My Shot: Lou Holtz

By Guy Yocom Photos by Kevin Lynch
March 15, 2009

Lou Holtz / 72 / Orlando / Florida

At home I have a copy of the April 21, 1986, issue of Sports Illustrated. I'm on the cover with the blurb, "Can Lou Do It?" I'd just arrived at Notre Dame, and with spring football underway I was the focal point of that week's coverage. It's a special issue to me because it's the only one in existence. When Jack Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine that Sunday and won his sixth Masters, they tore up the cover with me on it and put Jack on there. The people there sent me the cover -- the entire issue, actually -- that never made it to the newsstands. If there's a reason to be kicked off the cover, I guess Jack winning his sixth Masters is a pretty good one.

My first assistant-coaching job in football was at William & Mary in 1961. The pay wasn't much, so to get $300 more per year I agreed to coach the golf team. I didn't even know how to keep score, and really, my main job was not to wreck the van on the way to tournaments. After one of the tournaments I see my No. 1 player, Jeff Graham, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. I asked him, "What do you think you're doing?" Jeff shrugs and says, "It was a tough tournament." So I had the team do a bunch of calisthenics. I knew of no other way to punish them. Heck, I was a football coach.

For years I was a member at Isleworth. The club has a big, double-ended practice area, and I liked to show up at 11 a.m. to hit balls before teeing off with the guys at noon. While I warmed up, I'd see Tiger Woods practicing at the opposite end of the range. Tiger had been out there a couple of hours already. The guys and I would play 18 holes and then go inside to have a drink. After that, I liked to go to the range and hit some more balls before going home. By then it was 6 p.m. and getting dark, but Tiger would still be at the opposite end of the range, practicing. It happened more times than I can count. Tiger has all kinds of talent, but the secret to his greatness is what I saw at the end of the range.

See, winners embrace hard work. They love the discipline of it, the trade-off they're making to win. Losers, on the other hand, see it as punishment. And that's the difference.

I look at athletes in all sports and try to picture what kind of football player they'd be, what position they'd play and so on. If Tiger Woods had played football, he would have been a quarterback. He has the demeanor, poise, confidence, leadership, mental toughness and cerebral quality that would make him perfect at that position. You'd want the ball in his hands on every play.

A word in sports I've never particularly cared for is momentum. you can say momentum is on your side, but what does that have to do with the shots you have to hit? It's where you are right now that counts.'

I gave a pep talk to the U.S. Ryder Cup team last year, and all those guys are great. But they guy I'd really like to talk to is John Daly. He played golf at Arkansas just after I coached football there, and watching his career, it's obvious nobody has more raw talent. But I'd like to look him in the eyes and ask him what kinds of sacrifices he's made to take advantage of his God-given gifts. I'd invite him to confront that question and to answer it honestly, because sacrifice is the one thing that would make him realize his potential. It applies to personal habits, practice, training and studying the game. It's a big word, but it's the key to his being a successful and happier person.

My handicap Index is 12.9, up pretty good from the 8 I was years ago. There are two reasons: I'm losing distance off the tee, and it's football season [Holtz was interviewed in December], so I'm playing only once a week. Lake Nona is configured in a way that really hurts the short hitter. Now, there are five sets of tees, and I refuse to play the ladies' tees or the senior tees. I could play the white tees, the regular ones, but the guys I play with play the blue tees, which are one notch in front of the pro tees. What I do is play the "coach's tees," meaning I play from the front of the blue teeing ground rather than from the markers. Fortunately for me, they're pretty long tee boxes. But I still get my butt beat.

I'm a good golf partner. I rarely tell a teammate anything worse than, "This is the worst team I've ever been on." I'm just kidding, of course. I just write it off as they're having a bad day, or maybe working on their handicap. If it doesn't go on a won-loss record or a profit-loss statement, it's not worth worrying about. A $5 nassau doesn't fill the bill.

I have to say, people want to beat me so badly, sometimes it's hard for them to play their best. See, I don't really care if I win or lose, and I can really be obnoxious.

I took up the game while I was coaching at North Carolina State. John Derr, the famous TV and radio announcer, invited me down to play Pinehurst. My temperament was really not suited for golf. On a par 3, John tells me to hit a 5-iron, and it goes over the green. I'm complaining how I should have hit a 6-iron, and John calls me over to my ball, which is sitting in a pretty good lie. He points at a tree nearby, then the bunkers, and tells me to stop whining, that I could be much worse off. I didn't want to hear it. The next hole, I hit another bad shot and started cussing, then I threw my club. John had had enough. "Lou, I see the best players in the world every week, and all I can tell you is, you're not good enough to get mad." I haven't thrown a club since.

