HAYWARD, Calif. — The good news for Golden State Warriors fans is that Steph Curry probably isn’t going to quit his day job.
The bad news for golf fans is that, despite an opening-round performance that exceeded expectations, it doesn’t look like he’ll be around this weekend to make a little money on the side.
In a Web.com debut marked by wild tee shots, a wizardly short game and boundless gallery goodwill, the Warriors star sharpshooter and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player treated spectators, and himself, to a gutsy four-over-par 74 in Thursday’s first round of the Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae, an otherwise low-wattage Web.com tour event that Curry transformed into a headline draw. By the end of the day, Curry’s opening score had left him tied for 142nd in a field of 156, 11 shots off the pace set by the leader, Nicholas Thompson.
He’ll need a Miller-at-Oakmont round on Friday to make the cut.
But never mind that.
“If you told me I was going to shoot 74 going into the first round, I’d take that all day every day, so I’m pretty happy with it,” Curry said. “Obviously, as a competitor, you feel like you can always play better, so hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”
There’s a good chance he’ll improve on today’s opening tee shot. Paired with Sam Ryder and Stephan Jaeger, the second- and third-ranked players on the Web.com Tour money list, Curry started his round on the par-4 10th hole, where he sent his drive on a hooking trajectory that called to mind those old commercials starring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Off the cart path. Through the gallery. Nothing but net. The ball wound up in the cup-holder of a golf cart driven by a tournament volunteer. Curry took a drop in the rough, barely advanced his next shot, then airmailed the green with his third. Only a deft chip for his fourth saved him from disaster. All things considered, a bogey on his first hole wasn’t bad. “As soon as they said my name on the first tee, that’s when I could barely feel my hands,” Curry said. “I had to try to take a deep breath and still there wasn’t anything I could do to prepare myself for that moment. But after the third or fourth hole, it was just golf and I just tried to hit some good shots.”
One of those good shots was a feathery wedge approach on the par-5 15th, which set up the first of Curry’s three birdies. After draining the putt, Curry shoulder-bumped his caddie, Jonnie West, in celebration: shades of the NBA on the Web.com tour.
Which, let’s be honest, was largely the point.
An avid golfer who picked up the game at the age of 12, Curry carries a 0.2 index. In basketball terms, that would make him a top pick on your neighborhood blacktop, but not even a water boy on an NBA squad.
Predictably, Curry’s selection as a sponsor’s exemption aroused some consternation on social media. That coveted spot, the argument went, could have gone to someone who needed it more.
The truth, of course, was that an event like this needed a guy like Curry.
And as play got underway on Thursday, the benefits of his presence were clear to see.
The throngs swarming the practice tee prior to Curry’s 8:55 a.m. PT start were larger than the crowds that attended last year’s final round of the Ellie Mae. The fashion tastes among the spectators leaned toward No. 30 Warriors jerseys and other outfits of Golden State blue and gold. Among those watching was 13-year-old Isaac Weinstein, a golf fan, sure, but a Curry fan foremost. He brought a hat for his idol to sign.
“The cool thing here is how close you get to him and how much of him you get to see,” Weinstein said. “At a basketball game, you’re probably not going to get that same kind of chance.”
What kind of chance Curry had in the tournament was another matter; Vegas had him as a 3,000 to 1 long shot to claim the title, and a 15 to 1 underdog to make the cut.
Curry himself had tempered expectations.
“I mean, obviously, I just want to have fun, play well,” he said. “I know how tough it is. I’m going to experience how tough it is when the pressure’s on.”
In the early goings, Curry struggled off the tee. But at least he was consistent. He kept missing left. His short game helped carry him along. So did the spectators, who huzzahed his every shot, and likely would have been happy with any ball that their man got airborne.
On the par-3 4th, after Curry had hit a middling iron to the center of the green and both of his playing partners had knocked it stiff, a man called out from the gallery, “It’s ok, Steph. They probably aren’t very good at basketball.”
Curry, though, is pretty darned good at golf, a trait he showed increasingly as the round wore on. He found more fairways. His putts tracked at Tour pro pace. Even in rough moments, he smiled and joked with the crowd, going about his business with the relaxed bearing of a man whose real job pays him $34 million a year.
Curry’s professional playing partners probably could teach him a thing or two about the golf swing. But the NBA star showed Thursday that they could learn from him about competitive resilience.
“I was impressed,” said Curry’s playing partner Ryder, who shot 75. “Just the way he hung in there. There were a couple of times during the round it could have gotten away.”
“Put it this way,” Ryder added, “I won my last outing by 8 shots. Today he beat me by a shot.”
A telling moment took place on the par-3 6th. Fresh off a frustrating double bogey (his only double of the day) Curry bounced back with a crisp 7-iron that spun to a stop 20 feet from the pin. As his ensuing birdie putt spilled toward its target and dropped into the cup on its final roll, Curry gave a fist pump and gestured toward his caddie, Jonnie West.
“Go get that!” he barked playfully, parroting Jordan Spieth at last month’s British Open.
Smiles from his playing partners. Guffaws from the gallery.
“I’ve got to take advantage of opportunities like that because I don’t get that many of them,” Curry joked afterwards. He’ll have another chance on Friday.
But the pressure is off.
As 155 other golfers are out trying to make a living, Curry will be having the time of his life.