STATELINE — Michael Phelps is taking a realistic approach to his first celebrity golf appearance.
The 18-time Olympic gold medalist doesn’t expect his new golf career to mirror what he accomplished in the swimming pool. He doesn’t expect to be among the tournament’s elite, not this year at least. He’s not even sure if he should be considered an amateur or a pro, but he’s put in about one year of practice, an estimated 20,000 strokes, so he plans to enjoy the next three days.
Phelps arrived on the celebrity golf scene Thursday. He was a little tired from the ESPYs, but ready to log his first round of practice at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course before the 24th annual American Century Championship tees off today. And despite being outside his usual competitive playing field, or pool, Phelps looked at home on the golf course Thursday.
It wasn’t always that way.
“I was looking at the Golf Digest showing my before and after swing. It’s literally night and day,” Phelps said. “I would just go out and hack around, and now it’s like — I wouldn’t say it’s like super consistent, but I do know how to hit all different kinds of shots and that’s something that Hank taught me.”
Haney, Tiger Woods’ swing coach, is the man behind Phelps’ improvement. He helped Phelps go from somewhere in the 110s to somewhere in the 80s. Not too shabby for one year’s time. The improvement, however, did take some humility. Going from the best in the world to a beginner is a feeling that Phelps isn’t used to.
“It’s brutal,” Phelps said. “I don’t understand how it can be that hard to hit this little tiny white ball and hit it straight every time. But it just doesn’t happen for me.”
Phelps usually picks up new sports immediately, but golf was a different story.
“When I was with Hank on the Haney Project for six months, we must have hit almost 20,000 balls, and I still have calluses and blisters and am taping up the hands almost every day,” Phelps said. “But those are the things for me to be able to really learn how to play this sport.”
Now Phelps feels confident about every club. Well, truth be told, every club except the driver. His athletic goal is modest. Phelps would like to become a low-handicap golfer.
“For me to do that it’s going to take a lot of time and it’s going to take a lot of frustration, but I’m going to stay with it,” Phelps said. “I just love being able to be outside.”
Being outside and enjoying a change of scenery is one of golf’s biggest draws for Phelps. Believe it or not, swimming laps can get a bit repetitious.
“If you replay a course, the same hole possibly could not even be able to played the same exact same way you played it before. I think that’s something that’s pretty neat about the sport, because for me, in a swimming pool, I saw a black line on the bottom and I saw like 78-degree water and lane lines. There’s really not much you can change,” Phelps said.
The crowds are easier to see out of the water, however, and there will be a different kind of nerves to contend with come Friday. Phelps has already gotten a taste of those nerves while playing in tournaments with thousands of spectators this summer.
“Going out there in front of thousands and thousands of people, I was so nervous I couldn’t put a tee in the ground,” Phelps said. “I had to take a 3 wood, crank the tee and put the ball on top so my hands weren’t shaking so much.”
But it was a good to get the nerves out of the way, and now the swimming champion feels ready to show the ACC crowd what he’s got on the golf course.
“Hank, he wanted me to play in it last year. I wasn’t ready for it last year,” Phelps said. “And after working together with him, finishing the show, I think he just feels like he has confidence. And they asked and I said, ‘yes, I would love to go to Tahoe.’ I’ve heard so many great stories about it.”
But don’t hold your breath on seeing Phelps slicing through the Lake Tahoe waters while he’s in town.
“I assume it’s probably going to be a little chilly. So it probably means I’m not going out there, but who knows?” Phelps said.
The only way Phelps is going in the water is if he hits his ball there on the notorious Hole 17.
“Should I bring the Speedo down?” Phelps joked.