IT'S MICHAEL. You are sure, because 67 children have just sprinted across a practice putting green clutching ballpoint pens and dollar bills in their small sweaty hands, crying out, "Michael!" and "Jordan!" in that breathless way kids get when they are sure they are about to miss out on something absolutely incredible, like, oh, the next half hour of television. They are in a pack, with a pack's mentality, and they overrun a security guard while in the process of encircling Jordan's van. The vehicle disgorges a caddie with a Nike bag, who passes through the throng as if invisible. Then, with the help of security reinforcements, the van eases through the autograph seekers and deposits the 6'6" Jordan at the locker-room entrance of the two-year-old Tournament Players Club at Southwind, outside Memphis. He slips inside to change into his golf shoes.
Order gradually returns to the grounds as the little people disperse to plot their next moves. It is the Wednesday Pro-Am of the Federal Express St. Jude Classic, an event that since 1970 has raised more than $2.5 million for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Among the celebrities who have turned out for this year's tournament are Danny Thomas, founder of the hospital and honorary chairman of the event; former President Gerald Ford; Phil Donahue; Pat Summerall; and Tim McCarver. But it is Jordan, making his fourth appearance at the tournament, whom the folks are itching to see.
And there he goes! Just ahead of a dozen racing kids, the man they call Air Jordan is in a golf cart, being driven at top speed—which happens to be the exact speed a 12-year-old can run—toward the sanctuary of the practice tee. Reporters, cameramen and security folks totter behind. The cart zooms under the restraining ropes, and the pleas begin. "Michael! Sign my hat! Sign my poster! Sign my hand!" The heat is stultifying, 94°, and shirts are beginning to soak through. Beads of sweat glisten on temples and forearms. Before this long hot day, July 26, comes to an end, strides will have shortened and golf swings will have buckled and warped. But now, on the practice tee, the afternoon seems bright with promise.
Particularly when Jordan steps up to his first ball. His practice swings are loose, but not too loose. The plane of his swing is upright, like the swing of someone standing against a wall. His tongue creeps out—as it does when he plays basketball—looks around, then slips back into his mouth as he draws the club back in a long arc, pauses, and smoothly brings it down. At the moment of impact, Jordan's face tightens into a grimace of concentration, but by the time his hands have followed through and his body has completed its pivot, his face is relaxed and composed.
He hits a nice ball—high, with a touch of a draw.
"What I'm working on now," Jordan says, "is staying behind the ball. Gotta keep my weight back. My game, basketball, is a game of motion. You're always moving. In this game, you stand still and swing your arms around your body. I have a tendency to move my body ahead of my hands."
Jordan started playing golf six summers ago, after leaving the University of North Carolina early to become eligible for the 1984 NBA draft, in which he was selected by the Chicago Bulls. Jordan was introduced to golf by a fellow Tarheel, Davis Love III, now a member of the PGA Tour, who used to lend Jordan his extra clubs or let him play out of his bag. Once, while teeing off, Jordan swung so hard that he exploded the shaft of Love's favorite driver, a traumatic occurrence that, to this day, Jordan believes was a practical joke. "It was already cracked," he says. "Davis set me up."
"The shaft had a little crack in it, all right," says Love, "but I was still using the club, and it was kind of a crisis until I got it fixed. Michael's so strong, and he used to hit the ball so hard. Of course he'd hardly ever find it after he did hit it. I figured his interest in golf wouldn't last, because he didn't improve much for a while. He was just like any other beginner. I think he liked the game because it got him away from people and gave him a chance to be alone, away from all those other distractions. It took his mind off things."
Jordan took his first lesson with Eddie Ibarguen, the golf pro at the Duke University Golf Course, and he still considers Ibarguen his "true pro," although he has also had lessons—both formal and informal—from a number of other instructors. It is virtually impossible for anyone calling himself a golf pro to pass Michael Jordan on the practice range—he tries to hit 100 balls a day—without stopping to offer advice. Jordan plays every day in the off-season, and during the last couple of years, his handicap has fluctuated between six and 10. It is 10 for the St. Jude Pro-Am. But he has aspirations of one day playing on the PGA Tour, and if there is one athlete you would not want to put limits on—besides Bo Jackson—it's Jordan. His best 18-hole score is 73, which he shot at the Old Elm Club in Highland Park, Ill., and at Maketewah in Cincinnati. He was one under at Maketewah through 16 holes before finishing bogey, bogey.
"I'm still learning the game," Jordan says. "I've never had the opportunity to play year-round, since I don't play during the basketball season. So I don't practice enough. But when I get to the point where I can shoot consistently in the low 70s, I'd like to turn pro. I'm not saying I'm going to win. I'm gonna try, but I'd just like to make it out there, to be competing with these guys on the Tour. It's not for the money. I should already be financially secure. But it's a challenge, right? They said Bo couldn't play two sports."
