"If you're going to be good in the car you have to have intense focus. If I'm playing my best golf it's because I'm able to concentrate on what I'm doing and not worry about anything but the golf ball."
Michael Waltrip, 47, is a NASCAR team owner and driver who won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and '03. In a recent interview, Waltrip compares golf and racing, and explains why he is tired of defending both as sports. He defers to Mark Twain for further explanation. Or was it Hemingway? Either way, as a lifetime 20-handicap, Waltrip looks forward to when he has time to work on some of the swing tips he got from Peter Kostis.
What's your first memory of golf?
Getting some clubs in garage sale; I had 3-iron, 5-iron, 7-iron , 9-iron, a driver and a 3-wood. Me and my buddies, we would ride our bikes to the municipal course in my hometown. I'd hold the clubs across my handlebars because I didn't have a golf bag. I was probably 12-years old, and that's the first time I tried to play golf. They say some people are born with the ability to play golf. I wasn't. After many lessons and a lot of desire to play, some 35 years later, I still haven't got it down. I went to play on Saturday morning, with a buddy of mine who's a golf pro in Virginia; he shot 69 and I shot 99. And you know how I shot 99? I had to birdie 18.
What's your handicap?
I'm a 20, and I don't think it has ever been any better than that. I play once a week or so -- that's about it -- but I really enjoy it. I've never had time to be a country club guy where I go to one course and it's my club and I establish my handicap and work on it. I do believe I have the potential to get better if I play a little bit more and I look forward to doing that when I'm not racing as much.
What do you love about golf? What brings you back each week?
Well, in this case of my last round, I was definitely going to quit. And then I knocked it on in two at 18 and had about a 35-foot two-putt for birdie. So that's what's going to bring me back next time. I love being outdoors. I love when architects build a golf course that compliments the landscape rather than intrudes upon it. Being outside, looking at the beauty of the golf course, trees, pretty grass, it makes me happy to be able to experience it. At the same time, for someone as competitive as you have to be in order to win the Daytona 500 a couple of times, I just can't be convinced I won't get good at this stupid game.
To look at golf and racing for a second: Racing seems to be loud, fast and dangerous. Golf is the opposite end of the spectrum. Is that also what draws you to it?
Certainly. I really love the camaraderie you can share amongst some buddies, and the ability to laugh, enjoy the afternoon, enjoy the day. Golf brings all of that together and that's something I really enjoy.
Do you take an annual buddies trip?
For three or four years in a row we used to go down to the Orlando area in December or January and play a couple of rounds for a couple of days. There was usually eight of us. That's the extent of any organized trips we've taken. I've had the good fortune to head off and play some pretty cool places for the day. I got to play Augusta. I've been to Pebble a few times.
I read you played Augusta, Cypress and Pebble all in the same year.
Yes. I was able to walk around and suck all that up. Those are my favorite memories of golf. Pebble is so amazing, the beauty of that place.
Do you remember a low round at any of those three courses?
At Augusta I had a few DNFs [did not finish]. I didn't get a real score at my round at Augusta. That was in 2002 or so. I did shoot a 91 the last time I played at Pebble, and I was pretty happy with that. Cypress was a few more than that. At the long par 3 across the water [16th hole], my buddy is as bad as I am, and we both knocked it on. He actually hit it within six or eight feet and our caddie said that was as close as he has seen all year. We had a good hole there.
Is there a group of drivers who like to play golf on the road?
Not so much. There have been times over the years when that has happened. Dale Jarrett is a pretty good golfer. Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray like to play. There are occasions when you're sitting in the motor home and you just text one of them: "Hey man, let's go play golf." You do that occasionally. But nothing is organized.
Are there certain NASCAR venues where you're sure to pack the clubs?
You never know what opportunities might present themselves, so I have a set of clubs in the motor home. When the races are in California we try to swing by and play Pebble Beach. I left Daytona one day, with a buddy, and we were going to watch the drag races. Drag racing is so intense. So we're driving through the country and we came along a little municipal course in a little town in Florida and we saw a sign that said, "Muny: This Way." So we pulled in there. It was a coolest little Donald Ross design, it had been a course where they played a big tournament. Guys like Greg Norman had played it. I can't remember the name of it. But we stopped in, looked around, looked at the history of the place, and then just drove off. We didn't have time to play it. But that sort of course is priceless. I love municipal golf courses.
Have you ever played Pinehurst?
I have. I think I've played all of them, but the significant ones I remember playing are Nos. 2, 7 and 8.
If I offered you an all-expenses paid trip to Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes or Pinehurst, which would you choose?
Pebble Beach. And I love Pinehurst. I truly love it because I love that area, I love the history, and that's what you're there for -- golf. But there's nothing to me like waking up in the morning and going to the first tee at Pebble. It's such a beautiful place.
