For some in the NBA bubble, golf is more than just a hobby — it’s become a necessary ritual

NBA Bubble

Garrett Temple, Kyle Lowry and Jason Tatum are just a few of the players grinding on their golf game down in Orlando.

Getty Images / / Matt Carney (Boston Celtics)

Click-clack, click-clack went the wingman’s Nikes. Garrett Temple of the Brooklyn Nets was so anxious for another round of golf in the NBA bubble, he had already laced up his spikes mid-interview and was rushing to the course. All he needed now was to finish talking golf so he could actually go play it.

Temple is undoubtedly one of the most avid golfers in the NBA bubble. During the three-week stretch before games restarted, he was playing 18 holes most days, even 36 on occasion. With three Disney courses and wide-open driving ranges at his disposal — not to mention plenty of downtime — it’s a golf nut’s fantasy. It’s also partly his own making.

“Being on the executive committee,” Temple says, “I probably learned a little earlier than anybody else that we were coming to Disney. … Andre Iguodala [of the Miami Heat] and myself wanted to make sure that golf had to be a part of the bubble.”

On the NBA Campus at Walt Disney World, there are scant offerings of outdoor activities, but there is golf. Eighteen holes, nine holes, 13 holes before a team meeting — whatever you want. Temple has been making the most of it, but he’s not alone. Countless players, coaches, security personnel and more from every team have, at the very least, taken a crack at this wildly humbling game. Some of them are running with it, buying their own sets of clubs and thinking about things like swing path. Others (like 76ers big man Kyle O’Quinn) are finding it much too infuriating. But for a core group of players like Temple, golf has become part of their bubble ritual.

Temple recently teed it up with Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry twice in the same week. Lowry took honors in the first match, by a single stroke. This week, they began a first-round playoff series against each other. Thus far, no plans have been made to cross enemy lines for some time on the fairways, but according to Temple, it’s being considered.

Lowry himself, with his six all-star appearances and 2019 championship run, might be the most high-profile golfer in the bubble. But then there’s Mike Conley from the Utah Jazz, one of the league’s veteran point guards, who sports a single-digit handicap. There’s his teammate, the young and spry Donovan Mitchell, working on his takeaway on the driving range. And both all-stars from the Boston Celtics, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.

Tatum picked up the game in May and is already consistently shooting in the 80s. “I’m addicted,” he told JJ Redick on a recent podcast. Walker barely played before arriving in Orlando, but a couple of rounds with Tatum got him hooked. He quickly bought his own set of clubs.

Likely no team has played more golf than the Miami Heat, and the aforementioned Iguodala is the main instigator. Iggy has repeatedly pulled his teammates out to the course, whether it’s Duncan Robinson, who played in high school and can shoot in the mid-80s, or Solomon Hill and Goran Dragic, who have dabbled enough to justify purchasing their own clubs.

“Just talking to Andre, the Warriors played a ton of golf,” Robinson says of Iguodala’s former team, led by golf-lover Steph Curry. “And he always gives me a hard time, because Andre’s always trying to go golfing. He always says, ‘Man, we were playing in between games of the Finals. And you’re telling me you won’t go for a seeding game?'”

Iguodala got Robinson and teammate Kelly Olynyk on the course just hours after their first game of the restart (a 125-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets). By day, they combined for 40 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, but as the sun set they were out chasing birdies. There’s Iggy dressed like a country club man, shirt tucked in, Nike golf hat on. Across the tee was Olynyk, rocking a cutoff tank top and athletic shorts. If it isn’t clear enough, the many shirtless range sessions serve as evidence: There is no dress code in the bubble. Just a lot of tall people teeing it up.

NBA Bubble
After opening their restarted season with a 20-point victory, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala and Duncan Robinson found some time for an evening round. Duncan Robinson

It’s certainly an abnormal view for Alex Forsyth and the team at Disney Sports, who are keen to keep up their end of the bubble bargain. At “The Happiest Place on Turf,” as they like to call it, Forsyth often plays the role called “King of Swing,” as one of two people who come even remotely close to players on the course. “We always hear six feet,” he says. “Well, we’re trying to make sure that everybody’s outside of 20 feet.” Forsyth preps the carts in a staging area (with two complimentary sleeves of balls for each round) and caters to any requests from the hooping guests. Often, there aren’t any.

Even though it’s “in the bubble,” the resort isn’t completely blocked off for the NBA. The league has purchased 90-minute blocks of tee times on each course each day, both in the morning and the afternoon, as well as an hour of empty tee times on each side to ensure the bubble’s sanctity. On a Tuesday, teams staying at, say, the Coronado Springs hotel, can play the Lake Buena Vista course. On Wednesday, they’ll have to change it up.

With practices, shootarounds and games galore, scheduling can get tight, but players simply tap through the special NBA Campus app to make reservations. The only thing missing is formal golf instruction. As the bubble shrinks and teams are sent home, that wrinkle might be added. In the meantime, there’s Rob Fodor.

Fodor, 59, is the first full-time shooting coach in Miami Heat history and unofficially their first director of golf instruction. As a former pro, Fodor is easily one of the best golfers in the bubble, even if he isn’t ready to admit it. (That title is likely a battle between him and Lakers shooting coach Mike Penberthy, a plus-3 handicap whose six rounds in August range between 69 and 74.) Fodor has battled an infection in his right middle finger which — in addition to his busy day job — has limited his on-course time. And besides, players come first in the bubble. If there is one tee time available, it’s going to a player before it goes to a coach. Those are the rules put in place by the league.

But Fodor is happy to fit in some golf whenever it works. He sort of just waits for the call. “It’s happened a few times where I’ll get a text that says, ‘The bus leaves in seven minutes.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ ‘Yeah, we’re going to play right now.’ Fodor has gotten out to play by himself occasionally, and has already carded a couple of effortless rounds in the 60s. As always, he feels his real purpose is player improvement.

