SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As hard as it might be to believe, Michael Phelps admitted being more nervous teeing off at TPC Scottsdale’s legendary 16th hole Wednesday than he ever was in a pool at the Olympics.
“Not a shot,” Phelps said of his mindset on the 16th tee box, shortly after finishing his round in the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s Annexus Pro-Am. “Literally as soon as we walked out on the 16th, I could feel my heartbeat firing through my shirt. I thought my heart was going to pop out of my chest.
“My club was like shaking as I’m over the ball. I had to pretty much try to swing the club as fast as I could.”
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Nerves got the better of 18-time gold medalist Wednesday, but with his swim career now over Phelps plans to devote plenty of time trying to dominate on the golf course as he did in the pool.
Phelps, who signed a deal this week with Ping to provide his clubs, admitted to a rough day on the course Wednesday playing alongside Masters champion Bubba Watson in a team that also included businessman Ken Alterman, former New York State Commissioner of Education David Steiner, and McDonald’s executive Ian Olson.
“I don’t know what it was,” Phelps said. “I had a couple good ones on the range, and then I couldn’t find it until probably like 13, I started hitting a couple good ones here and there.”
Phelps played the course a couple days earlier with prominent golf instructor Hank Haney. He first connected with Haney on the Golf Channel’s “The Haney Project,” which will begin airing Feb. 25 and features Haney working to fine-tune Phelps’ golf game.
Even with his work with Haney, who is best known for working with Tiger Woods, Phelps says he still has a long way to go.
“It’s the most humbling sport in the world,” Phelps said. “It’s been a challenge and a struggle, but I have been able to pick some things up along the way to make my game stronger and better and more consistent.
“It’s just not at the point where I want it to be. Being able to work with Hank is a great way for me to be able to get there.”
And just where does Phelps want his golf game to be? Considering Phelps’ history of dominance and perfectionism, it should come as no surprise he’s not content with an 18 handicap.
“I have a bunch of friends who are scratch, and I would like to somehow get down to that point,” Phelps said. “I know I can. I see some really good shots that show that, but then I have some really terrible shots that make me the worst golfer in the world.”
Scratch would essentially mean Phelps could shoot for par on his best days and own a 0 handicap, a few strokes away from professional level. He admits that will take a lot of time and work, but he has plenty of time these days now that he isn’t in a pool eight hours every day.
Phelps said he’s been traveling and golfing a good deal since wrapping up his Olympic career with four gold and two silver medals at the London games. He has played St. Andrews in Scotland, where he sank a stunning 150-foot putt, and has a list of 100 courses he wants to play.
If TPC Scottsdale was on that list, Phelps can cross it off. He was welcomed at the 16th hole with chants of “U-S-A,” but got no special treatment from a gallery of about 10,000 people. The crowd booed Phelps after his tee shot hit the green and rolled back off, and again when he missed a putt for par. He finally got a cheer after picking his ball off the green and dropping it in the hole.
“I’ve never heard people boo you,” Phelps said of his swimming career. “I’m sure it’s happened, but my face was just under water.”
As for Phelps’ nerves, Watson did little to calm him down. On the first tee box, Watson interrupted Phelps just before he swung to remind him just how many people were watching.
“Being able to play with Bubba is something else,” Phelps said. “He was pretty much just giving me a hard time from Hole 1.”
Phelps joked that Watson is welcome to jump in the pool with him anytime, but he’d have to give Watson a “fairly healthy handicap.”
How far Phelps goes with golf remains to be seen, but he half-joked Wednesday he might try for a return to the Olympics, golf club in hand. The sport is being added to the Olympics in 2016.
”You can’t put limits on anything,” Phelps said. ”There’s so much I could do.
“Hey, you never know. Being a golfer at the Olympics would be kind of fun.”