Golf Digest Interview: Justin Timberlake

Bringing his A game from onstage with Madonna to the 13th at Augusta
By Craig Bestrom Photos by J.D. Cuban
January 05, 2010

The dark mahogany door swings open, and into the virtually empty locker room at Sherwood Country Club strides singer-songwriter-golfer Justin Timberlake. He's here for a casual, early-morning round at his home course, but his attire (perfectly pressed gray slacks, white polo and stylish black sweater vest) conveys something a little more formal. At 27 and admittedly a workaholic, Timberlake has spent much of the past few weeks writing and producing music. In between, he took a few days to write, rehearse and host ESPN's annual awards show, The ESPYs. A few weeks before that, he was promoting "The Love Guru," a film in which he co-starred with Mike Myers and Jessica Alba.

"I'm so ready for this," he says, conceding that today's round would be played on only four hours of sleep. "I'm definitely not getting to play as much golf these days as I'd like. Too much on my plate."

Timberlake's passion for golf took hold about six years ago, heightened by his first exposure to the game's highest level as a celebrity player in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Now as a 6-handicapper (T-15 on Golf Digest's Music Ranking), he has a PGA Tour event: the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, debuting in October in Las Vegas.

There's no questioning Timberlake's love and respect for the game. Most of all, he's a smart guy and a kind-hearted person, a credit to his mom (Lynn Harless) and dad (stepfather Paul Harless). Timberlake says golf for him is mostly about playing with his dad, who introduced him to the game at Big Creek near Memphis. When the course was in danger of being turned into a housing development a year ago, Timberlake and his parents stepped in and bought it (Read, "Giving Back In Memphis").

Timberlake's career began as a runner-up on "Star Search" in 1992. From there came a stint on "The Mickey Mouse Club" with future girlfriend Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and others. And then came the mega boy band 'N Sync that sold more than 11 million copies of its first album. Today Timberlake is a six-time Grammy-winning solo artist with six No. 1 songs.

During multiple interviews with Golf Digest, Timberlake talked about playing the world's greatest courses, and with some of film's best-known actresses, including girlfriend Jessica Biel. And he also told us about connecting with America's top teacher, Butch Harmon, for what JT described as his "first real golf lesson" earlier this year. In April, Harmon arranged for Timberlake and his dad to play Augusta National, and a few days prior to the U.S. Open, Harmon caddied for his pupil in the first Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge at Torrey Pines.

"The toughest and coolest thing I've ever been a part of," says Timberlake, who shot 98 on the same setup Tiger Woods conquered a week later. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Golf Digest: There's an interesting story about how you told your dad that the two of you were going to be playing Augusta National together this past spring.

Justin Timberlake: We were backstage at Roseland in New York City, and I was about to go onstage with Madonna. I had found out earlier that day that Butch Harmon had arranged for my dad and me to play Augusta with one of Butch's friends, and I told my mom about it but said not to tell Dad because I wanted to surprise him. At first I was thinking I'd send a plane the day before we were supposed to play and just surprise him, tell him the plane was taking him to Augusta. The more I thought about it, I knew that if he knew he was going to get to play Augusta, he'd want to have a couple of weeks to prepare. So we're standing backstage, and my mom says, "Why don't you go ahead and tell him now?"

I get the room all quiet, and I say, "Hey, Dad, I've got something to tell you: In two weeks, I'm going to pick you up in Memphis, and we're going to go play Augusta National."

He was completely silent for a minute; couldn't believe it. Literally five minutes later, I was on the stage with Madonna. Pretty cool.

Two weeks later, it's really cool: You're playing Augusta with your dad. What was that like?

Golf heaven. Every hole. My dad parred the front nine, and I was going along playing pretty well and really looking forward to Amen Corner.

Butch said to make sure to ask about the 13th hole.