Well, I did throw a club one more time. At Lake Nona one day I had the yips something terrible, and I tossed my putter in the lake. Somebody fished it out and decided to donate it to a charity auction. They asked me to sign it, and I wrote, Great putter. Does not float. Coach Lou Holtz. Fetched a good price, too.

If I'm coaching on the sideline and see my halfback step out-of-bounds as he runs past me, you can bet I won't tell the official about it. On the other hand, if I'm playing golf and I'm in the woods and my ball moves at address, I'd call a penalty on myself. What's the difference in the two games? In football, it's the job of the player to play, the coach to coach, the official to officiate. Each guy is charged with upholding his end, nothing more. In golf, the player, coach and official are rolled into one, and they overlap completely. Golf really is the best microcosm of life -- or at least the way life should be.

Do the members at Lake Nona play for a lot of money? All I can tell you is what I play for. I tell people on the first tee, "I have no limit on how much I can win, but there is a very strict limit on how much I'm willing to lose. So let's bet accordingly." I have an odd sensibility, I guess. If I lose, I pay off. If I win, I insist on making the winners keep the money and use it to take their children or grandchildren out for a sandwich or ice cream, and stipulate that a very nice man by the name of Lou Holtz is treating us tonight. I remind them that if I ever see their children, I'll take them aside and ask if I got credit for the treat.

My wife of 48 years, Beth, is a cancer survivor. I have to admit, I've used that to my advantage on the golf course. When a guy would just about have me closed out I'd say, "I don't think I can pay the chemo bill this week if I lose this bet, but go ahead and play your best." My opponents didn't think it was funny -- but Beth did.

The golf addict is faced with explaining all that time away from home to his wife. My theory, which I've explained to Beth many times, is that time stands still when I'm on the golf course. It's like a state of suspended animation. I don't age during that time. Thus, I'll have more time on the back end of my life to spend with her. I regret that Beth doesn't play golf -- if she did, we'd have another 20 years together.

The handicap system is the liberal's way of equalizing athletic talent. It removes all incentive to improve. When you think about it, handicap strokes are like food stamps. Then there are the formats we play. At Lake Nona, when we have several groups of guys playing, we count the low three balls out of the foursome. That's welfare, too -- why not count all four? I just don't like playing with handicap strokes -- unless I'm getting them, in which case I won't be too shy about accepting them.

When I became a head coach and looked for assistants, I had a saying: If they have a camper in the driveway or clubs in the truck, I don't hire them. The reason is, golf too easily becomes an obsession. It takes energy away from your job. I have to admit, I sometimes wonder how much more successful I would have been as a coach had it not been for my spending summers on the golf course. I could have watched more film, that's for sure. One advantage Joe Paterno had over me was that he didn't play golf.

Darrell Royal, the great coach at Texas, told me that if a dog is going to bite you, he'll do it as a pup. Meaning, if I get an incoming freshman and the kid has bad hands, he'll always fight to overcome that. It's the same thing in golf. If you've got a bad tendency in your golf swing, you're going to fight it your whole life. I compare video of my swing 25 years ago with my swing today, and I still see the same damned flaws.

I'm a pro-am junkie. I've played in more of them than I can count, with Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Palmer, Floyd, Love, Stewart and all the other greats. My best experience might have been with Fred Couples at the Bob Hope. In the third round he's leading the tournament and knocks his ball out-of-bounds on the 16th hole. I hit my ball on the green, and Fred took all kinds of time helping me line up my putt. He didn't seem fazed by his situation at all; he was only concerned with his partners. Only in golf do you find quality people like that. That's the thing that keeps the pro-am fields full and helps the charities so much.

I was telling a friend how when I go to the range and look down at my pile of 150 balls, a certain thought always goes through my mind. "I'll bet I can guess what the thought is," he said. "How about, These balls represent 150 opportunities to hit the greatest shot of my life?" I said, "Not quite. I look at those balls and think, I just know I'm going to have a different swing thought for every one of those balls."

Nothing on this earth is standing still. It's either growing or it's dying. No matter if it's a tree or a human being. This is interesting to me when I watch the pro game. Most are still trying to improve and learn, but some give the almost imperceptible impression they're content, that they've stopped growing. It's more common among veteran players, of course. But when I see it in a young player, it makes me kind of sad.

I know this economy is rough, but listen, I was born during the Depression, in the cellar of a one-bedroom house with no electricity. No food stamps, no welfare, no safety net. We got through it because we had each other, and we knew we were on our own. That's the secret, to take the approach that you're on your own, that you have to count on yourself. If you believe you are where you are because someone put you there, you're done.

No matter how bad the economy gets, you probably can find a way to keep playing golf. Just don't pay for your green fees with a credit card. n

Lou Holtz has been a head football coach at the collegiate level at William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina, and in the NFL with the New York Jets. This is the 63rd My Shot feature in a series that dates to 2002. See highlights of previous My Shots.