Ray Romano Q&A: The sitcom star explains the creative way he makes his solo rounds competitive

Ray Romano waves to fans on the sixth hole tee box during the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links, on February 9, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California.

Ray Romano says his life without golf would be even more neurotic.

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In the years since “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the Emmy-winning sitcom star and (literally) obsessive golfer has proven to be a remarkably fine and rangy actor. His surprise second act has included projects with Martin Scorsese (HBO’s “Vinyl” and Netflix’s “The Irishman”); a moving, late-series performance in NBC’s “Parenthood”; vivid voiceover work on the “Ice Age” films; and now, a nerdy turn as a NASA engineer in the new big-screen romcom “Fly Me to the Moon,” which hits theaters on Friday. Actually, in space at least, Romano would hit a golf ball a mile.

(This interview was first published in a condensed form in the July/August 2024 issue of GOLF Magazine.)

We’re going to talk golf, but up top I want to say that the work you’ve done since “Everybody Loves Raymond” has been really unexpected and inspiring. I hope it’s been rewarding for you.

Ya know, like any performer, you’re always wondering what’s next. But I can’t say I’m not happy with the way things are going. But I’m also a neurotic mess, so I can’t be happy too long.

You grew up in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York. Not a ton of golf in Queens, is there?

Ya know, we found it. Me and a coupla buddies — when we were, I wanna say, 16, 17 — we started in Flushing Meadows. It had a pitch-and-putt which cost, like, three, four dollars to play, and we would hop the fence. The longest hole was 90 yards and — I know it’s true because I’m very anal and I keep all my records and scores — my best round there was four under. But I’m stressing to you, I’m not saying that to be like, “See how good I was?” I sucked. We all sucked.

What made you want to play golf in the first place? Were you watching it on TV? Was it just kind of a knucklehead thing to do with your buddies?

I think we just knew about this pitch-and-putt in Flushing. I’m talking about the Seventies. I mean, I’m old! But that was where we went. And I never took a lesson. I never took a lesson until I came out to L.A., and that was my problem, you know? Because if you get into bad habits… I played ten years without taking a lesson, and that stuff — coming over the top, or whatever it is — is so ingrained in my head.

It’s still impossible to shake, even after a season of grinding on “The Hank Haney Project?”

Yes.

You still come back to the same swing.

Listen, right now I’m a 12 handicap. I fluctuate between a 12 and 15, and right now I’m at a 12.7. I was a 20-something handicap when I first came out here. When I played [the Pebble Beach pro-am] for the first year, I was at least a 22. So now I’m a 12 and it’s 40 years later. Every now and then my friend will videotape my swing, and I still see the very slightest sway. At the top of my swing, the hips go to the right. They just can’t stop. And I see a hitch at the top. It’s minute, but it’s still there.      

Tell me what a typical day is like for you in L.A. Do you have a regular tee time? Do you just wander over to Lakeside Country Club, where you’re a member?

It happened yesterday. I did a bit part in Sebastian Maniscalco’s show The Bookie, and I had one scene. We were done by 11. And whenever I have an opportunity where my wife thinks I’m working, and I can sneak in a round of golf, I do it. So I go to Lakeside. There’s no tee times at Lakeside — you don’t make one because there are no tee times. So I got out there, I was by myself, there was a fivesome ready to go off, and the starter told me, “If it’s just you, jump in front.”  So I jumped in front, started playing, and I do my little ritual where I put a number on the scorecard and I have to beat that number. It’s what I call a “mind bet,” which is the absolute worst thing a golfer can do. If Hank Haney heard this, he would kill me. I have a mind bet, and if I don’t beat that mind bet there are consequences, and they’re for real. Like, if I don’t beat the number, I can’t watch TV for two days. Or I can’t play golf for two days. And that’s 100-percent real. I’ve never reneged on one of my mind bets. My mind bet yesterday was 87, and I shot a 92. Lost the bet.

So what was your punishment?

It’s 48 hours — I can’t play golf, I can’t watch TV or read in bed. But with these mind bets I have escape clauses. If I make four pars in a row it’s an automatic win, so if I shoot 55 on the front and I know an 87 is out of the question, then I’m trying for four pars in a row. A birdie counts as two. Three pars in a row, the penalty gets cut in half, so instead of 48 hours it’s 24 hours if I don’t hit the number. Three pars in a row it gets cut in half! [Laughs]

Gotta ask: Has this OCD of yours ever been officially diagnosed?

Just by myself, but there’s no question. There’s other stuff I won’t tell you about. It’s not debilitating, but definitely I’m very anal and I’m OCD. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to anybody who’s played with me, but it can be annoying because I play PGA rules to the T. There’s no gimmes ever. And out of bounds, you don’t find it, go back to the tee and hit it again. It can be a little bit…. If you know me, you know me. If you just met me and want to speed up the round, you may be annoyed.

Who are some of the regulars you play with at Lakeside, and can any of them whup soap star Jack Wagner?

