Michael Jordan’s Influence: From Basketball Courts to Golf Courses

Written by Cameron Morfit


Michael Jordan retired in 2003 but he never really left, as if suspended in midair over popular culture. He became a majority investor in the Charlotte Hornets, formerly the Bobcats. (He sold it but retains a minority share.) He was the subject of the Netflix docuseries “The Last Dance.” He draws a reported $250 million annually from Nike’s Jordan Brand of footwear and apparel, a bonanza for the Swoosh and Jordan that is the subject of the Ben Affleck feature film “Air.”

Jordan, 60, no longer lives in Chicago, but The Spirit, a 12-foot bronze statue of Jordan going in for a dunk, will soar as usual at the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls, during this week’s BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, 30 miles south of the city. His presence will be felt at the second stop of the FedExCup Playoffs just as it is so often on the PGA TOUR, because while he remains part of the wider conversation, he’s become an especially potent force in golf.

Michael Jordan has been golfing since the 1980s when Davis Love III got him into the game while at the University of North Carolina. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

His trademark Air Jordans have been transformed into golf shoes worn by TOUR players like Keegan Bradley and Tony Finau. Jordan also designed the lux Grove XXIII (his trademark “23” in Roman numerals) near Jupiter, Florida; Keegan Bradley, Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are among its members. Safe to say, the global icon’s reach at the game’s upper echelon has grown significantly.

Fowler, whose victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic last month broke a four-year win drought, told PGATOUR.COM he has tried to take on some of Jordan’s renowned competitive edge.

Luke Donald said he borrowed an MJ mind trick to reach world No. 1.

Bradley cites perhaps the greatest motivator of all: They know he’s watching.

“I know he was such a hard worker, and he respects hard work,” said Bradley, a two-time winner this season who also counts the 2018 BMW among his six TOUR titles. “So, for me, it’s important to go to The Grove and put the work in and use the facility that he built us.

“I try to think,” continued Bradley, who’s an ambassador for Jordan Brand, “when I’m tired and want to go home, what would MJ do in this situation? And then he’s there, and I can talk to him. It’s really fun.”

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Bradley and others already had won major championships prior to joining the club. Koepka and Thomas have each won a PGA Championship since becoming members, while Johnson won the 2020 Masters.

“One of his goals,” Grove XXIII architect Bobby Weed said of Jordan, “is to have all four major championship trophies at the club, won by his members. I wouldn’t bet against it.”

The Posse does not dawdle.

Jordan likes to play a certain kind of golf. He might be part of a sixsome or a sevensome or an eightsome, with everyone in his own cart and listening to his own music. And playing very fast. No one is throwing the grass up into the air. The Posse, as his crew is called, moves fast.

This style of play wasn’t well-received at other clubs, so he built his own on a former citrus grove in Hobe Sound. He hired renowned architect Weed, whom he’d befriended at nearby Medalist Golf Club and who first had to first clear out a few cows before their collaboration began.

“Michael couldn’t have been better to work with,” Weed said. “He was involved, engaged, active. I set him up in a big off-road truck to survey everything. He was out there every week. At one point he put his arm around me and said, ‘You know. I could be anywhere in the world, and there’s no place I’d rather be than right here.’ Deep down he’s a great individual.

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“He also seemed to show up in a different car every time I saw him,” Weed continued. “He has an amazing car collection. Other times he’d arrive on one of his motorcycles.”

Grove XXIII opened around the time of the 2019 Super Bowl, and lately the club seems to be popping up everywhere. After a round at the Genesis Scottish Open, Thomas pulled from his pocket a handful of Grove XXIII tees. A bidder put up a reported $150,000 to play with retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady and Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh at Grove XXIII. Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney was spotted wearing a purple Grove XXIII polo.

“The pro shop does well,” Donald said with a smile.

In the middle of it all is Jordan, letting nothing escape his notice. When he wins, Bradley said, he has to scroll up on his phone; Jordan, an avowed golf nut since Davis Love III got him into the sport at the University of North Carolina in the 1980s, is always one of the first to fire off a text.

Michael Jordan with Keegan Bradley on the 1st tee at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

The Jordan factor is perhaps felt most via the chaotic matches at Grove XXIII. There are bets, side bets, presses. Jordan is there with his friends, everything a roiling mass of golf carts and cigar smoke and action. He gets 10 strokes against TOUR pros, and they have learned the hard way that without a fast start, it’s nearly impossible to win.

“He presses on the sixth tee,” said Fowler, “because he might stroke once in the first five holes, and for the most part any of the pros would be up at that point, so it’s pretty automatic that the press is coming on six tee because he strokes on, I think, six, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, and that’s like the gauntlet – you’re trying to hang on for dear life.

“He knows what he’s doing,” added Fowler, who admits he has never bested Jordan at Grove.

Considering Fowler has been a member since before it opened, that’s saying a lot. He’s lost count of how many times they’ve played together but doesn’t take it for granted; he loves seeing the wide-eyed expressions on his friends’ faces when he brings them to the course.

Meeting one of the most famous people on the planet can have that effect. Bradley said it was “jaw dropping” when Jordan spoke to members of the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup Team.

