Editor’s Note: This story was published in Issue 3 of our print magazine before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States led to the postponement of the start of the 2020 Major League Baseball season and the shutdown of nearly all professional sporting events.
Justin Verlander can handle more pressure than most. The Houston Astros ace has won two Cy Young awards, a World Series, pitched three no-hitters and surpassed the 3,000-strikeout mark. “If I’m in front of 100,000 people, put a baseball in my hand and I’m comfortable,” he says.
Yet put him on a golf course and he feels butterflies. “With golf, if there are five people and a ball on the ground, I’m like, Oh, God,” he says with a laugh.
The most nervous he has ever been was the first time he played Augusta National. “When I was on the first tee at Augusta, the shaking. … I don’t know if I’ve experienced that anywhere else,” Verlander recalls. “It’s pretty intense.”
Verlander, 37, got into golf back in high school. After a football game, his buddy Daniel took some clubs out of his truck and teed up a ball. “He told me to hit it through the uprights. I smoked it, felt like 300 yards, right through the uprights. He was like, ‘Dude, you’re coming out for the golf team.’ ”
Verlander’s high school golf career didn’t amount to much. “I was so bad, they didn’t even count my scores,” he says, laughing. He played with a set of clubs cobbled together from friends and his parents. His dad wasn’t a golfer but would take him to the range now and then.
There’s one club from that set Verlander remembers best: “My first full round of golf ever, I knocked one in from 230 yards with a women’s Jack Nicklaus 3-wood. I was hooked for life.”
He has refined his game quite a bit since then. In peak form, Verlander’s a 4-handicap—though he and his wife, model Kate Upton, have a 1-year-old at home, so he hasn’t been playing as much as usual.
Verlander likes to work on his game alone, at the range, but took a rare lesson before teeing it up at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions near Orlando in January.
He says it’s helpful that Kate understands golf. “She’s been great leading up to this [tournament]. I’m like, ‘Honey, I’m gonna go hit balls and practice.’ She knows when my focus starts to kick in.”
Even when Verlander’s not playing a tournament, he and his buddies have a game, usually a nassau or wolf. “I like the competitiveness of it,” Verlander says. “You can play whatever games you want, with whomever you’re playing with.”
He also enjoys the way it lets him disconnect. “I like to do my thing, put my phone in my bag, and get away from everything,” he says. “It’s nice to be wherever you’re at, and be present for four hours. It’s very peaceful.”