In 1994, when major league baseball was in the midst of another labor crisis, Ken Griffey Jr. discovered his love for golf. While the owners and the MLB Players Association went about an arduous 232-day arbitration to settle their differences, Griffey found a new way to ease the frustration.
"I started playing the day after the strike began," said Griffey during his appearance Jan. 26, at the 59th PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla. "It was a good time to start. I was playing with guys like Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner at Bear Creek Country Club outside Seattle. You wouldn't believe all the balls we were losing on the course."
Griffey, a member of the Board of Governors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), made his first PGA Merchandise Show appearance in support of the new partnership between The PGA of America and BGCA. During his visit at golf's largest exhibition, his longtime friend, PGA Professional Rodney Green, joined Griffey. A native of Annapolis, Md., Green is the PGA director of golf at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Green, 49, met Griffey in 1997, when he began working at the Palm Course at Walt Disney Resort and the two became "fast friends." Green often gives coaching tips to Griffey, and he's caddied for him at celebrity events, including the 2000 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, while playing with Jack Nicklaus, Mark O'Meara and Steve Nicklaus.
"I think Ken has great respect for the game, and understands the amount of work it takes to play at a high level," said Green. "Whenever I play with him, he keeps this in perspective. He will have his good days and not so good days. He understands that is part of the game."
What impresses Green just as much is how Griffey can balance his love of family and golf. Green said that Griffey's longtime affiliation with Boys & Girls Clubs of America makes the baseball great a great fit for promoting family participation in golf.
"Ken cares so much about his family, and nothing excites him more than when you talk about family," said Green.
"We need to give more kids the chance to experience golf," said Griffey. "I'm happy to do what I can to encourage that. I am always feeling the best when I can be on a golf course with my family. I do get to play golf with my dad often, and I can tell you that those moments are among the best of my life."
Griffey said that golf has taught him patience. "You have to think before you act in golf."
Green also cited Griffey's competitive nature that did not diminish after leaving major league baseball in May 2010 with 630 home runs and 10 Golden Glove awards.
"Ken and I play a lot of golf, and in the 1990s, I said that neither of us have ever made a hole-in-one, and I said, 'I bet I make one before you,' " said Green. "He said, 'OK, make it light on yourself.' I agreed to a $1,000 bet. If you are not playing with the other person when he gets an ace, it would be $500."
In January 2001 on the Palm Course at the Disney Resort, Griffey and Green were on the 12th tee, and "Junior" stepped up and hit a 5-iron 195 yards to an elevated green with a partially obscured flag.
"Ken hit a high cut, which for a lefty means the ball curves left," said Green. "We never saw it after it came down to the green and drove up and looked everywhere. Ken looked in the hole and found his ball. He is immediately on his cell phone calling everybody and bragging how he got me! I paid him with a money order. I don't carry that kind of change!"
Griffey, who recalled the moment with a big smile, said his shot "was a Charles Barkley butter cut."
About two years later, Green made his first ace and telephoned Griffey, who agreed to pay him when the two met. Then playing for the Cincinnati Reds and facing the former Florida Marlins, Griffey invited his friend to join his family at dinner in Miami. Griffey remembered to reimburse his friend and then pointed the waiter to Green.
"Oh, by the way, that gentleman there is picking ups the tab," said Griffey. Through the ensuing years, Green has made up for that moment by scoring two more holes-in-one, and finding Griffey.
"Ken Griffey Jr. hits the ball further off the tee than perhaps 25 to 30 percent of those on Tour," said Green, who watched Griffey test a new Nike driver during a "speed trial" at the PGA Merchandise Show. With only one warm-up swing, Griffey hit the ball 353 yards in the computer-monitored hitting area.
"He has a solid move through the ball, and has really improved his short game, especially the pitching wedge. He has about an 8 handicap, and I know that he will work to lower that. You think there is pressure for someone standing over a four-footer to win a match? Ken thrives on that kind of pressure. In fact, the quiet in golf bothers him.
The best thing is that he's a good person, a good friend and a great father."