I started playing golf when I was at the University of Alabama. Coach [Bear] Bryant might actually have introduced me to it. He loved the game and didn’t mind us playing. He was a blast to play with because the game kind of got the better of him. When he hit a bad shot, he’d get mad but couldn’t show it—pride, Southern manners and all that. But when he hit one crooked he’d growl under his breath just like a bear. You could hear the rumbles across the fairway. I thought it was hilarious, and I had to turn my head so he couldn’t see me laugh. On the football field he was the undisputed boss, but on the course, golf was the boss of him.
One habit of Coach Bryant’s was to not let players drink water during practice. It was brutal because it gets hot and muggy in Tuscaloosa like few places on earth. The heat, combined with the smell of sulfur from the paper mill there, made it pretty nasty. Even then people knew that denying water was unsafe, so in my senior year Coach Bryant began allowing a couple of garden hoses to be strung out just under the tower he used to watch us. But for some reason you didn’t want to go over there and take a drink with him watching. Today there’s water everywhere. Most golf tournaments on TV, you see guys carrying water as they walk down the fairway, even on cool days. It’s a different world.
My years playing for the New York Jets and living in the city, I had to keep moving. If I stayed still too long, I could feel the skyscrapers closing in on me. I was perceived as a classic fit for the big city, but at heart I was a person who needed to see open spaces and big rivers. I enjoyed my time in New York and still love going back, but inside I’m more of a golf-course guy than a buildings-and-cement guy.
My first roommate in New York and one of the best friends I ever had also happened to be the worst golfer I ever saw. His name was Joe Hirsch, and he was a thoroughbred horse-racing writer and founding president of the National Turf Writers Association. He was a legend in that world. We played a lot of golf at The Diplomat down near Miami, just the two of us, and he couldn’t play even a little bit. He was tall, gangly and completely inept. He would concentrate on every shot but was lucky to hit the ball 100 yards. He’d agonize and grimace, and I’d wonder why he put himself through it. But every fifth shot or so, he’d look at me and we’d bust out laughing. Joe had the heart of a golfer, always trying but never figuring it out. He passed away in 2009. I miss him dearly.
I got to playing so bad awhile back I was ready to quit. You’d never believe from the way I was hitting it that I once carried an 8-handicap. I went to see Matt Doyle, the head pro here at Turtle Creek. He’s a heck of a teacher, and he had me hitting it so good I was positive I was fixed. Within a few days, I was back hitting it sideways, with no recollection of what Matt had told me. The game is beating the heck out of me right now.
I’ve received a lot of tips from a lot of great teachers and players, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus included. Their tips work—for a while. I’m a Gemini, and after I hit a few bad shots, one twin starts telling the other twin to maybe try something else. While they argue, Joe suffers.
My tendency is to get quick at the top. I can feel it coming, and even though I tell myself to start down slowly, I rush it anyway. And then I get mad at myself because I hate making the same mistake twice. What it comes down to is, certain tendencies are in our DNA. We’re animals, really, and no matter how hard we try, we’ll continue to display our genetic background our whole lives.
One tip that worked for a long time was to swing the handle, not the clubhead. The great Eddie Merrins taught me that while I was a member at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. Eddie got me playing real well with that concept. The problem was, when I moved away, I eventually started listening to other stuff. I sure wish Eddie lived in Florida.
While I was at Bel-Air, most of the members had a strip of blue tape on the shafts of their putters. The tape was about 18 inches long and was used to determine what constituted a gimme putt. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but it solved a lot of problems in everyday play. If a guy’s ball was outside the length of the tape, he knew he had to putt it, so there was no pleading. It also saved a lot of embarrassment from someone missing a really short putt. It’s not “real golf,” I guess, but it kept the members happy, which is the whole point of a private club.
Justin Thomas is an Alabama guy like me—Roll Tide—so I pull for him, and I’ve watched him play quite a bit. It’s the distance he hits it that amazes me. I saw him up close during a visit to Tuscaloosa, and when he hit that driver, he reminded me of a few quarterbacks I knew who could throw a football 80 yards. Only Justin might be even more impressive because he isn’t real big. He also has a way of controlling his adrenaline under the gun. He’s like Nicklaus or Johnny Unitas that way. Inside, you know he’s amped up, but outwardly he doesn’t show it.
As I was writing my new book, All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters, a lot of events came back to me I hadn’t thought about in years. For example, as a kid I caddied near where I grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa. The club was in Patterson Township, about a 40-minute walk from our house. To that point—I was 12 years old—my older brothers and most of us kids in town would do anything for money. I shined shoes for 10 cents, cashed in pop bottles we “found” on people’s porches, even took stuff from the junkyard and resold it to the junkman. Caddieing at Patterson was the best way to make real money. I’d check in with the caddiemaster, Joe Aquino—he later was the caddiemaster at Laurel Valley Country Club, which hosted a PGA Championship—and then wait around with the other caddies. When we got out, we got $3 for a full round. That went a long way. A loaf of bread cost only eight cents.
I’m a big reader. One of my favorite books is Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. He writes, “If you argue for your limitations, they are yours.” There’s a golf connotation there. If I’m facing a second shot on a par 5 that’s over water and I know I can clear it only with my very best shot, I’m not going to go for it just for kicks. I’m going to weigh my lie and how I’m feeling at the moment very carefully, and if there’s doubt, I’m going to lay up.
That might sound overly cautious, but golf is not football, and I don’t have the confidence to take huge risks. Playing in a golf exhibition with Coach Bryant once, a big crowd was watching as we teed off. After we got off the tee, I sidled up to him and said, “I know we’ve been in some big games, but I’ve never been so nervous in my life.” Coach Bryant said, “Shee-it, Joe, you might know football, but you don’t know golf.” He had a way of summing things up perfectly in a few words.