"Anybody with that amount of talent can do anything he puts his mind to as long as he dedicates himself to it," says Love, taking a pragmatist's view. "But golf is different from baseball or football in that it's not a sport you can play well in your spare time. And for the next five or 10 years, unless he just gets bored, Michael won't be able to spend 100 percent of his time on golf."
After a warm introduction at South-wind, Jordan steps up to the 1st tee and whacks a drive 265 yards down the left center of the fairway. Then, while his amateur partners take their turns, Jordan is subjected to full-volume high-pitched supplications.
"It's going to be a long day out here," says Jordan's professional partner, Clarence Rose, a little-known pro from Goldsboro, N.C. "But we're gonna have fun!"
He got it half right. Jordan bogeys the 1st hole when he chili-dips a chip shot and two-putts from the fringe. On number 2, a 387-yard par-4, Jordan airs his drive out to the right. Rose, the only member of the fivesome who is playing from the championship tees, must hit his second shot over the heads of some two dozen members of Jordan's gallery, which has smartly stationed itself across the fairway to be in position to intercept Michael on his way to the green. "Fore!" Rose yells, trying to clear his line. He repeats this plea a couple of times more without result. Security guards and Federal Express employees assigned to the case have their hands full keeping Jordan and his errant drive far from the maddening crowd. Rose is on his own. He plays a blind nine-iron shot over a little knoll of spectators, and it somehow finds the green.
Jordan pars the 2nd, displaying a nice touch with the putter by lagging a 40-foot putt from the fringe to within one inch. "Putting is a lot like shooting free throws," he says. "It's all concentration and technique. There's a correct way for the ball to come off your club, the same as there's a correct way for it to come off your fingertips." Sometimes Jordan will practice his putting stroke without watching the ball, keeping his eyes on the hole, the same way he teaches kids at his basketball camps to keep their eyes on the rim. "Touch and soft hands," he sums up. "It helps."
On the 3rd hole, a par-5, Jordan plays a one-iron off the tee, and he hits it fat but safely down the middle.
Most of Jordan's fans are content to cry, "Michael, sign this!" and wave money at him. Jordan collects a dollar for each autograph he signs during the round and stuffs the money—about $300 this year—into an envelope for St. Jude's. Some try to bribe their way into his attentions. "I have a twenty-dollar bill here, and I love you," one teenage girl says. Unconvinced that she has won him, she hastens to add, "And I understand basketball."
Jordan, clearly distracted and forced to wait for the group ahead of them, tops his second and third shots—both fairway woods. "Who cares?" yells a fan. "Over here!"
Jordan cares, and this is starting to bum him out. He declares a moratorium on autographs until his game straightens out, and he settles down with a series of pars and three-putt bogeys and makes the turn at 40, four-over.
Jordan's driving is not exceptionally long by professional standards, averaging around 265 to 270 yards off the tee. His physique actually works against him in golf. "With Michael's height and flexibility," says Love, "there are just too many moving parts. He can generate so much club speed that there's an awful lot that can go wrong."
On the second nine, most of what can go wrong, does. On 12, Jordan drives twice into the water en route to a quadruple bogey 8. He tops another drive, three-putts twice and has only two pars for the nine. The pace of play is so excruciatingly slow that when Jordan is waiting on 14, Payne Stewart has time to sneak over from the 16th hole and pour a cup of ice down Michael's back. Jordan staggers home in the heat with an 86, losing the $100 bet he has made with his caddie that he would break 80. It is a 5½-hour round.
Afterward, to the delight of the crowd, he hits four sand shots out of the greenside bunker at 18, sinking one and rapping a second off the flag. Before calling it a day, he returns to the practice tee to hit two large buckets of balls. As the afternoon light fades he finds his groove, striking one shot after another at the various pins. "What I like about golf is you play the course, not the other guy." Jordan says. "The course will shoot par every day. That gets my competitive juices flowing."
Rose, who shot 72 for the day, comes by with his infant son to pose for a photo. He watches Jordan hit a couple of picturesque three-irons and asks, "Where was that shot today? Where've you been keeping that?"
Jordan shakes his head and smiles. "It's hard to swing when they're all the time calling your name. 'Michael, Michael, Jordan, Jordan.' "
Mike Hulbert, one of the Tour players, stops over and begins working with Jordan on playing the ball farther back in his stance. Jordan is a quick study, very coachable. "That's better," Hulbert keeps repeating, though it is so dark by now that neither he nor Jordan can see where his shots end up. Three dozen kids, waiting restlessly behind the ropes, begin applauding and hooting wildly every time Jordan swings. "Sign something, Jordan," an adult shouts.
Finally, after striking the last ball in the bucket, Jordan thanks Hulbert and hands his club to his caddie. "O.K.," he says. The youngsters plunge toward him and plug there, like three-irons into wet sand.
Jordan says that putting is a little like shooting fouls—and it can be just as frustrating.
The fans in Memphis were armed and ready, hoping for an autograph from Air Jordan.
As the sun set on a frustrating day, Jordan went to the practice tee to work on his game.