From the Sept/Oct. issue of FORE Magazine
UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel is passionate about golf, even though he finds that it can be maddening in the extreme. HIs pleasure on the course is total, however, when he gets to play a round with any of his three sons.
By Peter Yoon
Sometimes, Rick Neuheisel wishes he had never heard of golf.
It’s the competitor in him, the UCLA football coach says, that can’t grasp the concept of a game that can’t be mastered.
Neuheisel has always made his living in football, first as a player and then as a coach, and his success is based largely on his never-say-die spirit. His whole career, he’ll tell you, he’s played the role of underdog yet somehow has always landed on top.
But with golf, things are different. Neuheisel, an SCGA member, carries a 3.7 Handicap Index and has broken 70 around 10 times, but the endless and futile pursuit of perfection associated with the game still drives him nuts.
“I love golf,” he said, “and I don’t know if it’s a curse or a wonderful deal. There are times I wish I had never learned about it because then think about all this extra time I would have and how much frustration I could have saved. But at the end of the day, the rewards are too great and it’s become too much of an addiction and a passion.”
The rewards come in many forms: Teeing up on a tropical course on vacation, shooting a career round at Pebble Beach just before the U.S. Open or making an ace in a charity tournament. Neuheisel has done all of those things, but these days, the greatest rewards come from playing late-afternoon nine-hole rounds with his teenage sons.
Jerry, 19, Jack, 17, and Joe, 14, have all caught the golfing bug from their dad, and they try to get out to play as often as they can. It’s not always easy with Neuheisel’s busy schedule. After time spent coaching and recruiting , there isn’t much left for much quality time with his family, so a few hours on the golf course can go a long way.
“It means more than anything,” Jerry Neuheisel said. “Usually we don’t see our dad that much other than a couple of months a year, so the only time we’d have to see him is when we went out and played golf together. It always turned into a big bonding experience where you get to catch up on what happened during the week and get to have a little fun with him.”
Like any foursome, they go out and yuck it up, play for a few quarters and talk about their swings and the shots they have made, but Neuheisel said it’s much more than that. He likened the experience to the recent Trace Adkins song “Just Fishin’,” about a father who takes his daughter fishing.
“She thinks they are just fishing, but he’s getting to know her and talk to her and spend all kinds of quality time with her,” Neuheisel said. “That’s kind of what I end up doing with my boys on the course. You talk about your backswing, you talk about correcting something. But really, we’re hanging out and it’s as good as it can be.”
Sometimes the moments are magical. Five years ago, when he was just 12, Jack made a hole-in-one while playing a round in Oregon. Then, two years ago, Joe, also 12 at the time, knocked in an ace at Bel-Air CC.
They still have a ways to go to catch Rick, however, who has made three aces in his life, including one at Troy Aikman’s charity tournament in Dallas.
As teenagers, the boys all have plenty of time to catch Pop in the ace department, but the time to play together seems to be dwindling as the boys grow older and develop their own lives. Jerry, who will be a quarterback at UCLA next season, and Jack, a tight end at Loyola High, are busy with football. Joe, who is about to start his freshman year at Loyola, has been playing a lot of golf in hopes of making the high school team.
And the friendliness of the games also seems to be dwindling. Sure, it’s a bonding experience, but the apples haven’t fallen too far from the tree in terms of competitiveness, so things can sometimes get tense. Joe, the youngest, is the most serious about the game and usually shoots in the low 80s. He and Rick usually rule the roost on the course, and that drives the other two crazy.
“I wish it wasn’t as competitive as it is, but the Neuheisels can’t have it any other way,” Jerry said. “Usually it ends up with somebody getting ticked off or somebody whining and just gets into this whole thing because nobody likes to lose, but by the last hole, it somehow always ends up being a good time.”
Neuheisel knows a thing or two about learning the game at a young age. You might say that even though he’s made a career out of football, he was born to play golf. He grew up in Tempe, Ariz., where his parents bought a house at Shalimar CC, a nine-hole, par-33 executive course.
When Rick was 7, his parents gave him a set of golf clubs for Christmas.
“I remember looking down under the tree and thinking those must be for my dad,” Neuheisel said. “But they were for me.”
His father took him out to play that day and Rick shot 73 for nine holes.
“I was hooked right then,” he said.
Years later, Neuheisel’s parents bought Shalimar and they still own it. Dick Neuheisel, Rick’s father, said that in 1984—just after Rick had finished at UCLA—a group of investors bought the course and intended to turn it into a residential development. When the surrounding neighbors balked and prevented the conversion, the investors sold to the Neuheisels.
“The course was important to our family and to many others,” Dick Neuheisel said. “Golf has always been an important part of the Neuheisel life.”
The course, which Jane Neuheisel describes as “a really nice nine-hole neighborhood course,” became the scene of many rounds in Rick’s early golfing career. He starred on the football, basketball and baseball teams in high school, but always found time to squeeze in weekly rounds with his dad at Shalimar.
“My wife always said that instead of mowing the yard, Rick was always off playing golf,” Dick said.
Rick remembers the course and still gets out to play it every once in a while when he visits his parents, but there is a bit of a mental block every time he steps onto his childhood course. You see, while Neuheisel has broken par at such courses as Pebble Beach, Bel-Air CC and Los Angeles CC, he’s never broken par at Shalimar.
“I shot a bunch of 33s, but I never was under par,” he said. “I’ve been under par at some pretty nice places, but never there. I’ve had my chances, but never got it done. Now that I bring it up, I may have to go get after it again.”
Neuheisel continued to dabble in golf during his time at UCLA, driving out to Valencia CC — then a public course — to play for $25. He even finished second in an intramural tournament while a student, but it was after he graduated and began playing for the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL that his game really took off.
Practice sessions with the Gunslingers ended around 3 p.m. and just about every afternoon Neuheisel and a few teammates would go out for afternoon rounds. During the tumultuous second season, the team had difficulty making payroll because of financial struggles and the players would often skip out of practice.
“We had a lot of free time to play,” Neuheisel said. “We would play ‘till it was dark. That’s when I really got into golf and eventually got pretty good at it. I already had the golf bug by then, but after that, it became an addiction.”
It’s an addiction that’s hard to curtail. He said he plays anywhere between 50 and 100 times a year, mostly in the spring and summer when the daylight lasts longer and he can squeeze in a round after work.
Things drop off considerably during football season. Practice and planning sessions take up most days and Saturdays are for games, so that leaves minimal time for golf.
“If we have a bye and there are two weeks before the next game, I might go play,” he said. “But rarely during the season.”
Every once in a while, however, Neuheisel will allow himself a round on a Sunday morning during the season “just to think about something else for a little while.”
“I remember some of those Sunday rounds from when I was younger,” Jerry Neuheisel said. “We’d get to see him smile again after the stress of the week, and we’d get out and have some fun on the golf course. The best day of the week was always Sunday after a win.”
And it’s quality moments like those that makes Neuheisel glad golf has a place in his life.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “The game will drive you crazy sometimes, but I’m not sure what my life would be without it.”