ACE GROUP CLASSIC: Playing all sports growing up the norm for Champions Tour golfers

Corey Perrine/Staff
Hale Irwin chips on the 8th green during the first round round of the ACE Group Classic Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at TwinEagles Club in Naples, Fla. Gremany's Bernhard Langer leads though the first round with a course-tying record of -10 under par.

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Hale Irwin chips on the 8th green during the first round round of the ACE Group Classic Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at TwinEagles Club in Naples, Fla. Gremany's Bernhard Langer leads though the first round with a course-tying record of -10 under par.

Hale Irwin played college football. Allen Doyle played college hockey. Others on the Champions Tour may not have reached that level, but nearly all of them played other sports growing up, including through high school.

In today's specialized world, that's not nearly the case for many kids growing up. Some parents, coaches or instructors push kids to pick a sport younger and younger, and sometimes even the kids themselves focus in on one sport.

While the Champions Tour pros obviously ended up going toward golf, they still have some great memories from those other sports, and some believe being in those other sports have helped them in their golf careers.

Playing them all

Ben Crenshaw, the 61-year-old who won the 1984 and 1995 Masters, loved baseball growing up. He played until he was 16 when ...

"I can tell you when I stopped," Crenshaw said. "A guy was drafted out of high school. I think by the Houston Astros. He threw me two pitches, and then a slider — fouled the first two off. He threw the slider and I whiffed.

"That was it. He made my decision for me. it was easy."

Fuzzy Zoeller played football, basketball, and baseball in high school. He loved basketball.

"When I was growing up, playing all sports was the way to go," he said. "I had more injuries in basketball than I had in football."

That's when Zoeller first hurt his back. He was going in for a layup in his junior year, when another player undercut him. Later in his hoops career, Zoeller also ended up with a broken ankle, chipped elbow and broken arm.

"All from the stupid game of basketball," Zoeller said. "It's supposed to be non-contact, you know."

Irwin was a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back at Colorado. He played baseball and golf, and football was his best.

"One of the ways that I was going to college, and maybe the only way, was on a scholarship," he said. "My folks didn't have that much money. A football scholarship was offered, so there were no questions. Golf was a still a budding, maturing sport for me."

Like Zoeller, Irwin also dealt with an injury, and he considered giving up football. He separated his right shoulder his sophomore year at Colorado.

"It's a rough-and-tumble kind of way to get through school, but my dad always told me since I was a little boy 'Don't start something you can't finish,'" Irwin said. "That was sort of paramount in my mind. I continued. I'm glad I did. I learned a lot from that decision and what it took to play at a higher level. It was a positive effect."

Gil Morgan, who won in Naples in 1998 and 2001, played the big three in junior high and high school. Those sports still exposed Morgan to the pressures of performing.

"You're under stress, under pressure to do the right thing every time to help your team, coming down to the last three seconds of the ballgame, can you make that free throw, or can you make that shot? Make a touchdown if you needed it.

Can you catch that ground ball and throw the last player out?" Morgan said. "All of those help you in some regard, I think. It helps you probably with your timing and coordination because they're all motion-type sports."

Doyle played hockey his senior year in high school, partly to try to get a scholarship.

The 1999 ACE Group Classic champion remembered one moment in particular. The defenseman was all that was between the goalie and Weymouth's Bobby Sheehan, who went on to play 310 NHL games, came darting down the ice with the puck.

"The (other) defenseman tried to flip it up the boards," Doyle said. "Sheehan blocks it and he goes by him, and he's coming down one-on-one. I'm thinking 'Oh no, this guys is going to undress me in front of 3,500 people.'"

Doyle recalled one of his fundamentals, to watch the player's gut to get a better read of where he was going and what he was going to do, instead of the player's head.

"He'd move that head, but (his gut) wasn't moving," Doyle said.

Doyle ended up poking the puck away from Sheehan with his stick.

"A classic case of the basics," Doyle said.

While many hockey players end up being good golfers because of a similar swinging motion, Doyle saw some parallels between the games beyond that, including sticking to fundamentals for his memorable pokecheck of Sheehan.

"I always equated that to getting up-and-down and chip shots," Doyle said. "You just go with the basics. You just try to hit the shot that you're capable of hitting. If you execute, you get the results. If you don't, you get undressed in front of so-many-thousand people.

"I thought it was a great extension from a great competitive sport over to another great competitive sport."

Tom Lehman played football, basketball and baseball. Basketball was his favorite growing up.

"I'd play all day every day if I could," Lehman said. "If I was 6-7 and could've jumped a little bit ..."

Some fatherly advice

Irwin has three grandchildren, and encourages all of them to play different sports, even though it's tougher today.

"I think parents/children/coaches and trainers out there are really missing the beat for our young people, and should encourage them to play multiple sports," he said. "It doesn't have to be football ... You need to be a participant in other sports so you understand, get the whole breadth of what sport is."

Sometimes, as Lehman pointed out, though, the kids don't have a choice. Sports have become year-round or close to it, and coaches are looking for that kind of a commitment.

"Unless you're just an absolute superstar athlete who's going to go on to be like a Joe Mauer for the Twins (who was recruited as a quarterback by Florida State) or a guy like that, that kind of athlete can do it," said Lehman, who has a son who is a junior in high school. "Because they are so amazing, the coaches can't keep them off the team.

"Unless you're that kind of athlete, the coaches will find a way to keep you off the team or keep you from playing. They don't like the fact you're not playing the fall baseball program. They don't like the fact that in the summer, you're not in the 7-on-7 (for football) because you're playing in a baseball tournament."

Kenny Perry, who played football, basketball and baseball, has noticed the one-sport specialty, even from his friends, such as former tennis great Ivan Lendl, whose daughters all play golf, and are either at or have gone through the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton.

"They live there," Perry said, emphasizing the live part. "That's kind of common practice now. A kid who decides 'I'm going to pick golf.' They start them at a young age, and they don't let them do anything else."

"You see a lot of superstar kids at a young age, and they disappear and they end up never playing golf again because they get burned out. It's any sport — it could be football, it could be baseball, it could be any sport."

On the flip side, though, Perry believes the youngsters who stick with it, and do make it to the PGA Tour are better.

"All they did was play golf," Perry said. "They didn't play other sports. They kind of got the mindset at a young age. They're very focused too, and they work 24 hours a day. That's their dream and their goal is to try to achieve all of that.

"Colleges are preparing the kids better. Junior golf is preparing the kids better. You've got this young crop of kids coming out that are a lot more polished than when I came out. I didn't even know halfway what was going on out there. I was so green, it was so funny. I was scared to death. These kids come out ready to wear you out. It's fun to watch, though."

Still, Perry would like to see them enjoy other things.

"I think kids need to chill out a little bit, and then enjoy their high school

and their college, and then get really serious about becoming the best in the world or whatever," he said. "I think a lot of kids lose that, and I think that's sad."

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