It's natural for a recent retiree to look forward to playing some golf, but Michael Phelps has gotten a little carried away. For the 27-year-old gold medal hoarder, golf is less a hobby than a new obsession to replace the endless hours the 18-time Olympic swimming champion spent in the pool. This week Phelps will tee it up at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews, a pro-am that is basically the Crosby Clambake of the PGA European Tour. Playing alongside big-name pros in front of large galleries on championship courses is a pretty audacious step for a guy who's gotten serious about golf only since the London Games.
"I guess I like a challenge," Phelps said last week at Medinah Country Club, where he was a guest of the United States Ryder Cup team. Phelps is being tutored by Hank Haney, Tiger Woods's former coach, for a Golf Channel reality show. During a putting clinic at Medinah for a corporate sponsor, Phelps looked a little stiff over the ball but displayed a smooth, rhythmic stroke. His golf swing is herky-jerky but hints at some of the power he unleashed in the pool. Haney estimates Phelps is around a 30 handicap and hopes to slice that in half by the time the TV show airs in February.
Says Haney, "He has a [6'7"] wingspan, which leads to a huge swing arc, which translates into a ton of clubhead speed. That's the good news, but he's so flexible there are a lot of moving parts to his swing. Hitting the ball a long way isn't Michael's problem. Finding it is."
Walking inside the ropes at the Ryder Cup was both a thrill and an education for Phelps. "I'm just soaking everything in," he said, "trying to focus on all the little details: which side of the tee box they use, what kind of shot they play around the greens. I have a lot to learn."
Phelps remains adamant that he is done with competitive swimming. It's also worth noting that golf returns to the Olympics in 2016. "You've got a better chance of seeing me play golf at those Games than being in the pool," Phelps says.