He’s the fourth-best tennis player in the world, and he can beat you at golf
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Casper Ruud looks like he’s going to be sick.
It’s a warm August afternoon in New York, and Ruud — the fourth-best tennis player in the world — is too nervous to function. He paces around tensely, staring out at the practice area and back again into the arena. His heart rate has skyrocketed, and it will remain elevated for some time; long after he begins the first match of the first week of the U.S. Open.
The Big Ones will do that to you, and today is a Big One for Casper Ruud. He showed up early, worked in a full warmup, even left ample time for stretching, not that he needs much of it. Like many 23-year-old professional athletes, his body is in peak condition. He’s trim yet muscular, boyish in the way that many tennis players are. Today, his mind is equally ready. Last night, he spent hours watching film on today’s opponent, studying his rival’s nuances and tendencies.
It’s only Thursday. A long weekend lies ahead for young Casper. Soon, he’ll have to play tennis.
But not today. The source of our superstar’s anxiety is not tennis’ U.S. Open — where Ruud’s recent red-hot play has him entering with a legit shot at his first Grand Slam title — but a U.S. Open golf course. In just a few days, Ruud will chase his childhood dream in Flushing Meadows, but first, he’ll chase something else with 18 holes at Winged Foot.
“I’ve never played a course in that condition — a U.S. Open course,” he says later, his voice still warm with nostalgia. “I was so nervous. My heart rate was going crazy. I mean, the scenery and the conditioning and the grass is crisp and…”
He trails off.
“It was just perfect.”
Yes, tennis might be Casper Ruud’s sport, but make no mistake, golf is his passion.
Even to the untrained eye, Casper’s ability is self-evident.
By the time he’s reached the U.S. Open semifinals, Ruud’s game has already turned heads in New York. Thousands have poured into Arthur Ashe stadium on a glorious Friday afternoon to see him compete. Whispers about his possible surge to World No. 1 are now plastered on ESPN graphics.
“He’s elite,” Tennis Channel broadcaster Noah Eagle tells me. “In tennis, if you do one thing head and shoulders better than everybody else, you’re going to be in elite company. For Casper, that’s his forehand. His forehand is just — it’s ridiculous.”
Casper’s forehand is in fact, much more than ridiculous. It’s confounding. The movement is short and violent, but the aftereffects are almost cartoonish. The cords of his racket ripple when he makes contact. The ball redirects into space with the intentionality of a laser beam. Often, he’ll generate so much force with his arms that the rest of his body is dragged along for the ride, like a toddler clutching a 2-by-4.
“If you look at tennis, it’s kind of like golf, right? It’s all about constructing strengths,” Eagle says. “What’s made him so good in the last two years, really, is that he’s improved every other aspect of his game to the point that he can wait to get that forehand.”
“He’ll kill you.”
Ruud says his golf game and his tennis game have learned very little from one another, but look at his forehand and it’s hard not to disagree. His motion throughout the swing — his shoulders, hips, knees, feet, even his grip — bears a striking resemblance to his 7-iron. The difference, of course, being that Ruud’s sometimes misses with his 7-iron.
Earlier in the summer, Ruud’s forehand nearly carried him to his first major at the French Open, where he fell in the final to his childhood idol Rafa Nadal. At the U.S. Open, the forehand has Ruud on the brink again, cruising through the quarterfinals and into a surprisingly wide-open semifinal. By world ranking, he is the favorite to advance through his match with Russian Karen Khachanov and into the final. But Khachanov is the hot hand, entering on an extra day of rest after dispatching one of the tournament’s heavy favorites, Nick Kyrgios, in the quarters.
In tennis, something called a “break point” occurs when the serving player, who is usually at a heavy advantage, is on the brink of losing a game. In the quarterfinals, Khachanov wilted Kyrgios with an early break point. In the semis, Khachanov has Ruud on the ropes, too, forcing a break point in the second set. But Ruud doesn’t blink. Khachanov’s best hope at turning the match ends when a Ruud forehand sets up a jumping, backhand slam that handcuffs his opponent to the ground. By the time Ruud returns to earth, he’s seized back the momentum.
As he walks away from the net, he unleashes a quick, two-fisted celebration toward the rafters. The crowd roars with wonder.
Casper Ruud is, truthfully, a two-sport athlete. From a young age, his passions were tennis and golf. His father could never understand the latter.
Christian Ruud, himself a professional tennis player, only picked up golf once the family moved from their home country of Norway to Florida. As a 30-year-old retiree in the golf capital of the U.S., Christian fell hard for the sport, but maddeningly, his son’s ability quickly outpaced his own.
“I just enjoy the game,” Casper said. “I was around four or five years old at the time I started playing, so my dad would take me to the range. I think I was always coordinated, so I could hit the ball — not where I wanted all the time — but sort of in the right direction. I think that’s where it started.”
As fate (and genetics) would have it, Casper was prodigious at both sports. At the start of his teenage years, he briefly considered maximizing Florida’s year-round playing season and competing as a two-sport athlete.
But tennis is not a two-sport pursuit. In professional tennis, careers are short, which means the best players in the world must be fully committed by the time they’re teenagers. Casper felt compelled to follow his father’s path. “Plus,” he admits. “I was always a little better at tennis.” At just 13 years old, he dropped golf.
