By Bob Buttitta
During his 17-year career in the National Hockey League, Marty McSorley was considered one of the game’s toughest players, a guy who never backed down from a challenge. What McSorley lacked in natural talent he more than made up for with a phenomenal work ethic and an uncompromising competitive spirit. His willingness to outwork his competition allowed McSorley to scale to heights as a hockey player that most, even perhaps his own family, never believed were possible.
After retiring from the game in 2000, McSorley searched for an outlet for his competitive juices. Like many of his NHL colleagues, the 46-year-old McSorley discovered that golf helps fill that void. “At hockey practice you’re always in some competition, like trying to beat the goaltender or see how many times you can hit the cross bar or post,” McSorley says. “Being retired, you miss that competition and camaraderie. There is a void there.
“For hockey players, there’s nothing like that competition on the ice, but for us retired guys, golf can provide some of it in a relaxed, respectful and skill-oriented environment.”
While he currently plays to an 11.7 index, the former King only got serious about the game about four years ago. Growing up on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario, a place where the temperature seldom climbs above 40 degrees for a good portion of the year, McSorley hardly even knew what golf was, never mind having any interest in playing the sport. No, like most Canadian boys, McSorley lived and breathed hockey. And thanks to a competitive drive that forced him to work harder than most, and his willingness to do whatever was necessary to help his team, including being an enforcer, the kid from Cayuga eventually landed in the NHL, where he spent 17 seasons and won two Stanley Cups as a member of the Edmonton Oilers.
It was during his early years in the NHL where McSorley got his first taste of golf. Each summer, McSorley received countless invitations to play in charity golf events. “One summer I got more than 150 invitations,” McSorley remembers. “They were primarily scramble events, so I was able to go, usually contribute a few good shots and help raise money for a good cause.”
For much of his NHL career, McSorley served as Wayne Gretzky’s personal protector on the ice, starting with the Oilers. They were both part of the biggest trade in NHL history, one that brought Gretzky and McSorley to the Los Angeles Kings prior to the 1988 season.
Coming to the sunshine of Southern California escalated McSorley’s interest in golf, as did enjoying it with a group of players who excelled at the game. While Gretzky has talked about the golf talent among his teammates in Edmonton, McSorley believes the best group of golfing hockey players he played with were the Kings in the early 1990s. “During those days we had guys like Danny Quinn, who won the celebrity golf event in Lake Tahoe, and Robb Stauber, who was close to being scratch,” McSorley says. “Most hockey players will put a good clubhead on the ball. It’s getting the clubhead back square at impact where a lot of us struggle.”
While McSorley always enjoyed playing, it wasn’t until he and his wife Leanne, a volleyball player herself, decided to put down some permanent roots in Hermosa Beach that he got serious about golf. Prior to that, McSorley had spent much of his time on the road while working as a head coach in the American Hockey League, making it difficult to devote the kind of time needed for McSorley to improve his game.
When he and his wife decided to settle in Southern California, however, McSorley joined Rolling Hills Country Club, and over the last four years he has spent a good amount of time at the club working on his game. The work ethic that drives McSorley to the golf course each day can be traced to his hockey roots.
When McSorley was trying to break into professional hockey in the early 1980s, his biggest asset was his willingness to keep pushing to improve his skills. After failing to land a spot with the Belleville Bulls in 1980, McSorley went to the school board and asked for permission to use the gym at the local high school. McSorley spent countless hours in the gym, working to get stronger. The extra work allowed him to close the talent gap between himself and other players on the Belleville team, and the following season, he earned a spot on the roster.
When he reached the NHL, McSorley didn’t stop working. When he was traded to the Oilers in 1985, he didn’t get much ice time because the Oilers were among the most talented teams in NHL history. So after practice, and even after games, McSorley would skate at one of the community rinks and play with all the college kids.
“Guys like Marty, those are the guys people should look up to,” Gretzky told Sports Illustrated. “Guys not overly talented, but guys who will work every day.”
“As a young player with the Oilers, I was smart enough to watch talented veterans like Gretzky, Yari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier,” McSorley says. “I followed their leads with regard to preparation and how to approach the game.”
As he works to improve his golf game, McSorley is taking the same approach. Whenever he’s around an accomplished player or golf instructor, McSorley is like a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he can in order to perfect his own game.
Last month, McSorley spent the day at Rolling Hills Country Club. His “teachers” that day were Asian Tour veteran Ted Oh and Canadian Tour player Daniel Im. Both Oh and Im are going through Q-School this year in an attempt to earn a spot on the PGA Tour. In fact, the two advanced through the first stage of Q-School in late October; Oh was a medalist at 20 under for four days, while Im tied for 20th at 11 under.
