Breaking Away

Lance Armstrong on playing 250 rounds a year, choking on the first tee, and comparing the Wild West of cycling versus golf's code of honor.
December 08, 2014

GOOD GOLFERS shut out distractions and stay in the moment. Mentally, I can't do those things. I'm checking my phone not just between shots but between practice swings. My teacher, Chuck Cook, says he hasn't seen ADD as bad as mine since he worked with Payne Stewart. That would be a compliment, except I don't play like Payne Stewart. When I have a shot that matters—say, one for $500 in one of the regular games I play in—I almost shut down. It's not an easy game for me.

LAST YEAR I played 250 rounds. I'll get there again this year. When I'm at my other home, in Aspen, I'm with a group of about 20 old curmudgeons and burnouts—classic Aspen guys. Here in Austin, I play with the same three or four guys at Barton Creek, Austin Country Club, The University of Texas Golf Club and a few other places. The Austin guys love action. It gets out of hand. Once you get used to playing for big money, a $10 nassau seems boring, and playing for nothing seems pointless. Whatever you're playing for, it's got to be enough that it hurts a little when you lose.

__ MY HANDICAP IS__ 10, and it's taken me serious effort to get there. I have issues. I have terrible flexibility. My hand-eye coordination stinks. My range of motion in my upper and lower body is awful. I can cycle, run or swim for as long and far as you want me to go, but those are straight-ahead sports. When you start asking me to rotate, move side to side or incorporate complicated movements, I'm done. I'm less talented at golf than the guy next door.

__ NANEA GOLF CLUB.__ Great course, the Big Island of Hawaii, Jan. 2, 2014. I rush to the first tee late, no warm-up. Just trying to make contact, I start playing out of my mind. The guys are talking smack. "The meltdown is imminent," that kind of stuff. After 10 holes, I'm even par, and they get quiet, like when a pitcher has a no-hitter going. I end up shooting 74, which is a little unreal because Nanea is a tough par 73. I'd never broken 80 before. The next day I sit around plotting the adjustments I need to make to break 70 at Kukio the following day. I shoot 98. Driving home, I'm saying out loud, over and over, "I hate this effing game!"

__ I HAVEN'T BROKEN 80 SINCE.__ That day at Nanea, I was in the zone. I'd felt it before in cycling, many times. That effortless power, the sense you can do nothing wrong. For six or seven years, I got on the bike knowing I was going to win. It was only a matter of going out and implementing the strategy. But then it got hard. When I tried to come back in 2004, it was swimming upstream. I couldn't find the zone again. And just like in golf, when you fall out of the zone, it's impossible to get back in it.


__ TALKING SMACK__ is part of the game, isn't it? When a guy I have a bet with smokes one down the middle and has a perfect angle into the green, then hits his approach into a bunker, I'll sidle up close to him and say, "That was a great drive." What can be more annoying?

__ WHEN YOU LOSE A MINUTE__ in a stage at the Tour de France, you've got to find a way to get that minute back. It's like losing shots in golf: You've got to find a way to follow the bogey with a birdie. In cycling I knew what I had to do to get that minute back. I didn't always do it, but I'm a pro, and at least I knew how. In golf, when I make a double bogey, it feels like shots lost forever. Following up with a birdie is the hardest thing in the world.

__ GOLFERS CHOKE__ for different reasons. Some people choke for money. Some choke when they're going for their personal best, others when they have to put up a number. My choking point is the first-hole tee shot with people watching. I can handle some junky scramble, but at a real tournament where there's no place to hide, that must be terrifying. All those eyes on you—how do the pros do it? I haven't experienced that kind of pressure yet, though there were a few people watching when I played in the member-guest at L.A. Country Club this year. There were just enough people there to make me know it'd be tough if I get on a stage like the AT&T Pro-Am.

__ I LOVE THE SCENE__ at L.A. North. Long pants, no cellphones, walking. It's pure golf, but if you could choose one vision of golf for the future, I don't think that super-conservative version is the answer any more than 15-inch holes are on the other side of the equation. It's somewhere in the middle. In my version of golf heaven, shoes are required, but not collared shirts. Shirttails don't need to be tucked in, either. And there would be music.

__ THE MUSIC THING IS TRICKY.__ The trouble is, not everyone in a foursome loves the same thing, and there's a special place in hell for music bullies who think their stuff is cooler than everyone else's. The best thing to do is take a poll among your foursome, but if it's left up to you, try Van Morrison Radio on the Pandora app. It's an incredible stream of music that 90 percent of people love. Smooth tunes from Otis Redding, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Ray Charles, Bob Marley and, of course, Van Morrison. Play it low but audible except near greens and tees, where you mute it. And if anybody hints they don't care for music, shut it off completely.

__ THERE'S CHOKING__ in everything. Cycling wouldn't seem like a sport where people would swallow the apple, because like I said, it's a straight-ahead sport. But when a guy doesn't eat the right thing at the right time—cyclists have to eat while they ride—that's choking. Not drinking correctly on a warm day or making a small tactical mistake—anything in any walk of life where you lose focus—to me, that's choking.

__ SO MANY BIKE RACES,__ there were easy routes. In golf, there's no such thing as an easy course, at least for me. Par 3s are especially brutal; that's where I make most of my double bogeys. I've never understood why they're the highest-handicap holes on the scorecard. The fourth hole at Roaring Fork Club, a great course near Aspen, has a par 3 over 200 yards that is the No. 5 handicap hole. When I play with real good players and come to that hole, it's always a relief to get a shot, because I need it.

__ TOUGHEST SHOT IN GOLF FOR ME:__ anything around the green from a tight lie where I'm forced to use my wedge. I'll decel. I'll chunk it, blade it or hit it too low so it can't hold the green. I can be a few yards off the green in two and wind up making triple bogey. It's that bad.


