Muhammad Ali’s Golf Swing

Muhammad Ali's Golf Swing. Photos by Brad Wilson, 1973
Muhammad Ali’s Golf Swing. Photos by Brad Wilson, 1973

In 1974, Golf Digest ran a story by associate professional Brad Wilson about his chance encounter with Muhammad Ali at Stardust Country Club in Mission Valley, Calif.

The result was classic Ali:

Ali hit a second ball solidly and continued his raving glee: “Look at that ball go! Nobody can knock the ball that far. Nobody but me, the great, the one and only Muhammad Ali!” A crowd of people started gathering to watch, and that just fueled Ali’s stage presence. He suddenly jumped away from the ball at one point and raised both hands into the air and crowed, “Muhammad Ali is the world’s greatest golfer! Nobody can beat Muhammad Ali! Not Arnold Palmer, not Jack Nicklaus, not nobody. I’m gonna make ’em look bad, predict the score, how bad I’m gonna beat ’em, everything — just like I do in boxing!”

Looking at Dundee, the champ said, “Hey Angie, let’s quit boxing and start playing golf. We’ll get rich–and besides, that ball can’t hit back!”

joe louis golf swing
Joe Louis swinging a club. Photo via Golf Digest.

If Ali had taken up golf, he would have followed in the footsteps of the previous “Greatest,” Detroit’s own Joe Louis (shown in the photo from Golf Digest). Louis was a highly accomplished golfer, who used his fame to help break golf’s color barrier. In 1952, Chevrolet granted Louis a sponsor’s exemption to play as an amateur in the San Diego Open (now the Farmers Insurance Open). He played over the objections of the PGA, thanks to the intercession of California Governor Pat Brown.

Louis’s play opened the way for Charlie Sifford became the first African American to win a PGA co-sponsored event when he won the Long Beach Open after qualifying. Four years later, thanks to the intercession of the California Attorney General, Sifford became a full member of the PGA of America.

All along the way, Sifford was supported by Louis, and another great, Sugar Ray Robinson (who lived for a time on the same block in Detroit as Louis).

But back to Ali. When I was growing up, there was no more recognizable — or controversial athlete — in the world. People praised his boxing skills, but condemned his conversion to the Nation of Islam. People loved his smile, but condemned his braggadocio. People loved that he was a winner, but condemned his refusal to be drafted (and often made unfavorable comparisons to Elvis). People loved his social consciousness, but condemned his rejection of racial integration in the civil rights era.

All that mellowed in later years as distance dimmed negative emotions and his fight with Parkinson’s made Ali a sympathetic figure to the generation that grew up with his exploits

I have found that today’s generation, however, knows very little about him. In the high school AP Government class I teach, I show an HBO program called “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” about his Supreme Court case, but have to explain who Ali was beforehand. Few have heard of him, and fewer still can figure out what the big deal was about his religious conversion, his name change, or his draft refusal.

Time passes.

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