[Laughs.] Oh, wow. I pulled my drive a little bit and ended up sort of behind the limbs of a tree on the left side, so I bumped a 6-iron down about 130 to 135 yards out. The pin was on the top right, and there were only about 10 to 12 paces behind the hole, so my caddie said the safe play was to hit a little wedge up there and leave me an uphill putt.

The wind had been gusting all day, and it seemed like every time I hit a shot a gust of wind would knock it down. They call it A-gust-a for a reason, I guess. A pitching wedge didn't seem like enough.

So you hit a 9-iron?

Yeah, and I hit the perfect shot. It was in the air, and my caddie said, "That's all over it." My dad said, "Man, that looks good." It landed about a yard from the back of the green, and we saw it start rolling back toward the hole. It was like slow motion. There was a group teeing off on the 14th hole that saw the whole thing. So it rolls all the way back into the cup for an eagle. Amazing.

Any reaction?

High-fives and applause. It was cool.

So what'd you shoot?

I got in the clubhouse afterward, and one of the guys from the group in front of us said, "Man! Every time I looked back, you were hitting great shots. What did you shoot, two, three under?" I did play great on the back, but I told him, "You didn't see me on the front." I think I shot, like 85.

Your friend Samuel L. Jackson told us that occasionally he likes to show up as a single at a muny and play with three strangers. Have you ever showed up at a public course unannounced?

Bethpage Black. We just showed up one morning. It was the year they found out they were going to play the Open there. My dad and I showed up around 8 o'clock. I think the starter recognized me and got us out. There were four of us.

Golf is me and buddies out having a good time, but most of all, golf is about me and my dad. Anytime I think of golf, I think about my dad. He taught me how to hit a golf ball, and he got me playing.

How often are you recognized on golf courses?

Pretty much every time I go.

Do you like that, or would you prefer to be left alone?

I'm all about etiquette, so as long as nobody's disturbing the game ... I've had some bad run-ins on golf courses that will remain nameless.

We were at a course one time, and all the members had called their kids. As we walked up the 18th hole, there were literally 300 kids standing there. They wanted me to stay and sign autographs, which I'd have been happy to do, but not if it was going to disturb the other golfers. I just don'tthink that's right.

What do you remember about your first exposure to golf, whether on TV, in person or playing thegame?

When I was a kid, I played basketball religiously. I begged my mom to get me voice lessons because I wanted to learn to sing the right way, but at the same time I was playing Junior Olympic basketball, and I was playing point guard for my school. But I was wanting to get into entertainment, into music and film and television.

One time I got sick and had to miss my voice lessons. I remember my mom sitting me down and telling me, "OK, you're going to have to pick: music or basketball."

I think when I was about 12 or 13, my dad started taking me out to the local golf course, and that's the first time I ever hit a golf ball. I picked it up pretty quickly, just kind of monkey-see, monkey-do. But when I was 12, golf was so slow to me. For me it was basketball, girls and music.

In that order?

[Laughs.] Not necessarily. I won't go into what order, but it was pretty obvious.

Didn't you also learn golf by playing with roadies while on tour with 'N Sync?

I did. It was the last tour we ever did as a group.

I never really took up the game until about six or seven years ago. It was one of those things, where I was like, Man. We had just been inside every day.

Around the same time there was a resurgence with some guy named Tiger Woods. So, the guys asked me if I knew how to play golf, and I told them, "Yeah, I know how golf works." I remember I hit one amazing shot off the tee, straight down the middle. I got to thinking maybe I could play this game.

So you had that "wow" moment.

Yep. At around that time I had a house at Bay Hill in Orlando, just across the lake from where Tiger lives. I remember I bought the house when I was 17. It wasn't on the course, but you could take a golf cart over there pretty easily.

Weren't you friends with Ty Tryon at that time? [In 2001, Tryon earned a PGA Tour card at 17.]

My house was right next door to Ty's. Ty used to come over and use the chipping area in my back yard. I'd go over to Bay Hill and hit balls every day.

No lessons from anyone?