__ I DON'T PRACTICE.__ I hate hitting balls. It drives Chuck Cook crazy, but like I told him, practice is like riding a stationary bike, which I hate. When it's 75 degrees outside, no wind and the sun is shining, I'm going to get out on the road. And I do still ride my bike. Isn't doing the real thing always better?

__ NOBODY LOOKS BETTER__ than 25-year-old Rickie Fowler. Nobody looks worse than a 45-year-old guy who dresses like Rickie Fowler. If you've got gray hair and a burger belly, leave the flat-brim hat and skin-hugging shirts to Rickie.

__ I MET TIGER WOODS__ at the ESPYs a long time ago, got to know him over the years. What interests me about Tiger is how he sort of screwed himself, not by his personal troubles but because of how insanely good he was. He created the template that every great player has copied for the last 15 years. He showed Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and so many others exactly how to train, how to be focused and dedicated. He made them all better competitors. If Tiger hadn't raised the bar so high when he was in his prime, the back side of his career might have been easier. I'd love to see him get back to where he was, but I wonder if that would be good enough for him to steamroll like he used to.

__ DID THE PUNISHMENT__ for what Tiger did exceed the crime? As someone with some experience along those lines, I'd say it did. What happened was, the media changed. Somewhere between the end of Michael Jordan's career in 2003 and Tiger's scandal in 2009, the media stopped being compliant to athletes and celebrities. They no longer protected them, because they no longer needed them. In the digital world, all that matters is the scoop. The mainstream media is right there with the TMZs and Deadspins, because they can't afford to be beaten. The upshot is that there are no more sacred cows out there, and a lot more harshness. If John Kennedy and Frank Sinatra were alive and conducting their lives the way they did in their primes, they'd be devoured.

__ NEXT MONTH__ I'm playing Augusta National for the first time. I've been invited by the former president of Nike, Charlie Denson. Lanny Wadkins is coming, too. Charlie said, "You want to join me at Augusta?" and I answered, "Does the pope wear red slippers?" Pine Valley this month, Augusta National next month. How am I doing?

__ ON THE OTHER HAND,__ I'm the one guy in a million who has no special desire to see the Masters in person. Watching on TV, yes; spectating at the tournament, no. I'm more a doer than a watcher.

__ GOLF HAS__ its hallowed grounds. Augusta National, Pine Valley, LACC, Riviera, Olympic, Ballyneal and Nanea are almost like holy places, and I've been blessed not to have just seen them, but played them. Cycling has its hallowed grounds, too. Mont Ventoux, Alpe d'Huez, Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden are like monuments. But at this stage in my life I'd much rather be teeing it up at Augusta National than riding Mont Ventoux.

__ I'LL REFER TO__ the British Open on Twitter [3.85 million followers @lancearmstrong

], and immediately I'm lit up by a million Brits telling me that it's just "The Open." Man, are they uptight about that.

__ THE ELEMENTS__ don't faze me. I'll play in anything. In Aspen last Thanksgiving, it was snowing. But I'm jonesing to play. I check the weather app and see that in Grand Junction, just a 2½-hour drive away, it's cold but there's no snow. I talk a few buddies into driving down there with me to play. Bad call. We get down there, and it's snowing. It was a nice drive down, but the drive back was tough. My friends cussed me the whole way.

__ GOLF IS DIFFERENT__ from the culture of cycling when I was competing, and that's putting it mildly. Cycling, it was the Wild West. Nobody considered doping cheating. It was an arms race where absolutely anything went, and it was every man for himself. You might consider me the last guy to have anything to say about cheating, but golf is different. I love adhering to a code of honor that we in cycling didn't have. If I moved my ball in the rough and got caught, I wouldn't just regret it, I'd be heartbroken forever. When I think about reform in cycling, I think about golf.

__ IF A PRO GOLFER WAS DOPING,__ I doubt I'd be able to tell just by looking. Anabolic steroids—the stuff that builds muscle size, speed and strength—were not in our world. The substances we used weren't for building muscle size, they were to increase endurance and recovery. So I honestly don't know.

THE UPSHOT OF SURVIVING CANCER is that the Livestrong Foundation, which I'm no longer part of, raised $500 million. The corporations behind it and the individuals who donated obviously were huge in making it go, but I'm proud to no end of what I started. It's remarkable that one guy in a non-mainstream sport like cycling was able to inspire people and create that level of awareness. Never underestimate the power of one person. The PGA Tour has raised in the neighborhood of $2 billion for charity in its history. It's an awesome thing, but one way it could do more is to put the power of its superstars to work better. Tiger Woods and others have their own causes, and what they do is fantastic. But if the tour got them to focus their influence on charities the PGA Tour already has by putting their names behind them, they'd raise even more money.

__ CHRIS FROOME,__ the British cyclist who won the Tour de France in 2013, does everything wrong. He's got a choppy pedal stroke. His arms are sticking out, his head is down, and he's all over the bike. He's the Jim Furyk of cycling, unconventional in every way. Except that it works. And the reason it works is superior cadence. His tempo is amazing. It's paced in a way that gives his unusual mechanics time to fall together. The golf swing can be the same way.

__ WHEN MY HEAD__ hits the pillow tonight, my last thought is, Will tomorrow be the day I finally break 80 again? I have a 12:30 p.m. tee time at Austin Country Club tomorrow. It just might be the day.

__ THE LAST THREE HOLES__ are what matter. If you finish strong, it will heal almost any bet, save nearly any round, make you leave the course with a smile. Take pride in how you get to the finish line. Let your ego come out. Remember, stars close the show.