Hockey players from beer leagues to the NHL seem to love golf. It’s as if golf is the one hobby hockey players have in common outside the rink. The relationship between the two games probably goes back to the very beginnings of hockey. It’s not hard to imagine hockey players 100 years ago turning to the links for offseason fun with their hockey mates.
Many NHLers are scratch golfers, or were in days gone by. Grant Fuhr and Brett Hull are two who come to mind. And a few golfers have been good hockey players including Mike Weir who won the Masters in 2003. Jerry Kelly, who now plays on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour and the PGA Tour Champions, went to the University of Hartford on a hockey scholarship while Allen Doyle, who played on the PGA Tour, the Nike Tour and the Champions Tour went to the University of Vermont on one, too. (from, Lorne Rubenstein, “Hockey on golf theory sticks out,” The Globe and Mail, 31/10/2001)
A lot has been written about what explains the close relationship between hockey and golf. Even more has been written about the exploits of pro-hockey players on the fairway. Let’s take a look at why hockey players love golf, why they’re good at it and who are among the NHL’s best golfers.
Why NHL Players Love Golf
It’s hard to injure yourself playing golf, at least when you’re young. For well-heeled hockey players, the game is played at exclusive clubs away from maddening crowds and autograph seekers. Taken together, it’s easy to see why hockey players looking for a low-risk sporting escape from the high pressure world of hockey would turn to golf.
Let’s be honest, there is a social aspect of the game that draws hockey players into golf. There’s nothing like a beer or two with golfing buddies at the end of a round where the conversation turns to what would have, could have and should have happened on the course with plenty of trash talk exchanged. It’s like the hockey dressing room and it’s as true for beer leaguers as it is for NHLers.
In hockey, nothing is more important than the team. No matter what you did on the ice, it’s never bigger than the team and you needed the team to do it. Golf gives hockey players an opportunity to take a break from that and focus on themselves in an enjoyable and challenging sport.
Even so, I believe there’s more at play. I met Frank Mahovlich and Dion Phaneuf on a golf course years ago and saw the pleasure in their faces as they teed up to hit a drive. You can also hear the affection for the game in the voices of NHL players talking about their handicaps in a recently produced NHL video.
Like all athletes, hockey players have a competitive streak a mile wide. There’s nothing like golf as an outlet for the competitive fires that burn deep inside the hearts of professional hockey players. It’s an individual sport and your score at the end of a round is all on you. There’s no hiding from it. There are no excuses. It’s the ultimate in accountability.
Perhaps Tom Coyne put it best in his 2001 novel, “A Gentleman’s Game,” trying to portray those with golf in their veins. His novel’s protagonist, trying to explain to his mother why his father loved golf so much said, “I couldn’t explain to my mother, the golf widow, why accountants wanted to be heroes, to prove themselves, to win and lose and play. I couldn’t make her understand that there was never just one hole, but another and then more, tomorrow and next week, that it was the pursuit of worth and perfection and purity, always just one swing away for those of us with golf in our blood. Golf led you on, down the course, no promises, breaking your heart. It was simple, and it was profound, and it was the illusion that there was always another chance to play the hero…”
It seems to me that most hockey players spend their careers in a similar pursuit — that of the Stanley Cup. Most will never get a chance to hoist it over their head, but the point of it all is the pursuit of it, the fight to win it. It’s why golf draws hockey players in.
Why NHL Hockey Players are Good at Golf
Explanations as to why many NHLers tend to be good golfers are plentiful. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that they are athletes. The theory goes that they would probably do well in any sport at which they tried their hand.
Many say a golf swing and a hockey slap shot are very similar, giving hockey players a natural advantage at picking up the basics of a golf swing. I find that a stretch. In fact, most golf pros would discourage a student from thinking that way, pointing out that a golf swing involves a smooth rotation around a swing plane with follow through to make a complete arc. Golfers swing through the ball rather than focussing on pounding it as hockey players do with a puck when taking a slap shot.
