Fairways And Roughs Title

Retired NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett's first love was golf

By PGA Tour News
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dale Jarrett’s first golf club was a 2-wood that his father Ned broke when he hit a root trying to extricate his ball from an unfriendly lie in the woods. The mechanics in his dad’s garage, not the pro in the clubhouse -- the men who made sure Ned’s Ford was running smoothly on race day -- took what was left of the shattered club and fitted it to Dale, who was then about 8 years old.   Turns out, that early juxtaposition between golf and stock cars has continued throughout Jarrett’s life. He had enough talent to be offered a scholarship to play golf at South Carolina but Jarrett ended up following in his father’s footsteps at the race track. There he won three Daytona 500s and the 1999 Winston Cup title, eventually joining his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But he still has that cut-down 2-wood in his office. “I love golf in so many ways,” Jarrett said in a phone conversation this week. “It's a lot like racing, even though a lot of people probably think two things couldn't be more different because you are driving 200 miles per hour.” Jarrett, who once had his handicap down to a plus-1 and currently plays to an 8, is now retired from racing and works for NBC. Before heading to Michigan for NASCAR’s next race, he planned to make the one-hour drive from his Conover, North Carolina home to Charlotte to attend the PGA Championship. Jarrett first got interested in the game when his father started playing. He loved whatever was in season, though – even getting special dispensation so he could play golf and baseball at the same time. He led the golf team to three straight conference titles and owned a one-stroke lead on the final hole of the state 3-A tournament only to see victory elude him when his approach to 18 hit a sprinkler head and careened out of bounds. “That is a memory that always sticks with me,” Jarrett says. The decision to turn down the scholarship to South Carolina was a hard one, made at the “12th hour.” Jarrett, who broke par for the first time at the age of 14, finally realized he was more interested in playing the game than going to class, though, so he respectfully declined. By then, his father was managing the Hickory Motor Speedway and Jarrett worked there, too. He built a driving range in the back parking lot “where I had to mow the grass anyway,” Jarrett says. He’d spend his lunch hours there, hitting balls and fine-tuning his swing – just in case. “It was still in my mind that even though I wasn't going to college that if ‑‑ was I going to get the chance to drive a race car,” Jarrett recalls wondering. “We didn't have the money to do it, and it takes money to do that at whatever level you start. “So when I was doing that I still had the ideas that maybe I could play golf for a living at some level.” Jarrett had been around stock car racing all his life. But it wasn’t until he was 20 – relatively late by today’s standards – that he drove in a race for the first time and he knew that was his calling, not professional golf. Two high school friends, one of whom became a team owner years later, built the car and the group decided Jarrett should drive it. It was a Limited Sportsman race, a circuit that Jarrett describes as similar to Double-A baseball, at Hickory. He started 24th in a 24-car field because the team didn’t get to the track in time to qualify. Jarrett ended up finishing ninth in the 25-lap. The “team” won $35 and went to a local pizza parlor to celebrate with slices and beer. Although his father had sold his stake in the speedway, he was in the stands to see Jarrett race. “I went up and told him, Look, I don't know how I'm going to do this but this is exactly what I've been looking for and what I want to do,” he recalls. “That was from one 25‑lap race that I decided this is for me and this is what I want to do.”  Just like golfers do, Jarrett found sponsors to help him assemble a team and pursue his dream. He ended up winning 32 races on what is now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and had many memorable duels with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon, among others. So Jarrett won’t ever know what might have happened if he hadn’t turned down that scholarship offer. Could he have turned pro? Maybe. Maybe not. He’s seen the game up close and personal – playing in numerous pro-ams with the likes of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson, to name a few – and served as the honorary chairman of the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn on the PGA TOUR Champions. So, he knows what it takes and he’s realistic about his chances. “Don't know that I would have gotten to that level because having the opportunity to play with a number of professionals throughout my career, I see just how good they are and the things that they can do that 99 percent of the rest of us can't do,” Jarrett says. But he does know that playing golf made him a better stock car driver.  The decisions he makes on the golf course are his alone, not unlike what happens at top speeds with his hands on the wheel of his car. “Even though it's a team sport, driving a race car, because you need everyone else around you doing their jobs, once you get in the race car, it's still up to you to get the job done,” Jarrett says. “It's not someone else's fault if you crash and make a bad decision.  If you do the right things on the track, that's the decision that you were making there.  “So I think without my golf exploits early in my life, I'm not sure that I would have been mentally prepared to drive a race car for the years that I did that.” Jarrett hasn’t spent as much time on his game in recent years as he did in the past. His strength has always been his putting, and it still is, although back in the day he hit it long and straight enough to take advantage of the par 5s. Nagging injuries from spending hours on end in a speeding car have taken their toll. Plus, Jarrett was focused on the baseball career of his son, Zach, who started 245 games at UNC-Charlotte and was drafted in June by the Baltimore Orioles. That, too, was a labor of love. “I spent tons of time watching him, working with him, helping him,” Jarrett says. “That became my passion, to try to get him and help him as much as I could to try to become a professional baseball player.  That took away some from my golf. “It was fun to know that at one time you played the game at a really high level. …  I can't do the things I could do, but I still love the game.”

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