Q-and-A with Sugar Ray Leonard: Why he’s not ready to throw in the towel on his golf game

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Photo by Golf Channel

Sugar Ray Leonard’s golf game could use a little punching up.

So you’ve got to hand it to teaching guru Hank Haney, who right away pointed out to the boxing hall of famer that he wasn’t using his hands enough to get more power out of his swing.

“Can you believe no one ever told me that?” Leonard said on the first episode of Golf Channel’s “The Haney Project,” where the 55-year-old with a membership to Riviera Country Club is one of four star pupils for this installment of the series.

Here’s someone who has been smacking the Titleist around the yard for more than 20 years – starting it at the tail end of his fight career as something to do since he wasn’t in the gym anymore.

Leonard, living with his wife and teenage daughter in the Pacific Palisades, knows about TV reality shows, having once produced “The Contender” boxing series and competed on “Dancing With The Stars.” He explains more why he would subject himself this genre:

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Q: On the first episode, you’re playing over at El Caballero in Tarzana. Is that your favorite spot to go?

A: You know, it doesn’t make a difference where I play. I’ve been at Riviera since I snuck in there in ’93. I like Sherwood (Country Club in Thousand Oaks) and I used to play at lot over at Shadow Creek in Simi Valley. I’ve been to Malibu (Country Club) a couple of times and lost a lot of money. I don’t have a lot of fond memories of that place. I guess it doesn’t matter because I don’t play that good. So what’s your handicap?

Q: Assuming I get out there more than once a month, I could tell you it was an 18, but it’s closer to a 25 or 30.

A: You’re like me, then. I can’t get out there every day. It’s so sporadic. I could play once a month, once every three months. My wife and I used to play every day. It just depends.

Q: Are you a morning golfer or would you rather play later in the day?

A: I prefer the afternoons. Although I am really a morning person, I’d rather play when I want. Plus, it’s a little cheaper when you’re dealing with the twilight rates, right? When you’re there over at Pelican Hill or Monarch off Dana Point when the sun’s going down. How great is that?

Q: From what we’ve seen on the show, golf seems to be something you battle with more in your head than with your body. How do you work on that?

A: It’s totally in my head. I don’t know. But that’s what I specialized on when I was boxing. I used my head. That’s how I’m wired. With golf, there’s way too many factors. Your posture, your arms, head turn . . . I just read too many magazines with tips and things, and it kills me. Also, I’m not sure what you call it, but I see those infomercials that say they can lower your score by five strokes – and I buy the damn things . . .

Q: I think that’s called being a sucker. You got sucker punched.

A: That’s the right word for it. You think a little adjustment here or there is going to make all the difference.

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Q: And then you start listening to your friends tell you what to do while you’re on the course . . .

A: I go crazy when they do that. Especially when I’m playing better than they are. I’ve already had quite a few lessons. But to me the game is so much of a mental thing.

Q: Sounds like you gotta stop listening to the voices in your head and let your natural athletic abilities take over.

A: That’s what Hank is trying to tell me. He’s got me swinging a club 100 times a day. Just to feel it, get the motion down, the muscle memory. You can be a fanatic about all that stuff. But what I’ve found in my game is I really can visualize things before they happen. If I’m on a par 3, and there’s water in front of me, it’ll get into my head that I’m going to hit it in the water. And that’s where it goes.

Q: At least there’s no water at Riviera.

A: Just the kikuyu and that trap in the middle of the sixth green.

Q: What lured you to the golf course in the first place?

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A: It was after the (Marvelous Marvin) Hagler fight (in 1987, which Leonard won in a split decision) and I was just needed something to stay busy. (Singer) Johnny Gill, a dear friend, got me out there and I didn’t understand any of it. I went out and bought a ton of stuff – a nice expensive bag, all these shirts. I also got an ascot . . .

Q: No.

A: But it was so cool. And I had this little hat. I thought I looked good. But I didn’t play good. It was crazy. I’d go out there and shoot 120. But I was looking good doing it. I wish I’d taken a picture of that. That was long before cellphone cameras. Probably a good thing.

