Muhammad Ali's passing at age 74 on June 3 follows decades of contending with the effects of Parkinson's disease, but more than 40 years ago there were no such worries: The heavyweight champion was in prime fighting shape at age 32 when Golf Digest reported on his first hacks as a golfer.
For someone who could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" in the ring, on the course "The Greatest" stood like a sprawled giraffe and swung like a spinning top.
In Golf Digest's October 1974 issue we ran a story written by Brad Wilson, at the time an associate professional who related his encounter with Ali while he was giving golf lessons at Stardust Country Club in Mission Valley, Calif. Ali's training camp was set up at LeBaron Hotel, just a block from Stardust (it's now incorporated into Town & Country Resort). Ali was likely training for a March 1973 fight with Ken Norton in San Diego.
Within 10 days of the fight, Wilson arrived at the Stardust range on an early Saturday morning and saw that Los Angeles Rams defensive star Deacon Jones was warming up for a round. Wilson went over to watch, and shortly later, Jones was approached by Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, and assistant trainer, Drew Brown. Jones introduced Wilson to the two trainers, and within minutes, Ali, dressed in gray sweats and wearing heavy running boots, appeared on the range, threw some quick punches in the air and then ran toward the course.
"[The course] is a great place for him to run," Dundee said, in response to Wilson's question whether Ali was going to jog on the course. Seeing a unique opportunity in front of him, Wilson asked if Dundee thought Ali would swing at a golf ball for him. "Ali's his own man," Dundee said. "You can ask him when he gets back. It's entirely up to him."
When Ali returned to the group, his clothes soaked with perspiration, Dundee introduced Wilson. Dundee and Ali talked briefly before Wilson asked if Ali would take some golf swings while Wilson took pictures with his Polaroid sequence camera. Ali told Wilson he'd never swung before at a golf ball, but he agreed to do it. When Wilson handed Ali an 8-iron, the champ asked, "How ya hold this thing?" After putting Ali's hands on the club in a baseball grip, the next question was "What do I do now?" Brown jumped in with, "Just hit the ball, champ. Just hit the ball." Wilson added, while pointing the camera at Ali, "Just do whatever feels natural."
With that, Ali hit what Wilson said was a surprisingly straight, 140-yard shot. Ali crowed, "How 'bout that Angie! You didn't know I was a champion golfer, did you?" Wilson actually felt that despite the unorthodox look, Ali's swing had some desirable elements: good shoulder turn, flexed knees, led the downswing with hips and legs, right elbow close to the side, head down, right shoulder lower than the left, and eyes remain fixed on the ball.
Photos by Brad Wilson, 1973
Ali hit a second ball solidly and continued his raving glee: "Look at that ball go! Nobody can knock the ball that far. Nobody but me, the great, the one and only Muhammad Ali!" A crowd of people started gathering to watch, and that just fueled Ali's stage presence. He suddenly jumped away from the ball at one point and raised both hands into the air and crowed, "Muhammad Ali is the world's greatest golfer! Nobody can beat Muhammad Ali! Not Arnold Palmer, not Jack Nicklaus, not nobody. I'm gonna make 'em look bad, predict the score, how bad I'm gonna beat 'em, everything -- just like I do in boxing!"
Looking at Dundee, the champ said, "Hey Angie, let's quit boxing and start playing golf. We'll get rich--and besides, that ball can't hit back!"