Sweet track: Kenny G on his putting green at home in Southern California.
Kenneth Gorelick was in grade school when he took up golf and the saxophone. Entering Franklin High in Seattle, he made the golf team but not the jazz band.
Surprised? Albert Einstein flunked math, and Michael Jordan got cut from the varsity. "I was shocked, but somehow not discouraged," Kenny says. "I think because I loved the sax so much, and I just wanted to play it well so badly."
The next year he earned first chair in the school band and was soon playing professionally as Kenny G. In 1986, he released "Duotones" and became the sound of smooth jazz. Today, the Grammy winner has sold more than 70 million records and is in the Guinness World Records for holding the longest sustained note on a saxophone: 45 minutes, 47 seconds.
The career explosion caused Kenny to put golf aside for nearly 20 years. But set for life in his early 40s, (he's one of the 10 original investors in Starbucks), he returned to the game with a passion. Now 50, Kenny G tops Golf Digest's inaugural Top 100 in Music ranking with a plus-0.6 Handicap Index. He's a club stroke-play champion at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where his most frequent partner is actor Craig T. Nelson. Kenny has shot 67 at Riviera, "but from the middle tees with no rough. I don't want to ever fool myself that I'm better than I am." As a 6-handicap in 2001, he partnered with Phil Mickelson to tie for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am title. Last year Kenny played on a sponsor's exemption in a Nationwide Tour event and quickly discovered that his short game and 250-yard drives weren't up to the task. He shot 82-83 to miss the cut but is considering trying again next year.
"People asked me if I was upset," he says. "I said, 'You don't understand. I experienced a whole new level of the game that told me exactly where I stand. Who else gets the chance to learn like that?' "
He has spent time with greats like Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus and asked them what their bodies feel like at specific moments in their swings. "I'd try to force improvement with hours on the practice tee or launch monitors," he says. "My teachers warned me that I could get too mechanical, but I'd say, 'I'm a different guy. I'm going to learn it differently than anybody else.' But I got myself pretty tangled up in technique."
A recent breakthrough changed that pattern. "Hal Sutton once said to me, 'You have to let go of control to gain control.' I didn't really know what he meant and forgot about it. But the words came back when I remembered Tiger watching me hit a driver and saying, 'What are you afraid of? Let it go.'
"I started realizing that music is the one area where I've always let go. When that saxophone goes into my mouth, I get into a space where I never think about the notes I've already played or anticipate the notes ahead. I'm the way you're supposed to be in golf: in the moment, letting it go.
"To this point, even my good rounds have been a series of good swings more than a series of good shots. I've never really played golf. With the sax, I learned technique well enough so that it feels like part of my body, and I just express myself. That's where I want to get in golf."