NBA Bubble
Rob Fodor (left) has become a quasi swing instructor for Heat guard Goran Dragic. Miami Heat

That means working on the basics of the game with Dragic, who had never touched a club before July. Or tweaking the setup of a more experienced player like Meyers Leonard, whose custom clubs were four inches too long. “I maybe moved him a total of an inch and a quarter,” Fodor says. “I changed two angles and gave him a setup thought and boom, there he goes. That’s the cool thing about working with athletes. The question is: Can you remember that? So I tell everybody to write stuff down, but, you know, they never do.”

Like any group of golf buddies, Fodor’s insights have percolated throughout the Heat, and also down the driving range. While Fodor worked through a lesson with Dragic, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, a righty-shooter who swings lefty, leaned in for a little golf eavesdropping.

“Donovan was looking up, kind of paying attention, one stall over,” Fodor said. “So, he’s facing me, and I said, ‘You know, this is how Phil Mickelson learned. Phil Mickelson is right-handed. His dad played golf and [Phil] stood up there and played left-handed because all he did was imitate his dad.” Mitchell worked through a similar imitation process, and soon enough had swung all-out with a driver. He caught the ball clean at the end of the shaft, sending the clubhead flying across the driving range. “Clubs are not made to be hit there,” Fodor said, laughing.

Between Iguodala forcing them onto the course and a legit pro offering instruction, Heat players likely don’t know how good they have it. Poor Doug McDermott is a single-digit handicap desperate for a golf partner on the Indiana Pacers. McDermott spent much of the shutdown back in Omaha, living with his folks and playing multiple times a week at Shadow Ridge CC. But in the bubble, his first trip to the course came more as a chauffeur for newbies Victor Oladipo and T.J. McConnell. Three-and-a-half hours later, the group had finally finished nine holes.

“Honestly, all my teammates are terrible,” McDermott says. “Right after that happened, they even said, ‘We’re not coming with you again. You’re too good and we’re too bad. We’re going to do our own thing.’” So McDermott has tagged along with Temple and Lakers guard J.R. Smith (who has carded a 76 himself). Other times, McDermott will just go play by himself, looping around 18 holes in 2.5 hours or hitting a bucket of balls before the sun peaks.

McDermott rivals Temple and Iguodala as the bubble’s biggest golf junkies. The 28-year-old, who is still haunted by a rough showing at the state golf tournament more than a decade ago, spent the initial two days of quarantine hitting putts at the corners of chairs in his hotel room. Recently, he was gifted a PhiGolf simulator by Memphis Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver, and is desperate for the launch of PGA Tour 2k21, which comes out this week. By any means possible, scratch that golf itch. “If it weren’t for golf and golf tournaments being on,” he says, “I’d be struggling down here because that’s all I do all day.”

Recently, McDermott has been pining for a round with Lowry and Raptors rookie Matt Thomas, but their schedules haven’t matched up. That’s the best golf duo in the bubble. Thomas and Lowry teamed up with a Raptors staff member in a sixsome battle against Iguodala, Robinson and Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore. Three-on-three golf. The Raptors built a lead through 13 holes when the Heat had to scamper off for a team activity.

“[Kyle] and I in a two-on-two matchup — I don’t think we lose to anyone in the bubble,” Thomas says. During a normal NBA season, when golf cannot happen outdoors in Toronto, you might have to call his bluff. But Lowry, a 14-year veteran, already indoctrinated Thomas into Making the Most of Your Road Trip 101. On the Raptors’ annual West Coast trip, right before the shutdown, they managed rounds at TPC Scottsdale, Pebble Beach and Olympic Club in San Francisco. In Orlando, they’ve played with head coach Nick Nurse, which can’t hurt. He’s the man who dishes out the minutes.

Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry during an early morning round with Garrett Temple. Getty Images

The league’s gravitation toward golf, bubble or otherwise, is a topic worth exploring. Is there something between the two sports? Steph Curry — who has famously competed in pro golf events — would probably think so. So would the better-than-scratch shooting coaches who make their living in developing repeated, efficient motion.

“It’s the rhythm of the game,” Temple says. “The rhythm of the stroke is kind of like the rhythm of the jump shot. Putting is kind of like a free throw. Chipping is kind of like a floater. Your driver is kind of like a 3-point shot … even though it’s further, it’s still the same motion.”

“If you’re going to hang your head after a chunked 56 [degree wedge] around the green and not move on to the next shot, it’s going to affect your whole game,” McDermott says. “And I think the same goes with shooters. You’re going to miss 50% of your 3s and you’re still going to be one of the best shooters in the world. It’s all about moving on to the next shot in golf and basketball. I think that’s why shooters and basketball players love playing it, because it gives them a mental challenge.”

The mental challenge exists, as does the mental release. Troy Daniels, a career 39% 3-point shooter, is another player deeply connected to the game. But he’s as busy as any player in the bubble, running around with his camera and vlogging his experiences for all to see on YouTube. (He spared the world from clips of Jamal Murray, shirtless, hacking up giant pieces of turf.)

Golf definitely doesn’t come first for Daniels. He is “trying to figure out how I can make X-amount of dollars off the court as well.” So his focus is more on fashion — as evidenced by a recent GQ article — and he does photoshoots with other players, and back in his hotel room he’s streaming video game performances live on Twitch. He hadn’t played golf in at least a year prior to arriving in Orlando, but he had his clubs shipped there anyway. He calls the sport his getaway space.

“Golf to me is so peaceful,” Daniels says. “When I’m out there playing with some of the guys, it’s very fun. But it’s also peaceful. I can literally just go on about my business and just listen to nature. That’s very appealing to me.”

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Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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