by Josh Kerns
The sweet swing of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. has now transferred easily to the golf course
On a recent rainy, blustery Thursday afternoon, Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. stood outside Safeco Field, on hand for the newly unveiled seven-foot bronze statue depicting him in his iconic home run stance. The statue’s steely gaze stares far in the distance at another of the 630 towering home runs he sent soaring during his illustrious career.
A number of us had the good fortune to see that look and Griffey’s silky swing in action again last summer. Not on the diamond, but on another field of dreams in Sammamish, Wash., where the lefty teamed with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and LPGA star Lydia Ko in the Pro-Am at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club.
While baseball is in his blood, golf is what stirs Griffey’s soul, and The Kid now plays to a 4.7 Handicap Index. And for a guy who never loved giving interviews, he was surprisingly amenable to sit down and spend a considerable amount of time discussing how he got into the game, learning from the likes of Tiger Woods, the late Payne Stewart and other standout golfers who happened to live in the Isleworth community in Florida where he settled at the end of his career.
The following are excerpts from that exclusive conversation.
How did you ever get started playing golf?
Junior: We lived on a golf course when I was growing up. I was, I don’t know, 12? At that time we just wanted to see how far we could hit the ball. It wasn’t really playing golf. I didn’t really pick up the game until 1994, the day the baseball strike started, when they said we’ve got to stay close by. We just went out, Randy (Johnson), Jay (Buhner), Paul Sorrento, all the guys who lived in the area went out and played at Bear Creek CC three or four times a week. We couldn’t care less where it went and we just hit it all over the place, because if you scored 49 you were doing something on the front nine.
Did you ever take lessons?
Junior: I didn’t really take it too seriously until really retiring. I’d say from the late 1990s, being able to play with Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Payne Stewart, Lee Jansen, Scott Hoch, Grant Waite, Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley. These are the guys I played with constantly. You know, just to be able to bounce some things off them in practice, that’s the difference between you going out there and just hitting balls or working on something. You know, just like a hitting coach, they’ve got swing coaches to pick up things they’re doing wrong; practice is a little different.
I actually went to a Tiger practice session with him and it’s a lot different from what I thought a practice session was. For us, it’s getting loose, getting ready. For them, they’re dialing in stuff – how far they’re hitting balls from the pin and stuff like that. It was just a lot of information. I was like ‘You guys do take this seriously.’ I spend a lot of time just sitting there watching them, and then I’ll go hit and implement it into my game when they’re not watching.
I play probably four times a week. Only problem is, I wish I could play more but my course is closed on Mondays, and Saturdays are a tough day for me to get out because of the kids’ schedules.
Is there a dream course you haven’t been to yet?
Junior: It would be Augusta and Cypress Point. Those two. I’ve been sick four of the five times that I had a chance to go (to Augusta). And my guys just start looking at me and go ‘Of all places and you get sick on this week?’ I’ll get over there someday.
Some of your friends do have those green jackets. They could probably get you on.
Junior: And I tease them about it, too. I tell them they didn’t start winning until they met me. ‘The common denominator between all of y’all is me.’
Your golf swing is beautiful. How do you feel about your golf swing?
Junior: It still needs a little bit of work, and that’s from baseball. I was never really a back-leg hitter, so trying to stay backside and drive through and turn, I’ve had to try and spread out a little bit more and flatten it out. But I’ve had some pretty good teachers to sit there and help. Mark hits the ball straight and Tiger’s got an unbelievable bunker game, and I was just trying to pick their brain on what they do, what they think about. ‘If the pin’s here this is how you’re going to play this shot.’ I said ‘Y’all really think about all this stuff?’ And they go, ‘Absolutely.’
When I played with Jack (Nicklaus), I played him at Pebble Beach for the AT&T. ‘Ken Griffey Jr., dead left on number 10.’ Jack’s first words to me were ‘Son, we’ve got to play our foul balls.’ So every hole that I beat Jack on, I wrote on my scorecard, so I got him on like four holes the whole day. We tied a couple, but I didn’t want to mark those. Then I had him sign the scorecard. He said, ‘There’s nothing else written on there.’ I said those are the holes I beat you, that’s all I care about. He laughed.
Golf is a tough sport and it doesn’t matter how big you are, how little you are, you’ve got to work at it. And I do work at it.
(For the full conversation, visit kiroradio.com, Tees and Trips.)
Josh Kerns is an Edward R. Murrow and Emmy award-winning news and sports anchor and reporter at KIRO Radio (97.3 FM) in Seattle, and the host of Tees and Trips, airing Saturdays at 3:00 pm.