents. I was a wrestler and played football and ran track in high school. I went downstate in wrestling twice. I also went downstate in track, in the mile, and took last place. It was brutal.

I was working at a bank, when my best friend's mom told me go to an audition. Where I'm from, you don't hear about acting (or golf), but that's how I got my start.

When I was 19, I was filming my first movie ever, "My Fellow Americans," with James Garner and Jack Lemmon, in Asheville, N.C. I swear, I couldn't get a word in edgewise, because they were talking about golf constantly. Jack Lemmon would always be, like, "No, no, no, what you want to do is to swing like this." There is always a debate in golf -- stance structure, pivot or not to pivot, the whole thing. They talked about it all, constantly, on the set. I thought, "well, maybe I want to try this golf thing." They seemed to be so enthused, so wrapped up in it.

My Game

I went to a local driving range in Asheville, which had a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle down range, about 100 yards. The guy at the range said, "Let that be your target. If you hit it you can go home." I could not hit it for the life of me. I hit six buckets of balls and I hit it once. I was hooked. One trip to the range. It was great. When you have a target, you forget about form. You don't care about anything other than swinging away and trying to hit the target. We were there filming for three months and I spent much of time there at that range, trying to learn the game of golf. And to hit that Volkswagen.

I used to play about 10 times a year, but in the last couple of years I've been trying to play more regularly, closer to once a week. Mark Wahlberg is a friend, a great guy to play with. He smashes the ball. He's a golf junkie. There are a bunch of us out there now. It's like a new breed of golf junkie emerging. I've been working on my game with Los Angeles golf instructor Dana Dahlquist, who is helping me make the golf swing a lot simpler. I live in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles and frequently play at Bel-Air Country Club, where I have a couple of friends, including Terry Jastrow, the producer and director. He often plays golf with my producing partner, Luke Watson. Terry is one of those guys who is great for me. I'm used to giving interviews, but when I play with Terry I just listen. He's a great storyteller. He's got stories about filming, about his buddy, Tom Kite, when he won the U.S. Open, even about Alfred Hitchcock.

For the first time, I'm looking to join a club. I've got a bid in now somewhere. I think it's a natural transition for me. I'm 33 now. To keep on playing golf, it makes more sense for me to do it at a club I like.