In the beginning, it was a good decision. He quickly ascended the junior ranks. By age 17, he’d turned pro. By 18, he was the top-ranked junior in the world. By 20, he’d earned entrance into tennis’ major championships.
But Casper missed golf. And, with his playing schedule growing more consistent, he began to have time for it again. He started watching golf on his off days. Before long, he was dreaming about tee times.
“Pretty much every chance I had a day off, I’d try to play,” he says. “But it’s not easy when you’re always traveling around.”
Ruud rarely traveled with his clubs, which meant finding a rental set any time he wished to play. Still, he was obsessed, sometimes driving 45 minutes in each direction in pursuit of a tee time.
By 2020, Ruud was peaking. On the court, he was beginning to show the promise that’d made him one of the world’s most celebrated junior players. Off of it, his other passion was flourishing. His swing was finally rounding into form, and he had plans to bring his clubs with him for the North American portion of the tennis season.
There was, however, a messaging problem. Casper was posting nearly as frequently from his official Instagram account about golf as he was about tennis.
Pitted between golf and tennis again, this time Casper chose golf. He became the first professional tennis player of record to start his own golf Instagram account.
From its inception, @casper_golfer was fairly standard fare for golf diehards. A short scroll through the account reveals a man with a very bad case of the golf bug. Posts include Ruud’s own “what’s in the bag,” a sampling of homemade trick shot videos, and snapshots from his favorite rounds.
“I saw a lot of golf content and I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “Maybe to explore new courses or watch videos of the pros. It’s tough to keep up because I’m playing a lot [of tennis], but I had big hopes for it. I wanted to have my own account just for golf.”
It didn’t take long for the account to attract the attention of a few thousand followers, many of whom were eager to offer Casper the thing he craved most: opportunities to play more golf.
Back at Winged Foot, Casper Ruud’s heart rate is finally dropping.
After a double on the 1st, he settled in with a lip-out par on the 2nd. Now, he stands on the tee box at the 3rd — a mammoth, 245-yard par-3 whose tiny, backstopped green is guarded by three massive bunkers — considering his options.
The smart play is probably to take a smooth swing at a 3-hybrid, ensuring the ball will be, at worst, pin-high. But the aggressive play is to make a mighty lash with a 4-iron, his self-professed weakest club, and hope for the best.
Given that he’s here at Winged Foot, and that his opportunities to play casual golf alongside his good friends and father are relatively few, Casper reaches for the 4-iron. He swings and, to his surprise, it’s a good one.
A really good one.
“It ended up a foot away from the cup. I almost made an ace,” he says, repeating himself with a sheepish grin. “So, the tap-in birdie helped the nerves.”
Casper would go on to shoot a five-over 77 at one of the hardest golf courses in the world. Four days later, he competed in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Like any true golfer, he is careful to point out that Winged Foot wasn’t close to U.S. Open toughness when he arrived. That his score would have been better if not for those two doubles. And, like any true golfer, he’s mostly glad to have gotten out.
“It was a great, great experience,” he said. “I hope I’m able to do it again.”
This is the irony of Casper’s life. He is unquestionably famous. He has made some $9 million in on-court earnings. He is better funded and better connected than almost any 23-year-old alive. Someday, he’ll have nothing but golf, but today, he has everything except it. In the same breath he accepted his invitation to play at Winged Foot, he was forced to turn down another at Shinnecock.
Eventually, Casper figures, he’ll reach all of the great courses within proximity of tennis’ biggest events. And, if he doesn’t hit them during his playing career, there’ll be plenty of time down the road.
“I have this dream in my mind to play the whole east coast one year,” Ruud said. “You know, starting down in Miami and going all the way up to Boston. And then the next year, maybe, playing the whole West Coast. And then the third year, playing all the mid-country courses. Of course, so many courses are private, so it’s not easy to get on, but it’s a good dream.”
Back home in Oslo, he watches the PGA Tour whenever he can. His favorite players are Justin Thomas and countryman Viktor Hovland. Most afternoons, he finds himself studying them — their movements, their swings — unable to turn off the competitive side of his brain.
He loves that about golf. The nerves. The internal battle. The unrelenting self-improvement. The pressure of finding yourself alone in the arena. The ability to suspend reality, if only for a few hours.
“Stepping onto the 1st tee knowing that you have 18 holes in front of you,” he says. “That, to me, is one of the best feelings in the world.”
It’s possible he’s not just talking about golf.
It’s the middle of September, two weeks after Winged Foot, and Casper Ruud looks … elated?
He’s just fallen in the U.S. Open finals to Carlos Alcaraz. His brilliant run in Queens has ended in defeat. For the second time this year, he’s lost in a grand slam final, missing his career’s ultimate goal by a razor-thin margin.
But if the loss is crushing him, he doesn’t look it. His head is held high, and his face bears none of the agony of defeat.
“Before this match we knew what was at stake,” he tells the crowd, undaunted. “I’m disappointed of course that it’s not me, but No. 2 is not too bad either. I will continue to chase for my first grand slam and the No. 1 ranking.”
The interview ends and the crowd serenades Casper for the final time. He waves back and, for just a moment, flashes the same sheepish grin.
Seventeen holes to go.