Q: You play once and awhile with Oscar de la Hoya. How do your games compare? Can you learn anything from shadow boxing with his golf swing?

A: He’s so . . . it’s like he’s in the penthouse and I’m still way down below. I can’t watch him, first, because he’s a southpaw. But he’s one of the guys I want to beat out there. Him, and Samuel Jackson, Kenny G. I get out there with Johnny Mathis at Riviera and he’s so good, he just hits it straight. He’s never out of bounds. I’m trying to be a real student of the game and take it all in.

Q: Maybe you find your own game and play it instead of listening to your friends.

A: I know. But it all depends on how they tell you. First of all, I tell them to shut up. They’ll say, ‘Ray, take it back, do this, do that.’ But then, I’m hitting it farther than you are.

Q: Maybe anyone who gives you advice is intimidated?

A: I’m not intimidating at all on the course. I look so serene and peaceful. Especially when the weather’s so nice.

Q: I read an interview with you recently where you said mentally and spiritually you’re in a good place now. Does golf help with that?

A: Oh, yeah. I really am. This game, for me, is such therapy. It takes me away for a couple of hours to hang with my buddies, and people I meet on the course, nice people. I’ll take the family on vacation to Hawaii, and all I do it eat and golf. I’ll kiss my wife on the way out the door.

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Q: Does some of your “being in a good place’ come from having finished your autobiography last year and revealing some very painful things that you went through – abuse as a child, drug and alcohol addictions, all those things?

A: Oh yeah, that writing was so cathartic. It was amazing to let go of all that toxic stuff. I was really apprehensive and reluctant to do any of that. My wife was concerned about being so open and transparent. She’d say, ‘Ray, we have a kid going to school who could be affected by all this.’ I said, ‘Baby, it’s not about that. It’s about me.’ Wow, that really made a difference.

Q: Birthdays may not be something you’re looking forward to, but you’ve been to a couple of big ones lately.

A: I saw (former trainer) Angelo Dundee just two weeks before his 90th birthday and he looked fantastic. But then, I get a call from his son that said, ‘Pops is gone’ (on Feb. 1) That hit me hard.
And then, Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party (last January) in Vegas – just unbelievable. To see all the people he’s touched. Even though he has that horrendous Parkinson’s disease, Ali is still Ali. You know why? I looked into his eyes, and I could see him.

Q: Does any of that concern you into thinking all those years in boxing could affect you the same way?

A: Man, you can’t worry about that now. They’re finding football players who’ve been bang up with concussions, and now it’s affecting their motor skills. These young players don’t think about that. I’m 55 and much more cautious, you’re right. I find myself going upstairs to the closet and thinking, ‘Why did I come here again?’ But there are people younger than me who do the same thing. Sure I think about it, but . . .

Q: Does your body tell you that your golf game can improve?

A: I’ve gotta get back into stretching. I know I need it. I even have this machine that stretches the lower back and the groin and all that. My other problem is normally, I’ll go to a course and just start playing. I’m not warmed up until the 15th hole, and but that time’ it’s too late, I’ve already got a 95. I just get impatient.

Q: What fights are you looking forward to seeing — either ones that have been scheduled or those that don’t seem to want to get scheduled?

A: Naturally, we’re talking about Pacquiao and Mayweather. When’s that going to happen? Apparently not this year. But it has to be soon. They aren’t getting any younger. For a fight fan’s sake, it’s going to have to happen.

Q: Compare a perfect punch in a fight to a perfect drive off the tee. Is that possible?

A:

A lot of people don’t know this. When a fighter throws a punch and knocks someone out, there a little register with your arm, this tingling sensation, where you know you’ve hit the sweet spot. It’s the same with golf. When you hit it right, it feels effortless. If I can just duplicate that 50 percent of the time, I’ll shoot in the 80s. I’m a 14.5 (handicap) now, but check this out – the ’80s were really my defining moments in the boxing ring. I’m trying to get to the 80s again. I just put those two things together. I’ll have to tell Hank about that.

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