“One of the great things about golf is having a handicap system that allows someone like me to come out and compete at a high level against guys like this [Oh and Im], and do it on a level playing field,” McSorley says. “Being with these guys forces me to try and raise the level of my game.”
Both regulars at Rolling Hills, McSorley and Oh have played together a few times. Oh said every time he is around the former King, he finds it rewarding. “He is a very successful man and there is a reason for that success, so I try to gain as much knowledge from him as possible,” Oh said. “Last time we played he gave me a tip about how to beat jet lag, and it really helped me a lot. He’s just a really friendly and helpful guy. And his game keeps getting better too.”
For this round, McSorley teamed with Oh to compete against Im and his friend, a gentleman named Alan. As he drove over to the first tee, McSorley was already brimming with excitement at the chance to see how his game stacked up against professionals like Oh and Im. But always the team player, McSorley realized that if he and his teammate were going to have success this day, he must do his part and beat Alan.
McSorley’s less than spectacular bunker shot on the first hole caused the McSorley-Oh team to push on the first hole instead of winning it. As the four men rolled up the second fairway, McSorley yelled to Oh, “Don’t worry Ted, I’ve got my guy.”
Over the next four-plus hours, McSorley was always aware of where “his man” was and what score he needed to post in order to win his individual battle on each hole. “I love being part of a team and doing what I can do to help my team be successful. It’s who I am,” McSorley says. “In hockey you learn to deal with adversity and that helps with golf. When you start out with a bad hole like I did today, I’m not going to let it affect me. I know I’m going to do some things to help my team at some point.”
McSorley had hip replacement surgery in June, but four days later he was in his physical therapist’s office getting the toxins ground out. Within four weeks of surgery he was playing in a volleyball event. He said his hip had grown progressively worse since his early 30s, so having the ability to again twist and turn with full motion is something he feels will greatly aid his golf game.
As a retired professional athlete, McSorley says he loves the environment that golf provides him. Since most people who come out to play are sports-minded, they are respectful of what McSorley accomplished as a player.
“It’s a great environment for a retired player to be in,” McSorley says. “It’s relaxed and friendly. The expectations from most people I play with are that I’m going to play decent, but they don’t expect me to be great.” In fact, most times it’s McSorley who puts too much pressure on himself to perform on the golf course like he did on skates.
His play on the third hole this day is a prime example of his self-inflicted pressure. Facing a challenging chip shot, McSorley has two options: play safe, chip to the middle of the green and most likely two-putt for par, or go right at the stick, a high-risk, high-reward shot.
Ever the competitor, McSorley goes for it. His chip goes long and over the green, from where he eventually makes double-bogey and costs his team the hole. “I sometimes forget I have a golf club in my hands and not a hockey stick, and that’s when I try to do too much,” McSorley admits. “That was a case of being too competitive and not accepting that while there was a small chance I might be able to pull off the shot, I would probably be better served making the safer shot.”
After acknowledging the mistake, McSorley lets it go. He keeps grinding, while remaining confident he will make some shots to help his team. During his career, McSorley said there were countless times when he went out for warm ups or even the first period and just had nothing in the tank. But he kept grinding and found a way by the end of the game to help his team. “Those are games I am most proud of, and that ability to grind and keep fighting really helps me on the golf course. In hockey you can’t have a lot of success without mental toughness, and this game is the same way.”
McSorley keeps swinging and good things happen. On the par-3 sixth hole, he is the only one in the group to make par. As the match moves along, McSorley consistently beats his man, helping his team’s cause. With three holes left, he and Oh have victory sewed up. Not wanting to play the final three holes without some competition, McSorley asks Im if he would like to play the final three holes head to head, with a small wager on the line. All he asks of the pro golfer is one stroke.
Heading into the par-4 18th, the two men have each won a hole. McSorley hits a big drive and then lands his approach shot 15 feet from the hole. Im is also on in two, and has a birdie putt as well. As he prepares for his birdie attempt, Oh points out to McSorley where he needs to aim his putt to simply two-putt. He points to a spot with a lot more break, but it is where he needs to aim if he wants to make the putt.
For a competitor like McSorley the answer is easy. He takes aim at the spot Oh shows him, rolling a perfect putt that gets to the hole, hesitates for a moment, then falls into the cup for his birdie and all the money. The smile on McSorley’s face is evidence of how much the moment means.
“It’s not like winning the Stanley Cup, but it’s pretty darn good,” McSorley says as he walks off.
Marty McSorley runs his own business, where he arranges corporate and group golf outings with pro athletes. If interested, call (310) 977-2010.