Nope, just self-taught. I'd watch Tiger and Ernie Els on TV and try to learn from what they did, but obviously I related music to it. The golf swing is very, very rhythmic. There's a certain tempo to it, just like in music. It just made sense to me. Music is everything to me.

You live mostly in L.A., right? And you're still a member at Sherwood. Is that where you play most of your golf?

I've been a member at Sherwood since, I think, '03. I went through the whole initiation process.Wayne Gretzky was a big savior for me getting in there. At least that's what I heard.

Who do you play with?

Some members I know up there. I usually just call and ask, "What's it looking like today?" or a lot of times I just show up by myself. I really love playing golf by myself.

You're not the kind of guy who plays in club events, are you? Not a competitive golfer in that way?

Not really. Until I feel like I'd have time to do it, it's not really the way I wanna play golf, you know what I mean? Golf is my getaway. I have my day job. I mean, there's gotta be something Tiger does for fun, right?

I love being a songwriter, I love being a musician, I love being a producer, I love being an actor, I love working on a clothing line. I love all of those things because they're all creative. For me, golf is one of those things where you go out and forget about everything else.

Ever played with Will Smith at Sherwood?

I've seen him there a couple of times, but I've never actually played with him. I joked with him by talking during his backswing. He's such a great guy. I don't know what Will plays to. If he could step his game up, he'd be great [for the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge.]

A couple of months ago you played in the first Challenge, at Torrey Pines. What did you learn?

Meeting somebody like John [[John Atkinson, winner of the Golf Digest contest, battling lung cancer] was a pretty amazing experience. The golf experience alone, playing on a U.S. Open course from where the pros get to play, was amazing. I'm pretty sure the pros got to play up a little bit on one or two holes every day, so the course we played might've been about 200 yards longer. I paid attention to that.

Was it harder than you expected it to be?

It was as hard as I expected it to be. Talking to Butch beforehand, I was so over-warned about how hard the rough would be. I never found myself, other than hole 9, with a shot out of the rough that I couldn't hit.

The other thing I'd like to point out—and listen, in no way, shape or form can we play that course like them—but in the fourth round, they weren't playing from the same rough that we were. By then, 50,000 people had walked all over that rough. I could tell from watching on television. The other thing I learned is that I should never play courses like that. I don't know if you saw me constantly pulling the tissues out, but I had an allergy attack, bad, that day.

You seemed to be battling allergies for a few days.

It was really bad that day, I think because so many people were out trampling through the grass for the first time that week, and it was kicking up that Kikuyu. I was about to die. There was one time where I looked at Butch and said, "I can't breathe." He was like, "Are you OK? Do you need some help?" And I was like, "No, no, I don't want to have the opportunity for that to be on television."

‘ I was 12, golf was slow to me. For me it was basketball, girls and music.'

Did you ever feel nervous at Torrey? On the first tee?

I was excited, but I wasn't as nervous as, for instance, the first time I played in a celebrity pro-am.

Where was that?

At the Hope, with Sam Jackson, Joe Pesci, and our pro the first day was Justin Leonard. The more you play in them, the more you get used to just stepping up and hitting the ball. What got to me at Torrey was how slow it was. It took a looong time.

You and Tony Romo were the only two who broke 100 that day, but you weren't thrilled.

I had a few people come up and congratulate me, but I shot 98, man.

__ You expected better?__

I shot 82 or 83 out there earlier in the week during practice rounds, but the actual challenge was a lot different. It took a long time, and by the time we finally got something to eat, I had just made a 10 [on the par-5 ninth], and I could have just called it quits right then.

Have you spoken with Butch since then?

He texted me after the ESPYs and said, "The [bleeping] ESPYs were hilarious. How's your swing?"

I'd love to spend more time with Butch. He told me he could get me down to scratch if I worked at it. I feel like I need to give myself the opportunity to try.

