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Ryan Longwell
Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell makes his off-season home at Windermere, where he has a very famous golfing neighbor.

Area Athletes Love the Game, Too

Prominent players on almost all the professional sports teams in the Twin Cities share their passion for golf.

By Jerry Zgoda, Contributor

Minnesota Vikings placekicker Ryan Longwell has spent his entire 12-year NFL career living and working on the frozen tundra, first in Green Bay, now just one state over in the home to this week’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

So when the son of a golf enthusiast searched for an off-season home where he could play the sport he first grew to love year-round, Longwell and his family chose Florida and a little place near Orlando called Windermere – where he isn’t the best golfer in his neighborhood, or even on his own block.

“Nope,” Longwell says. “I don’t even make the top 50.”

His neighbors and fellow members at Isleworth Country Club include Stuart Appleby, Charles Howell III, J.B. Holmes, Nick O’Hern and somebody named Tiger – fellows who grew up at the same place Longwell did: the practice range.

Longwell now makes his living kicking a football rather than striking a golf ball, pursuits of vastly differently sized and shaped balls that have more in common with each other than you might think.

“Golf is really so similar to kicking, as far as rhythm and hip rotation and timing,” explains Longwell, who plays to a 1.5 handicap. “I find that when I’m in rhythm on the golf course, it actually helps my kicking. The similarities between the two have helped me for a lot of years.”

Longwell plays a team sport, but his specific job is a singular focus that’s much like golf, a game that both enchants and perplexes Minnesota’s professional athletes who are accustomed to speeding balls and hurling bodies.

“I can drive, I can putt, but my short game?” says Minnesota Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer, a two-time NCAA basketball champion at Florida who learned the game from a family friend during high school in Portland, Tenn. “Man, I have to work on those wedges. I’ve always played team sports, but this is different. It’s just you and the ball out there by yourself. I like that.”

Well, some of the time. When Brewer, 6-foot-9 and seemingly all arms and skinny legs, contacts ball and club forcefully, the result is impressive. When he doesn’t, he’s like so many other golfers who can’t figure out — no matter how accomplished an athlete he or she might be — why it’s so hard to hit a little white ball that’s just sitting there.

“That game (golf) is frustrating,” says Jennifer Gillom, head coach for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. “The ball just never seems to want to go in the direction you want it to go.”

And yet Gillom, a former WNBA star with the Phoenix Mercury and member of the gold-medal winning 1988 U.S. Women’s Olympic team, is taking lessons in an effort to improve to be able to compete in celebrity charity golf tournaments.

Sometimes frustrated, she keeps playing the game because of that rare shot that goes where she intended.

“It’s amazing how it requires so much concentration,” she says. “Somehow it makes you keep coming back. You get that one lucky shot. In my case, it must be luck because I know it’s not skill. But it keeps you coming back.”

Former Vikings defensive lineman John Randle played 11 NFL seasons, made seven Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro six times for his ability to chase and throw down opposing quarterbacks.

That was easy.

Now, in his retirement, he has found himself smitten with a game that conceivably should be easier than pushing his way past a sweating, grunting 300-pounder.

“It’s like shooting a free throw: You get a chance to practice before you swing, and most people still mess up,” Randle says. “You get out here and no matter how many Pro Bowls or Hall of Fames or how many touchdowns you made, this game will humble you.

“But (it’s about) that one shot! Man, I’m addicted to it. I love it. I keep my clubs in the car the whole summer.”

Since his retirement, Randle now has the time to frequently spend four or five hours on the golf course, a luxury that still doesn’t make the game any easier. Minnesota Timberwolves Assistant General Manager Fred Hoiberg played 10 NBA seasons, the final two in Minnesota, where he joined Hazeltine National Golf Club and bought a cabin so he could relax all summer.

Then he was forced into retirement in 2005 after a routine insurance physical examination found a life-threatening heart defect that required surgery. Instead of playing all winter and golfing all summer, Hoiberg moved into the team’s front office. His job affords little free time.

Hoiberg will find some spare time this week. He has volunteered to be a locker room attendant so he can be close to the players and close to the action.

“Getting towels for those guys, talcum powder,” he said of duties that don’t include traveling the world to scout for basketball talent. “Whatever they need.”

Longwell will be a little busy this week. He has a little thing called NFL training camp to occupy his time, but hopes to slip away the morning after a preseason game to watch the world’s best players compete a really long field goal away from where he trains with the Vikings (Minnesota State University in Mankato).

Twins All-Star closer Joe Nathan lives less than five miles from Hazeltine National and plans to attend the PGA Championship with teammate and golf buddy Nick Punto. Nathan marvels at the skill exhibited by PGA Tour players.

“A golf ball is easier to hit than a baseball, but not easier to hit properly,” he says. “When you get into the game, you understand the spin that’s generated with a golf ball. Making good shots on a golf course is extremely difficult.”

Editor's Note: This story appears courtesy of The 91st PGA Championship Journal.

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