Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kelly Slater tees up golfing future

GOLF??? - "Well then," says Kelly Slater. "Now we're talking."

The world's top surfer is on the North Shore of Oahu, signing posters for the Pipeline Masters. Described breathlessly -- but rather accurately -- as the Superbowl of Surfing, Pipe is scheduled to begin on Thursday in life-threatening, jaw-dropping waves peaking at 18 feet.

Heaving swells will dump their loads on a shallow reef, turning Pipe into a gladiator's pit. With thousands of howling spectators on the sand, man-on-man heats carry the sub-plot of everyone just wanting to get out alive.

Ambulances will be on standby. Medical staff shall be in abundance.

Slater admits the prospect of rocking and rolling at Pipe fills him with a curious mix of anxiety, excitement and outright fear and so seems relieved when conversation turns to a more genteel pursuit, the good walk spoiled.

Slater is so dedicated to the noble yet confounding game of golf, and so proficient, that he has an itch to play professionally when he quits his current day job as the greatest surfer of all.

"I like golf, I love it, I work hard on it and actually I'd like to become..."

A professional? Go on, say it. You want to become a professional. The 39-year-old raises an eyebrow: can we be trusted with such privileged information?

Just say it. It is written all over his beaming face. Slater dreams about tackling the biggest names on the USPGA Tour and here is why: he's a born competitor. A self-described perfectionist. A performer.


As fit as 10 fiddlers, Slater has a golf handicap of two. Reuters watched him play 18 holes at the Arnold Palmer-designed Turtle Bay course and make no mistake, he can play.

Natural gifts are at his disposal: the agility, physical strength and fitness that Craig Stadler might have benefited from. The discipline and dedication that one of his more colorful playing partners, John Daly, never quite gripped and ripped.

The last two occasions he played the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he beat his partner, USPGA Tour regular Pat Perez.

When he partnered Simon Dyson to win The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on The Old Course at St Andrews in 2009, it barely rated a mention. Everyone assumed the Englishman carried him. Everyone assumed wrong. The most calm figure walking down the 18th fairway was Slater.

He's played with Daly, Darren Clarke, Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson. He's sidled up to Ernie Els on a driving range and hit balls without feeling misplaced.

Go on, admit it. You want to play at least one professional event before your time is done.

"I do think about it," he says. "Funnily enough, I just did an interview with the Golf Channel: they're doing a special for Christmas and the three golfers they followed were me, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker.

"It's coming out Christmas Day. Point is, I'm pretty entrenched in the golf community now, even if it isn't at the competitive level yet.

"It's about the personal challenge for the moment but I would like to maybe compete in the future. There are these vague dreams in my head about it. The trouble would be the amount of time it would take to be good and confident enough.


"There's a ridiculous amount of work that goes into it. I'd have to practice as much as I surfed when I was growing up. All the time I spend at the beach now, I'd have to spend on the golf course. To play those tour guys, even just one or two times, I'd have to be able to completely trust myself: trust my swing, not let any doubts get in my head. I'm not there yet.

"The Champions Tour might be my best bet but I'd have to wait till I'm 55 for that. Only the established guys get to play as soon as they turn 50. They don't want some unknown guy who's practiced for 30 years getting on and everyone is like, 'shoot, the guy we've never heard of from Oklahoma is better than anyone'.

"It would take a lot of dedication but I'm putting a lot of time into my golf. I think anyone, when they do something once, they want to become masterful at it."

Slater glides around Turtle Bay. His swing is smooth and uncomplicated. He has a baseball grip, a rarity among elite players who prefer overlapping or interlocking, but Bob Estes has forged a long career with the same ten-finger technique so it can be done.

A double-jointed back is a god-send for Slater in both surfing and golf: he has looseness and coil to spare. Text book stance. Effortless backswing. A follow-through worth photographing.

A short iron sucks back a couple of meters. The broom stick putter works well enough. He is attracted to the internal warfare that rages inside a man during a round of golf, the odd similarities of courage needed to take off on a 20-foot wave or sink a two-foot putt.

"I've played with almost all the US PGA guys except for Tiger," Slater says. "I've played with Stricker, played in a group with Darren Clarke at St Andrews, Dustin Johnson, had a couple of rounds with John Daly.


"First time I ever played with a pro, I was in Vegas. I went and played with a buddy called Sandy Armour. His brother is Tommy Armour III, their grandfather is one of the absolute legends of golf. Tommy was on tour.

"First hole, I was so nervous I sliced it so far right that it was crazy. Second shot, I hit it way left into deep rough. It was a par four. Third shot, I hacked it up to about 50-feet from the pin. I holed the 50-footer for par, which was pretty funny, but really it was pretty ugly and it was just the nerves of being in a different environment.

"That's what can happen when you don't completely trust yourself. But I do feel like I can hold my own. I actually beat my pro straight-up two years in a row at the Pebble Beach event so when I get it going, I can go, but that was me having a couple of great days and him having a couple of bad days. If we both had great days, he'd beat me by three or four strokes."

Slater's most immediate assignment is inside the liquid Colosseum of Pipeline. To say nothing over 18 holes could be as nerve-racking would be to overlook the essence of golf. A short putt can be as excruciating as a vertical takeoff in its own way.

As Lee Trevino said, the pressure of a ten-dollar putt when there's only five in your pocket. There are precedents for swapping sports. Grand slam tennis champion Ivan Lendl tried to make it to the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, but came up short in qualifying.

Australian Scott Draper, though, pulled it off, playing Davis Cup tennis and earning a start in his national golf championship. A master of mind games, patience and self-control, Slater might be better placed than most.

Michael Jordan made a lunge at professional baseball in his post-basketball years but only because his real passion, the good walk spoiled, wasn't up to scratch.

Ever played with Jordan? "No," Slater grins. "I'll wait till he gets a little better."

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