That's the problem, though: You don't have enough free time to work at golf. But you want to be great?

I don't want to do anything and not be great at it.

Have you talked with Tiger about Torrey?

I committed to be the host of the ESPYs because I knew that'd be a way for me to finally meet Tiger Woods. Then he tears an ACL, can't come, and I don't get to meet him. He's invited me to Tiger Jam before, and I hear it's a great event, so maybe I'll see him there sometime.

Tiger is expected to be great at every tournament. I'm guessing that as a guy who has sold out Madison Square Garden for three nights, that you also experience that pressure of having to be great every time. What's that like?

Like playing four rounds in the Open. By the way, the last of those nights at the Garden, I had a sore throat, so there you go: There's my bum knee.

On those nights when you're not 100 percent, and maybe you don't perform as well as a concert reviewer expects, do the negative reviews bother you?

It depends on who's reviewing it.

Whose reviews have an effect?

I care what my peers think about my music. Most of the people who do concert reviews are like 80,000 years old. They all want to go see Bruce Springsteen. So if I make music that they like, then I'm doing something wrong. I don't want Bruce Springsteen's fans; they should go listen to his music. And, by the way, I love Bruce Springsteen's music, too.

Golf doesn't have many controversies, but it had one earlier this year involving Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel and the "lynch" remark.

I watched it on YouTube many times. Tiger's response was like, I don't care. Wasn't that what he said? I could tell by the statement, the nature and the context and the delivery that she had no idea what she was saying.

John Daly, on the other hand, can do almost no wrong.

You mean because it's expected of him? I love John. He's such a sweet guy. He's got such a big heart, and I think that's why he sometimes gets a pass. I've had about as much fun as you can have with anybody on a golf course while playing with John. We were playing one day, and John hit a 290-yard cut with a driver off a Coors Light can.

You had your own little controversy in 2004.

What are you talking about? [Smiles.]

It was all over the newspapers recently. [The FCC's fine of CBS was overturned. During the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Timberlake was performing with Janet Jackson when the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" occurred.] Just curious how you deal with a controversy like that.

Obviously there were two people who were involved equally, and both of us chose to handle it in separate ways. That's apparent; we'd agree on that, right? I immediately apologized. Right? A lot of people misunderstood why I did that. The story that got spun was that I apologized because I wanted to perform on the Grammys. I didn't care about that.

Why did you apologize?

For my family... for my grandmother and my grandfather. The other thing people have to understand is that... a lot of people said that certain people were left hung out to dry. Well, certain people left themselves hung out to dry. Certain people could have apologized as well.

Tiger has had Michael Jordan as a mentor throughout his professional career. Do you have anyone like that, an older entertainer? Or do you mostly rely on your mom and dad?

I'd say my dad. Michael Jordan was my idol when I was a kid, but my folks are my sounding board. You get to a point when you grow up that you have to accept responsibility for who you are.

We know you love sports. Have you ever attended one of golf's majors?

Yeah, U.S. Open at Bethpage. I was there for the final round with my dad, but it started to get a little weird, so I put my dad in the grandstand at 18, and I went into a tent and watched Tiger do his thing.

What do you mean, it got a little weird?

Potential distraction for people trying to make a living.

‘ really love playing golf by myself... Golf is my getaway.'

Too many autograph requests?

I'm just trying to be respectful. Those guys don't come hang out onstage while I'm trying to do my thing. They're playing for big purses, and I totally understand why some of them don't like playing with certain people, even in the pro-ams. Too distracting.

Have you ever asked anyone famous for an autograph?

I have a funny story about getting Peyton Manning's autograph on a jersey. The story is, I wasn't asking for Peyton's autograph. We ended up at a charity bowling event, and Peyton was there with his wife. I said, "You know, I used to watch you when you were at Tennessee, and congratulations on the Colts and everything." He's like, "That's cool, man. Say, can you get me a size 11½?" And I realize he thinks I work at the bowling alley.