But I’ve had my moments. I’ve made seven holes-in-one, an unbelievable number for a guy who isn’t that great a golfer. At Oak Tree Country Club in Fort Lauderdale one day, four of us were waiting to tee off when we met two players visiting from Canada who were going to tee off behind us. We invited them to go first, but they insisted we play. On the fifth hole, a par 3 that was playing about 180 yards, I hit last. I get up there with my 2-iron and knock it into the hole for a 1. We were still celebrating when the twosome came onto the tee. We insisted they play through, and the first guy to hit aces the hole. Back-to-back aces. I’ve been lucky in life and especially lucky in golf.
There were a lot of kids to play with in our neighborhood in Beaver Falls, but still I’d get lonely and invent games to play on my own. One I remember best was taking a golf ball and slinging it against a brick wall. Nothing bounces like a golf ball, and it would rebound off the wall with incredible speed. The rough surface of the brick caused it to ricochet at weird angles. I’d move closer and closer to the wall, throwing the golf ball harder and harder, seeing how many times I could catch it. I’d do it all afternoon, and it really helped build the good hand-eye coordination I always had.
In 1964, an 18-hole round at the University of Alabama Golf Course cost 25 cents. Student rate, although I don’t think the regular rate was much higher than that. I’ve got a confession to make: I wasn’t above climbing over the fence on Sundays to sneak on. Maybe the pro saw me and chose not to say anything, but for whatever reason, I never got caught.
The Joe Namath Foundation, which we started in 2017, has raised a ton of money for charity. Golf is the foundation’s main vehicle. Forgive my lack of humility, but the charity tournaments we put on are second to none. Amazing courses have stepped up to host—PGA National, Trump National Jupiter, Greystone and Bethpage come immediately to mind—and the participation is off the charts. At Bethpage this year we filled up four of the courses there—Red, Blue, Green and Black. A lot of sponsorships were sold out. Go to joenamath.org and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. The tournaments and gala bashes that go with them are a blast, but at every event there comes this quiet moment when I reflect on how great golfers are, as a group. For some reason, golfers are special when it comes to helping people who were dealt something less than a full hand.
My favorite pro to play with was Tommy Bolt. A day with him was always an adventure. Tommy dressed to the nines, super-colorful outfits tailored and pressed perfectly. His golf shoes were especially spiffy, patent-leather numbers that shined like mirrors. Tommy’s personality matched his outfits. He was brash, witty and had a quick, harsh tongue when things weren’t going his way, and he always looked on the verge of losing his temper. But everyone knew he was harmless. He had that charisma all pros seem to have, and people were drawn to him. And what a golf swing. When I think of the title “tour pro,” it’s still Tommy who first comes to mind.
I love playing by the rules. My buddies have gotten on me for being kind of a stickler, but dang it, golf is different than other games. In football and other sports, players get away with what they can. I can still feel the elbow to the gut Ben Davidson of the Raiders gave me once after he hit me late. I remember his big hand clawing at my face under my face mask after I was down. That’s football, and that’s life. But with golf, there’s something about the rules and the way we honor the code that I can be pretty fierce about.
In 2009, we became alarmed by the condition of one of my former teammates, an offensive lineman named Dave Herman. At an annual football camp we put on in Connecticut, Dave would tell us that he was becoming forgetful and how it scared him. It got worse every year, and it was hard to watch. I became increasingly worried about myself, because during my career I took a lot of hits to the head and was knocked out cold at least five times. I was feeling good but still felt I owed it to my family to get checked out. A SPECT brain scan showed the left temporal part of my brain wasn’t getting enough blood. In 2012 I began hyperbaric oxygen therapy, taking 40 “dives” where you breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized tube. The part of my brain that had looked dark in the images became lighter. It improved blood flow. I took 40 more, then another 40. The treatments reversed damage to my brain, and there’s a good chance it can help a wide range of people who have suffered traumatic brain injury, from athletes and wounded soldiers to kids who’ve fallen off bikes. It’s a big part of what we’re doing at the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center.
Golf is becoming more of a team game. The way pros interact with their caddies and say “we” a lot, it’s obvious that it’s not the same pro sport it was 30 years ago. That’s cool with me because I’m a team player. After we beat the Colts to win the 1969 Super Bowl, a reporter in the locker room said to me, “You did it.” My reply was, “No, we’re king of the hill. We got the team, brother.” I like the individual challenge of golf, but it’s also great being part of something bigger than yourself.
I was watching “The Mike Douglas Show” the time Tiger Woods appeared there when he was 2. It was the first time I saw where a parent had dedicated his kid to one sport completely at a very young age. That was in 1978, only a year after I retired from football. I remember looking down at my aching body and thinking, That kid’s dad might be on to something. I still like the idea of kids playing all sports, but when you see the success of young golfers and tennis players, it makes you wonder if specialization isn’t the way to go.
Even with my game, I like to have something riding when I play. Not big money—a $2 nassau is plenty. But there’s got to be some kind of pressure, a little bit of adrenaline, to make me feel like I’m competing. It goes back to us all essentially being animals. We all have that instinct to be a little better than the animal next to us. I’m an older animal, but I still love standing over a four-footer on the last hole knowing it will decide whether I win or lose.
I never get mad at my partners for hitting it into the woods or missing a short putt. It’s not like they did it on purpose. I like getting close to them and whispering, “It’s OK—I never threw an interception I wanted to throw.”
Top photo: Walter Iooss Jr.