In the United States during Weir’s career it was common for golf analysts to theorize that he was an excellent golfer because he played a lot of hockey in his native Canada and mastered the art of the slap shot. Weir doesn’t really buy the theory — he points out that most Canadian kids play hockey but a vanishingly small percentage reach the PGA Tour.
Not only that, but the slap shot is a dying art in the NHL and hockey generally. Estimates vary, but now only about 10% of shots in the NHL are slap shots and even a smaller proportion are stationary slap shots, which most resemble a golf swing with respect to weight transfer and use of the body’s big muscles.
As an aside, the only connection between shooting in hockey and golf that I’ve come across is the relatively high percentage of Canadian golfers who are left handed. That is often attributed to hockey where the ratio of left to right hand shots in the NHL is almost 2 to 1.
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While the skill that hockey players find most transferable to golf is not the slap shot, there are plenty of others. The obvious is hand-eye coordination learned through puck control and shooting. Golf requires flexibility and mobility, something hockey players have in abundance.
Perhaps the most valuable skill hockey players possess that helps them become good golfers is mental discipline. As anyone knows who has played golf, the game requires concentration and the ability to remain composed when things are not going well. Similarly, in every game they play, hockey players endure trash talk and dirty play from opponents, booing from spectators and physical punishment. Yet through it all they must maintain their composure and keep their head in the game. That serves them well in golf, a game that, in my opinion, is as much a mental as a physical challenge.
Who are the NHL’s Best Golfers?
Looking back on Hall of Fame members, Bobby Orr, Joe Sackic, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Grant Fuhr stand out as top calibre golfers.
Orr has a handicap of around eight (not bad for a 75-year-old) and is a member of the prestigious Jupiter Hills club in Florida. Sakic has a handicap of two and won $1 million in prize money at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. He even scored a hole-in-one there.
Fuhr is perhaps the most accomplished Hockey Hall of Fame member, having nearly qualified for a spot on the Canadian PGA tour in 2004. He even has his own PGA stats page. He’s a scratch golfer and is the Director of Golf at Desert Dunes in Palm Springs. He competes every year at the Lake Tahoe American Century Championship.
While Fuhr has never won that tournament, Lemieux did in 1988. He was the first NHL player to win the tournament. His handicap is reported to be below one. Yet that doesn’t measure up to Hull’s plus-0.4 handicap. The former St. Louis Blues great at one time played in a US Open qualifying tournament.
Gretzky has a respectable 10 handicap. He has played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am numerous times, no doubt turning to his pal Weir and son-in-law and another Masters winner Dustin Johnson for tips.
Being a superstar doesn’t necessarily translate into being a top golfer. Take for example Leon Draisitl. When asked about his handicap, he grimaced and replied, “Oh God. I don’t even know if there’s a score for my handicap to be honest. Its high, very high.”
As for today’s best NHLers on the links, the Washington Capitals’ Anthony Mantha is regarded as top dog. At least that’s according to Golf Digest, which credits him with a striking plus-3.2 handicap. (from, Cliff Schrock, “The Top Athlete Golfers”, Golf Digest, 31/01/2020)
With a 6.1 handicap, according to Golf Digest, the Capitals’ T.J. Oshie launched himself into golf immortality after draining a long putt at the American Century Championship while wearing a beer helmet. It wasn’t clear whether he was drinking beer when he began the downstroke on the putt.
The Dallas Stars seem to have a lock on the top of the leaderboard among NHL golfers with centreman Joe Pavelski and goalie Jake Oettinger widely recognized as being among the best golfers in the league by a number of NHLers interviewed on the question. So, too, were the Ottawa Senators’ Claude Giroux and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers.
The marriage between golf and hockey is a long and happy one. Golf is the offseason game that has captured the imagination of hockey players for generations and there’s not much on the horizon that seems likely to change that.
In fact, golf looks likely to become even more deeply intertwined with hockey now that the league added the Chipotle NHL Pitch ‘n Puck to its annual All-Star Skills Competition where players combine their hockey and golf skills on a par-4 golf hole featuring an island green. The NHL is now the second major sports league to add golf to their All-Star Skills Competition.