A few months later, my road manager tells me that Peyton Manning or someone from his family has called asking for tickets to one of my shows. So I had my road manager call them back and say that Justin would be happy to give him tickets if he'd just send me a pair of size 11½ bowling shoes—autographed. [Laughs.] He ended up sending me a jersey that's signed, To Justin. A True Tennessean.

What's the weirdest autograph request you've gotten?

Oh, I've gotten some weird ones. I've been asked to sign body parts, which shall remain nameless. Clothing that covers certain body parts.

And is your answer generally no?

I'll sign it. Whatever.

Any weird fan moments stand out?

Probably the weirdest thing was the time I checked into a hotel room in Europe, I forget which city, and someone was hiding in my closet.

How'd you handle that one?

Called security, and I was like, "Okaaay, you gotta go."


Thankfully, yes.

You show up to play golf at Pebble Beach with a famous actress, Cameron Diaz. What's that day like for the two of you? Are you able to enjoy it, or are you bombarded by autograph requests?

Oooh. I'd rather not recall that. Out of respect for her, you know what I mean?

How about if we talk about your current girlfriend, Jessica Biel? You mentioned that the two of you have played some golf together.

She loves it, and she's super-duper athletic.

She plays only a little?

Yeah, she just messes around with it. She's not as serious about it as I am.

Are you an emotional golfer? Have you ever really lost it on a golf course?

I have been at times. I dug a hole one time with my 5-iron because I hit a bad shot. But I remembered something that I tell my friends now when I'm teaching them: "You're not good enough to be upset. Just go out there and have fun."

Let's hit a few money topics. Do you ever feel obligated because of who you are to tip more than the next guy?

I might tip a little more than usual, but restaurant bills ... I tip 20 percent. If it's the greatest meal I've ever had, the greatest service I've ever had, I'll tip 50 percent.

Are you underpaid or overpaid?

I don't think I'm overpaid at all. I don't think I'm underpaid, either. I think I work for the money I get. People don't know the extent of the work I do. People probably think I just show up to the ESPYs and I know that song, I know that monologue, know that routine.

Ever heard a good golf song?

A good golf song? Is there even a song about golf?

So, you've never written a golf song?

[Shakes head.] I'd have to really work the entendre if I was going to do that... It could be a comical song. In the same way "Caddyshack" was a good movie.

Let's try a little word association. First thing that comes to mind... Tiger.

Freak ... of nature.

__ Hole-in-one.__

Two inches. That's the closest I've ever come to making one. When I get one, I just want it to be a good shot.

__ Paparazzi.__

They aren't a big part of my life, fortunately. They sit outside my house every now and then, which is pretty weird. I'll go down there sometimes and let them take their pictures. "Hey, guys. How's it goin'? You're not going to sit down here in front of my house all day, are you, 'cause ... that's kind of weird."

__ Has it ever intruded on your golf?__

Oh, it's happened here at Sherwood. They were driving all through the neighborhood, so the guys here had to call security.

__ You've played some great courses in the past few years. Any favorites?__

Augusta. I definitely want a rematch with that place. Torrey Pines. I love to play the Olympic Club in San Francisco because of these hamburgers they make. Those are the best hamburgers I've ever had in my life. And I do love my home course, Big Creek in Tennessee. Carnoustie, I loved that one.

__ When you're on tour, are you looking for courses in the area to play?__

Absolutely. We took a trip and played Carnoustie, St. Andrews, Muirfield. My mom and dad and I took that trip.

__ Ever played in Ireland?__

We played the K Club. It was very American, but I loved it. I get access to amazing courses.

__ Have you played in that pro-am at the Mercedes?__

I haven't. I've been asked a few times, but it's always right around New Year's, and it seems so weird to give up your family time to go play in a pro-am.

__ You were one and done at the AT&T. Played there in 2006 and never again. Same thing at the Hope, right?__

No offense to Pebble Beach, but six-hour rounds? One and done at Pebble; two and done at the Hope. I'll never do it again.