Oh, no celebrity can whup Jack Wagner. Not that I know of, except for maybe sports guys. But if you’re talking about the entertainment world, I can’t, I can’t — maybe Kenny G, but Kenny G can’t do it cuz he doesn’t have the distance. I don’t think anybody can. As for who I play with, it’s just friends that you wouldn’t know, and my kids. But I don’t have a usual foursome, where these guys do money games. Most of the time I’m trying to get in and out fast, because my life is so busy. It’s easier now because my kids are grown, but back in the day when my wife — it was the last thing she wanted to hear: “Oh, by the way, I’m gonna take five more hours and go golf.”

Ray Romano
The hilarious reason why Ray Romano always calls Hank Haney on the 18th tee
By: Jessica Marksbury

You’re 66. Let’s talk about the current state of your game. Which of these Ray Romano TV titles best describes it: “Get Shorty,” “Men of a Certain Age” or “Bupkis?”

[Laughs] First of all, what is “Bupkis?” Oh, that’s the Pete Davidson series, right! I would say it’s gotta be “Men of a Certain Age.” It’s not “Get Shorty” because, believe it or not, I haven’t lost much distance yet.

Even at 66.

Yeah, it’s weird. I’d say maybe I’ve lost ten yards, but when I hit my drive — I mean, really connect — it’s still at least 280.

Your new movie, “Fly Me to the Moon,” is set during the late Sixties Apollo era. Do you remember when astronaut Alan Shepard hit a couple of golf balls on the moon?

I mean, I know he did it, yeah. What happened?

Do you have any idea how far the balls traveled?

Do we know how far they traveled?

We actually do.

What did he hit, a 5-iron?

He hit a 6-iron one-handed while wearing an enormous space suit.

Yeah, but what kind of a lie did he have? [Laughter] How far did it go — I don’t know, 500 yards?

He hit two. Chunked the first one. It went 24 yards.

Hmm.

Just a couple of years ago they found the second one using high-tech imaging. It traveled 40 yards.

How many? Forty?

Some NASA nerd estimated that if a pro golfer with a ball speed of 186 mph hit his pitching wedge on the moon, the ball would travel 2.62 miles and stay airborne for a minute. What’s the carry on your pitching wedge?

If I get crazy on it,130 to 135 yards. Would I get a mile out of that on the moon? Am I downwind?

Back in the Raymond days, when you were minting millions for CBS, you got to play Augusta National repeatedly. Would any of your shots have earned you a “Yes, sir!” from Verne Lundquist?

I don’t remember particular shots, but I know that in one round I only parred two holes: 1 and 18. In the five years I played there, we played the same tees and pins as Sunday at the Masters, and my goal was to break 100. We’re talkin’ about 7,200 yards, and we’re talkin’ about me being a hacker. And I never did it. Closest I got, I think, was a 101. I don’t remember individual shots, but I do remember — and this is not a joke — six-putting a green. I think it was the second par 3 on the front. And I remember the ball going up the hill, back down the hill, up the hill, back down the hill.

In the Netflix movie “The Irishman,” you and Joe Pesci played mobbed-up cousins. Is there any relation between the way you and Joe play golf?

He’s a member of Lakeside too, and like I told you, sometimes I go out on a whim, just me, to get in 18 holes before my wife finds out. I have to play the 18th hole, of course, otherwise my mind bet isn’t legitimate. But I bounce around. If I run into a foursome, I pass ’em. “Let me skip these two holes, then I’ll come back and play ’em.” Joe does the same thing. I see Joe out there in his cart by himself, going to this hole, going to that hole. He’s scramblin’. That would be the similarity.

The Irishman” was a Scorsese flick. DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci. You played an attorney for the Teamsters. Do you sorta wish your character got whacked?

[Laughs loudly] You mean, like, as a badge of honor?

You know, for your reel.

But then I couldn’t do the sequel! No, no, no, I was nervous [working with those guys]. I thought I was gonna get whacked every day on that set. It was surreal.

Back in 2010, when you and your 15 handicap starred on “The Hank Haney Project,” we saw your wife Anna take a few golf lessons. What’s your suggestion for teeing it up with a spouse?

You know, it didn’t stick, those lessons. I don’t know if you saw that episode, but the Haney guys gave my wife lessons on the sly. They had secretly given her lessons for two or three weeks, then she said to me, “Now I can play with you!” Blah, blah, blah. So we went out and played a coupla holes, and I looked at the guys and I said, “This is okay, but if you teach her how to play poker I’m gonna kill every one of ya.”

The last question is a fill in the blank: Without golf, Ray Romano would be _________.

[Long pause] Um, I wanna say…even more neurotic, because I’m neurotic even though there is golf. But golf is a little bit of a getaway, an escape. For a while, it can occupy my mind without any of the other crazy s—. Although the game itself does drive you crazy.

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John McAlley

Golf.com Contributor

McAlley is the executive editor of GOLF Magazine. He began writing about golf when he was the executive editor of Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine. That led to a marketing gig with Ashworth Golf, where he wrote about luxe golf experiences from coast to coast. His resume includes staff positions at Entertainment WeeklyInStyle and Harper’s Bazaar, and a five-year stint at National Public Radio. His writing has appeared in GQRolling Stone and Spin, among other publications. He has been with GOLF since 2015.