Photo courtesy of Michael Phelps Foundation
Michael Phelps golfing
When a 23-time gold medal winner comes to your town and extends an interview opp, you drop everything and do it. At least, I do. Fresh off a flight from Milan, Michael Phelps is here for the ribbon cutting of the Planet OMEGA timepiece exhibition at Hazeltine and to play in the Ryder Cup Celebrity Match Tuesday afternoon (passes are a steal at around $10/per on StubHub, btw). As his fiancé Nicole idly pushed their son Boomer around the exhibit in a stroller, I sat down with the OMEGA brand ambassador/ LEGEND to talk about everything from #PhelpsFace to what it’ll be like playing golf against a dude from One Direction.
I can only assume your real dream was to one day play on a U.S.A. golf team with Huey Lewis, Bill Murray, and Kurt Russell versus a European team lead by Martina Navratilova and also featuring Niall Horan of the band One Direction, right?
I saw a photo of [Niall’s] swing, and he actually has a pretty nice swing; so, it will be good. And it’s a nine hole scramble, too, so, it won’t be too challenging. I just want to go out there and whack some balls. I haven’t swung a club, actually, in like a week.
Does the greatest athlete arguably ever get nervous to play in something like the Ryder Cup Celebrity Match?
Somebody tweeted a photo of opening hole to me and it brought back memories of four years ago when I was at Medinah [Country Club]. And I was saying to Nicole coming over here, I’ve honestly never been as nervous as I was that day. I was on the range and I worked through my wedges and my irons—everything is fine—and I went to put my tee in the ground to hit my driver and three wood and I couldn’t because my hands were shaking so bad. I was like scared shitless. I remember teeing off on 1 and saying, 'I’m not hitting a driver, I’m hitting a three wood or a hybrid and I’m jamming the tee into the ground and praying that I don’t hit anybody.' And I said to Nicole coming over today, I was like, 'I’m hitting a driver off one 1 tomorrow and I’m just going to go.' Having the opportunity to play at the Ryder Cup again, I mean it’s awesome. Being such a golf fan, having the chance to play Hazeltine; you know it’s a pretty cool deal.
That first time, after those first couple shots, did you finally settle down and feel like it’s golf again?
I was playing with Hal Sutton, Lanny Wadkins, and George Lopez. George kinda calmed my nerves a little bit after the first shot, so it got better. We ended up winning, so it was fun. I mean, I didn’t do much of it, but it was fun. But it’ll be good. I should be alright. I shot the lowest round of my life—83—three weeks ago with three three-putts so I feel pretty good about where things are.
Speaking of putts, the longest putt ever made on television by anyone of any skill level was made by none other than YOU during a pro-am in Scotland in 2012. Whoa.
I should’ve retired then. I should’ve just stopped playing golf then.
The best thing about it was that the putt was so long that before it went in the announcers had time to both describe all your swimming accomplishments AND rip you for being a 26 handicap who didn’t deserve to make a putt of that length.
The guy gave it no chance. But my handicap’s a little better now. But it needs to get better. I want to get to single digits within the year, so I’ve got some work to do. It’s all my chipping.
You were on The Haney Project in 2012, so I’ve gotta imagine that helped bring that 26 down to something a little more manageable, right?
Working with Hank really helped me understand the game better and learn why I’m doing certain things on the course. It’s a game of literally centimeters—it’s so small—and the smallest miss is, you’re 20 feet right. It’s the toughest sport I’ve maybe ever played in my life and I’ve played a lot of sports growing up.
That’s what’s addicting about it, right?
You hit a couple shots and it keeps you coming back. Even Nicole—she’s played a little bit—but since we’re traveling more and I’m playing more she’s like, 'This stinks, I want to play.'
And with a child named Boomer, isn’t it a given that he gets into golf, too?
Everybody asks, 'What sport would you want him to play?' And I think it would be so cool to have it be like Sunday of The Masters and just have him have some shot at winning a major…
'Boomer Phelps lines up the putt on 18…'
YEAH. 'Boomer Phelps, for the win. He’s got a three footer for birdie for the ‘W’.'
So, you’re giving out Omega watches to Team USA tonight, which is very cool. Is that cooler for you or for them?
I’m a big sports nerd, and I love this game so much, that, you know, I spent some time with Ricky [Fowler] in Rio and Bubba [Watson] came to watch, and I’ve played with Kuch [Matt Kucher] in some tournaments and I met Patrick Reed down there, too. So, you know, just to be able to meet some of these guys and kind of pick their brains a little bit is great. My dream foursome; I’d love to play with Tiger, I’d love to play with Rory (McIlroy). But here, honestly, I’m like a kid in a candy store. You know? I love this stuff.
Speaking of dream foursomes, would you put Arnold Palmer in there?
We lost somebody great. Just being able to see what he did on the course, but off the course as well. Just being able to see the ambassador he was, and the things that he did. I would’ve loved to meet him—I never met him—but the things he did to help allow sports and golf be what they are today. He is somebody that’ll be missed. If I can say this—and I don’t know if it’s right, but as an athlete—I would imagine that that’s going to be a little extra motivation for the guys to, you know, do it for Arnie.
Tonight with Team USA, part of the plan is to teach them #PhelpsFace, correct?
Hahahaha! It’s so crazy. If you would ask me if it would go as viral as it did, so fast, I would’ve said you’re crazy. I’ve done some photo shoots—like some commercial shoots lately—and everybody wants to see the #PhelpsFace. But I don’t even know what I was doing. I was just like making some rude face, I guess. Like some frustrated or fired up face and, well, it took off. But I think for these guys, I can say for me, wearing the stars and stripes and being able to represent our country is an honor and that’s one thing I will miss when it comes to not competing anymore, and I think those guys will make me proud.