I love John (Daly)... He's got such a big heart, and I think that's why he sometimes gets a pass.'

__ Why would a busy guy like you want to host a PGA Tour event?__

Pure passion. For golf, and I love doing charity work for kids. You see a young person like Katie, who was here today. She has a prosthetic leg. That's the point of this: She plays golf. She played with me at Riviera. It was all because of the Shriners Hospitals that she was able to get the prosthetic and is able to function with it.

__ What does it mean to be the host of a tour event? What do you have to do?__

Kind of everything, from soup to nuts. Putting the event together. Getting people to play in it. Creating an experience for everyone.

When the PGA Tour called me back so quickly, I realized that I had the right instinct. They said, "We've been looking for someone that's your age, has your stature and your passion for the game to host a charity tournament. We feel like you open it up to another demographic."

__ So this started with you?__

About a year ago I said to my team, "I can't really think of a celebrity tournament that I really like. How can I get a celebrity tournament of my own? Call the PGA Tour and let them know that I'm interested."

The tour called back right away, and they had a few options. The first one was the Nissan Open [nowNorthern Trust] at Riviera, and I asked, "What do you guys have in Vegas?" They told me that the Vegas event had lost its luster, so I told them that Vegas is a perfect place for the golf-and-entertainment marriage. Riviera was my second choice, but I felt like Riviera was already a special event for the pros, with all the history there, and I didn't want to do anything to taint that.

__ You'd like to get celebrity involvement. What's your vision for that?__

I'd like to have something for the celebrities, maybe not this year, but down the road, where maybe we have a competition for them on Monday and Tuesday. I know guys I play with like Sam Jackson,Alice Cooper, Darius Rucker, they like to compete.

__ Any surprises you can tell us about?__

We're trying to do something for the pro-am round, something a little more fun. I haven't even spoken to her about it, but I'd like to get Ellen DeGeneres to do a heckle hole, where she's on a tee box and talks to people while they try to hit. The only thing is, you have to do it in a way that's respectful of the game.

__ A few years ago, George Lopez was brought on to be the host of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. After two years, he was dumped.__

Disrespectfully, too.

__ How long will you last?__

[Laughs.] We'll see. [Laughs a little more.]

__ Is this a lifetime commitment?__

I'd like it to be... It'll keep me from having to tour.

__ You don't like those concert tours?__

No, no, I'm kidding. I love touring.

But touring means two years of my life. It's tough.


Justin Timberlake is not a lifelong golfer, but Big Creek Golf Course near Memphis has been part of his life since he was 5 years old. Not only is it the public course where his stepfather, Paul Harless, first taught him to swing a club, it's where Harless and Timberlake's mom, Lynn, had their wedding reception in 1986.

Last year, when Big Creek was about to be turned into a housing development, Timberlake and his parents bought it for $800,000. Their No. 1 goal was to save the golf course, but they also planned to improve it. When the renovated 7,400-yard course reopens next summer, probably on the Fourth of July, Memphis golfers will be blown away by the transformation.

"We're doing this for the area more than anything," says Timberlake, who says the course will remain a daily-fee. Green fees are expected to be $65-$75, including cart, and a nine-hole short course (about 3,300 yards) is being built to encourage beginners and families to take up the game. Timberlake hopes it becomes the home for a First Tee facility.

The 43,000-square-foot clubhouse will include a floor that will become the headquarters and office for Justin Timberlake Enterprises. The family is renaming the golf course and facility Mirimichi Lakes, a name that honors Timberlake's American Indian heritage. Mirimichi means "place of happy retreat."

All in, Timberlake and Co. are investing $16 million into the project, which is about five times what they were thinking when they bought the place a year ago.

"It started out as 'Let's save a golf course,' " says Timberlake's mom, who drops by the course at least once a week. "It turned into 'Let's build a destination.'"