You've taken lessons from Butch Harmon and Peter Kostis. What's the best tip you've received from those guys?
Peter told me something that was interesting. He likened the golf swing to a figure-8. You take the club back and it sort of loops around and then you finish the backswing to be a figure-8. He told me that because I have a tendency to be really stiff. I get tense and I don't swing. It was the way to create some lag, and to make me whip at the ball a little bit. I tried that and I did it for a while and that was working; and then I'm just a dumbass. For whatever reason I quit doing that and started doing something else. Like I said, when I'm not off to the races every weekend, like I've been for the past 25 years, I'm going to work on that s----.
Do you watch golf on TV?
I love to watch golf on TV. A nice bonus is the Golf Channel, coming home from the racetrack at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon and watching golf. I love doing that.
Tiger or Phil?
I'm a Phil fan. I got to play with Phil at the GGO [Greater Greensboro Open], he was my pro-am guy, he was really nice to me, he took the time to give me some tips and it was really cool to play with him then. I've been a fan ever since. I like seeing him have the success he has been having and what he has been able to accomplish.
Jack or Arnie?
Arnie. I got to play with him too. I've never had the good fortune to play with Jack. But I went to play Bay Hill and got to play with Arnie and had dinner with he and Winnie at the time. That was a special experience. A great story: I took my Dad to Augusta, probably '92 or '93, for a practice round. Dad and I were in the gallery. It was a huge gallery. And we were next to the rope on maybe the 15th hole. And I said, "Hey Arnold, it's Michael Waltrip." And I was out of my element. I'm a race car driver, and he knew me from that, and he didn't recognize me at first, he just waved and kept walking. Then he stopped, and he said, "You're the race car driver guy." And I said, "Yeah." And so he said, "Come on, walk the hole with us." And he got my Dad inside the ropes and we got to walk the hole with him. It meant the world to my Dad and it meant the world to me at that time.
If you had a three-foot putt for your life, would you take it or would you have a Phil or Tiger to take it for you?
I think I'd take three feet. If it was six feet, then it would be Phil or Tiger or someone and I'd say "Please come make this stupid putt." Three feet is an interesting number. I feel pretty good there. Four feet, I might say, "Shoot, why didn't I get this into gimme range?"
How do you get around the country? Do you fly private or commercial?
A little bit of both. I'll fly on [private] King Air if it's a short hop. If it's a flight to the West Coast and I'm not fortunate enough to bum a ride with one of my buddies who has a jet, I'll go commercial. I'm not real particular about how I get there, it's whatever is most convenient and makes the most sense.
Photo by Michael L. Levitt
As a professional driver, do you have any interest in being a pilot? I would think you'd want to have control of the plane.
No. I like to sit in the back and watch the world go by.
One would assume you own a pimped-out golf cart.
I live in North Carolina, in the country, and I have a golf cart at my house that looks like an Escalade. I ride around on it in the country, but when I go to the golf course I'm all about forgetting about a race car or being fast. I just want to be relaxed and enjoy the scenery.
Have you learned anything from playing golf that made you a better driver?
No. I've raced for 25 years and I know what I'm looking to do, I know what my job is, what my goals are, and golf is simply an escape. It's a way to enjoy life and not think about that world over there.
Have you taken anything from being a successful race car driver to the golf course?
Focus. If you're going to be good in the car you have to have intense focus. If I'm playing my best golf it's because I'm able to concentrate on what I'm doing and not worry about anything but the golf ball. And that's something I've gotten better at lately. When I get over the ball I'm able to think about what I want to do, and keep all of that in the pre-shot routine, and then when I go to hit it, I just hit it. Mentally, having a game plan is something that is key in racing and certainly key in golf.
NASCAR and the PGA Tour both front-end the drama of their respective seasons with the Daytona 500 and the Masters. Wouldn't both be better served to have those events at the end of their seasons?
Well, the Daytona 500 is significant because for 50-some years it has been in February and the whole racing community has been asleep, if you will. Back in the day, when engines cranked in Daytona, people came down from New England and New York, and all up and down the East Coast, and they came to thaw out and enjoy some racing. It's what grew the sport to what it is today. And teams have had all winter long to get ready and to focus on their Daytona 500 cars and plans. My answer is no. Golf has the FedEx Cup and we have the Chase to the Championship. And I'm really happy having the Daytona 500 as the first race of the year mainly because that's how I grew up. I couldn't wait for February to see the new cars and watch the first race of the year and I love it where it is. We have other big races throughout the season, like Indy in August, and the big season finale in Miami at the end of the year.
So you're a traditionalist?
Definitely. And Augusta has to be where it is because of the all the blooming dogwoods and stuff. I would miss those.
