Verlander hits the links at Pebble Beach
Tigers right-hander carries four handicap into Pro-Am at famed golf course
DETROIT -- Put Justin Verlander in front of a sellout crowd at Comerica Park with a game on the line, and he's in his element. He feeds off the energy and backs up his reputation as one of the most imposing players in baseball.
Put Verlander on the golf course, with thousands of fans, a gaggle of celebrities and the best golfers in the world, and it might be a different story.
After Verlander spent the past year or so learning how to handle fame off the diamond and some of the challenges that go with being one of the faces of the game, he gets to enjoy himself this weekend at Pebble Beach as part of the AT&T National Pro-Am. He'll be one of two Major League players taking part, joining Giants ace and World Series counterpart Matt Cain.
It'll be a new experience for someone whose teammates have described over the years as almost as competitive on the golf course as he is on the mound. He's going to have to humble himself, but he's going in with the idea of having fun being well out of his element.
The way he was talking about it recently on the Tigers' winter caravan, he was already preparing for his nerves to set in.
"It's going to be totally different," Verlander said. "The only thing that I have to draw off of experience-wise is I was doing a long-drive competition one time. There were maybe 50 people watching and the club was shaking in my hands. So I have no idea how it's going to go, but it'll be an experience and I'm really looking forward to it."
Put Verlander in a four-man group with teammates and he can do much more than hold his own. He's regarded as one of the best golfers on the team, though he claims to have never taken an actual lesson. He has a residence near a golf course in the Tigers' Spring Training home of Lakeland, Fla., where he has had annual showdowns with fellow Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello.
Verlander's self-described strength, not surprisingly, is his power.
"I guess I can hit the ball a long way," he said. "If it goes straight, it's a good thing. If it goes crooked, it's not."
Verlander took part in Nationals manager Davey Johnson's charity golf outing earlier this offseason in Florida, but the crowd there was nothing like what he'll see at Pebble Beach, where golf's greats have been hitting the links with champions from other sports for more than a half-century.
What began in the 1930s as an idea from entertainer Bing Crosby to bring together top golfers with greats from other realms of life turned into a national event soon after moving to Pebble Beach in 1947, pairing pros with amateurs and celebrities. With its place on the PGA schedule fitting in just before Spring Training in many years, the tournament has a history with baseball players.
Ralph Kiner took part for several years in the 1960s, as did Rollie Fingers a decade later. George Brett teamed up with Fred Couples to win the pro-am portion of the event in 1987. Roger Clemens took part in recent years. Cain is a previous participant as well.
Cain should have a relatively favorable California crowd supporting him on the heels of the Fall Classic. Verlander is preparing himself for a different reception.
"I'm sure I'll hear from them, probably starting with, 'Nice choke job,'" Verlander told the San Francisco Chronicle this week. "But they can't really say anything when they put up the quiet sign."
Verlander will be paired with PGA golfer Robert Garrigus. He'll get a four handicap.
"It's cyclical. I've gotten it down to like a two or three," Verlander told the New York Times about his handicap two years ago. "During the season, I don't get to play that much, so it creeps up there a little bit. I'll start shooting in the 80s during the season."
They'll be among the first to tee off when the event begins Thursday morning, starting at 11 a.m. ET.
Other celebrities and athletes scheduled to take part in this year's event include Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, NFL head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick and actors Bill Murray, Josh Duhamel and Andy Garcia.
No matter how Verlander fares, he won't have much time to bask in the moment. With Tigers pitchers and catchers scheduled to begin workouts Tuesday, he'll have to fly cross-country and get back to his day job.