Rice learns costly lesson in Nationwide debut

Jerry Rice

On the eve of his professional golf debut, Jerry Rice made a rookie mistake, a golfing faux pas: He tinkered with his swing and put a new putter in his bag. The results were predictable. 

“That was so stupid,” Rice told Golfweek by phone from Hayward, Calif. “That was so like a rookie. These guys have been out here for a long time, they know what the competition and everything is all about.”

And now Rice knows, too, particularly the hardships of trying to make it on the world’s best developmental tour. Playing on a sponsor exemption, the NFL Hall of Famer missed the 36-hole cut at the Nationwide Tour’s Fresh Express Classic, which is about what you would expect after a first-round 83. To his credit, Rice recovered to shoot 76 in Round 2, leaving him 151st among the 152 players who completed both rounds.

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Jerry Rice at the Nationwide Tour's Fresh Express Classic.

This initial foray into pro golf was a grind from the start – the very start. The 47-year-old Rice decided Wednesday night to ditch his controlled swing for one that would produce more distance. So, when he teed it up on Thursday afternoon, he stood further from the ball. He locked his legs.

And he wound up hitting the ball nowhere near his intended target at TPC Stonebrae. 

“I need to get my legs to stabilize throughout the swing, so everything is working like a machine,” Rice said. “If I do that, I might lose a little bit of distance, but I hit it pretty solid.” 

As for the putter swap? “I thought I needed a little pick-me-up,” said Rice, but instead he lacked confidence with the flat stick and needed 37 putts to get around on Thursday, essentially ending his hopes of playing on the weekend. 

Rice, it should be noted, isn’t the first sports star to flop in his pro golf debut. Seven athletes have tried and failed to make the cut in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, and all of them, including former NFL players Al Del Greco, Mark Rypien and Billy Joe Tolliver, came up woefully short. 

With his old Nike putter back in the bag, Rice actually improved his score by seven strokes in Round 2 – and still came in 30 shots behind leader David Hearn after two rounds. 

“You have to play within your means, and it’s almost like, when things aren’t going right, you can’t put pressure on yourself to play an incredible shot,” Rice said.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh no, the camera is on me, people are going to see me hit this shot,’ because that puts additional pressure on yourself and, of course, that’s going to cause some tension. Being able to deal with that and being out of your element is something you have to deal with.” 

As expected, Rice mixed the brilliant with the baffling on Friday. He birdied three holes – “Birdieing a hole on the Nationwide Tour? That was so cool” – but triple-bogeyed the par-4 10th after having trouble with his alignment off the tee. He hit fewer fairways, drove the ball an average of 22 yards longer and took six fewer putts in Round 2 – but then again, anything was better than the 44 he posted on his first nine Thursday. 

“I saw a lot of good things happen,” said Rice, who will now transition into his role as honorary tournament host. 

Rice already has received a sponsor exemption into the BMW Charity Pro-Am in mid-May, and he vows to elevate his game and challenge to make the 36-hole cut. This week’s results notwithstanding, he still harbors ambitions of competing regularly on the Champions Tour once he becomes eligible. 

But changing his swing and switching his clubs prior to the tournament? Don’t expect Rice to make that mistake again. 

“When it comes time before the BMW,” he said, “I’m probably going to sleep with my clubs.”

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