Michael Jordan with Jay Haas at the 2009 Presidents Cup. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

“I was awed for a few years, I think,” said Donald, who used to live in Chicago but now resides in South Florida, two doors down from Jordan. “Even now, I’m very good friends with him, but he has a presence. He’s sort of sports royalty, isn’t he?

“He always told me to break down things that seemed quite far away and hard to achieve and make them simpler,” Donald continued. “The way he put it was he knew he would need to average 32 points a game to win the scoring title, which seems like a lot, but if you look at it like you just need eight points per quarter, four field goals, it feels more manageable. When I was No. 1 in the world, I was good at that sort of thing, managing my practice.”

As for how to beat Jordan on the golf course, Donald said MJ tends to start slow, so it’s possible to win the first 18 and bow out of the second, when he’s at his best and doubles the bet.

The other savvy move is to be on his team. (Just ask Scottie Pippen.) That’s what happened to Justin Thomas, who caddied for Jordan at Harmony Landing C.C. in Goshen, Kentucky, when Jordan came to town annually for the Kentucky Derby (Justin’s father, Mike, was Harmony Landing’s head pro).

“He just kind of took a liking to me,” Thomas said. “We didn’t have caddies, but they wanted caddies and sometimes I would go with his group. One year he asked me to play. He knew I played golf, but he knew nothing about a 15-, 16-year-old junior golfer from Kentucky, so I grabbed my clubs, and he basically was like, ‘All right, I got Little Man. Who wants us?’”

What happened next would make a good story for Jordan’s pals, playing with a spindly kid who would win 15 times on the PGA TOUR, including two majors, by age 30.

In the moment, though, they were not thrilled.

“I made four birdies in seven holes and basically helped pay for my first car,” Thomas said. “We were teammates. There were a bunch of guys he still plays with; I remember Kenny Lofton was out there, Charles Oakley would come. There were a couple of other baseball guys, people he’d take to the Derby and play with. The other guys were not happy. They thought it was cute to start, that I was playing from their tees, but they didn’t think it was so cute afterward.

“We have a couple of pictures,” he continued. “MJ is just pissing himself laughing walking off the greens because I made a couple long putts and they’re so mad and he’s laughing so hard.”

Jordan is a good player in his own right. He got a sponsor exemption into the 1991 Western Amateur, and while he missed the 36-hole cut, one of his playing partners, eventual winner Phil Mickelson, said, “He makes a nice smooth swing.”

He also has a deadly short game.

“What always surprises me is his touch,” said McIlroy, “which for quite a big guy is quite impressive. He has great hands. Inside of 6 feet I’d take him against pretty much anyone.”

Added Bradley, “I’d say from 30 yards and in – his chipping is as good as a lot of pros, I think.”

A lot of playing partners say that one of Michael Jordan’s strengths on the golf course is his short game. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Jordan Spieth, who was named after the basketball legend – dad Shawn Spieth was a fan – was at his vacation place at Chileno Bay Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when he ran into Jordan in 2017. The NBA legend was there for an off-site with his Jordan Brand athletes and, true to form, wasted little time setting up a match with the 2015 PGA TOUR Player of the Year.

“He said they were playing the next day with some other people that I knew,” Spieth said. “It was me against one of these guys I didn’t know, and I gave him a certain number of shots, and (Jordan) was backing me. But there was also a group match; I mean, there was friendly fire everywhere. He hits it really nice, doesn’t miss many fairways.

“That was just fun,” Spieth added, “playing really fast, and playing a game. I lost the match to his friend, so I don’t know what he put on it or whatever, but it certainly wasn’t ideal for him.”

You get the feeling he could afford it. Jordan’s reach in elite-level golf extends from Florida to Texas, major winners to mini-tour pros. But it’s not limited to the pros. He’s inspired high-profile amateurs to try the game for themselves just to see what all the fuss was about.

“I give him a lot of credit for popularizing golf for other athletes,” said Adam Scott. “Kelly Slater got very into it, and now there’s like a small golf tour amongst the guys in the World Surf League. I might be drawing a long bow there, attributing it all to Jordan, but he and Tiger Woods did quite a lot to make the game cool for those guys and a lot of others in sport.”

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Like virtually anyone who has been in the game’s elite for any length of time, Scott has a Jordan story. It’s from about 10 years ago, the Monday after the old Western Open at Cog Hill, when he was asked by a friend who is a pro if he wanted to play with Jordan. The friend knew the pro at Jordan’s club in Chicago, and all four of them went out to play the closed course.

“I didn’t win our match; it felt like he was very crafty for his handicap,” Scott said. “And when I hit a bad or so-so shot, or he hit a good one, he got in my ear like you would in other sports but not so much golf. (Laughs) Lots of chirping. Was I star-struck? I had never met him, so I suppose I was a bit awed. The NBA in the 1980s and ’90s was big even in Australia, and I had a hoop outside. He’s one of the five biggest athletes of all time in any sport.

Scott smiled. “It felt like I’d been invited into a very exclusive club.”

Cameron Morfit is a Staff Writer for the PGA TOUR. He has covered rodeo, arm-wrestling, and snowmobile hill climb in addition to a lot of golf. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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