How do you use golf to raise money for charity?
Well, we've had tournaments in the past. My brother (driver Darrell Waltrip) and I will have another tournament on October 27th and 28th in Nashville, Tennessee, which will benefit MLS Society of America and Motor Racing Outreach (go2mro.com
), which is a ministry that comes to all the tracks and ministers to the drivers and crews and families and people in the infield. They are there for the teams predominantly, and so it's important to me to have them here. If someone gets hurt they're always a friendly face there. When the drivers or crew guys need to go to practice their cars, they have a community center that the families can use. So they're important to the racing world. And my sister [Connie Brinkley] was recently diagnosed with MLS, and so we want to help in her honor to raise some money for that. Our tournament's two days long; we'll have a concert and a dinner on the 27th and then we'll play golf on the 28th. I've had five or six tournaments in the past and people just want to help. They want to enjoy some golf and enjoy some camaraderie with different drivers or other personalities and it really works well. Golf is a great way to gather people together and obviously when you want to raise a couple hundred grand, in my opinion you have to have golf the focal-piece of that fundraising effort.
In NASCAR you guys are always tweaking with your car and equipment; are you that way with your golf bag?
I don't know. I have this opinion that I'm not really good enough. TaylorMade has fit me with some nice clubs. I just stick with them because my buddies hit them pretty good. I haven't gotten good enough to worry much about equipment. I have some solid stuff, I know it's good, and I just need to learn how to hit 'em better. Same way with the ball. You give me a good ProV1 and I look down at it and I have all the confidence in the world that I got the right clubs and the right ball and it's just up to me.
One movie for a long flight?
"Tin Cup" is way up on my playlist. That's pretty good stuff to me. Lately I've been watching "The Hangover" way more than I want to admit.
What about "Talladega Nights"?
I love "Talladega Nights." I watch a lot of comedy. My life is dramatic enough without throwing a serious movie in there. I don't like a serious movie. I like to laugh when I watch a movie.
If you had a magic wand, one change you'd make to the airline industry?
I used to fly private all the time and lately I've been flying commercial a lot more. I'm actually pretty amazed that those planes are able to keep such a tight schedule and get people where they want to be more often than not. I'm impressed by that. I've enjoyed flying more often than not. One thing I would change, that's interesting … I think the responsibility just to get you from where you are to where you want to be, I've had good experience with that so far. Let me think, I'm sure there's something I'm mad about.
What about paying for extra bags? Or stripping down to your boxers to get through the security line?
Well, I want to be safe. And I want to believe I am going to be that. As far as paying for extra bags, who says what we pay in the first place is the right number? I'm pretty content right now. I'm still amazed I can get on a flight and fly from Charlotte to Cincinnati and the plane is full. A lot of people are going places. A comedian said we are hovering through the air in a pressurized aluminum tube and yet for some reason, we're comfortable with that.
Looking back in the years of your travel throughout this country, do you ever look back and think about some of the good and the bad that you've seen in America?
The NASCAR fans you meet are good people. And now that I've been to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Miami, there is definitely a different crowd at different places. But the common thread, whether we're talking about racing in Martinsville, Va., or Miami, Fla., the folks who show up there are race fans. They show up to watch cars go around in circles. Ever since I was a kid, that's all I've enjoyed doing. I feel like we have a common thread between us, the fans and me, because that's how I grew up, I just wanted to watch cars go around. I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience of where I came from. I remember the first time that I ever got on a commercial flight, and flew to California to race a car. I thought that was the craziest thing ever. I never dreamt that. It has given me the opportunity to see every corner of this country, across the ocean to Europe and to Dubai, race cars have cultured me way beyond any thought I ever had of where it would take me. I see a lot of good things in people where I go racing and that makes me smile.
Golf and racing are two sports you can stay competitive well into your 40s and 50s; some would argue that means they're not necessarily sports. How do you respond to that?
I don't think there's anything more mentally challenging than racing a car or playing golf. And then you have to factor in some physical skill. In NASCAR, racing a car, the temperatures are over 100 degrees inside the car, you're racing an inch apart from 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 guys at times. It's always a mental game and you're always thinking about what you could do to your car to make it better, and thinking about what line you can take. You're so intense for four hours, and golf is the same way. I'm tired, I don't want to say I'm tired, but I don't need to defend those two professions. Our sports are really just games. I don't remember, it might have been Mark Twain who said, "Auto racing and bull fighting are the only two real sports ... everything else is just a game." So I think I'll just go with that quote and you'll have to credit it to whoever it was that said it. Track that down, it might be Mark Twain who said it. Put it in there so it makes me look smarter than I am.
[Editor's note: Ernest Hemingway actually said: "Auto racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games."]