Are golfers really athletes?

Some raps are hard to shake. As golf has progressed into an unprecedented era of power, athleticism and fitness led by Tiger Woods, the stereotype of overweight endomorphs sitting around the 19th hole remains deeply rooted, upheld by golf bashers. Are golfers truly athletes? Or is golf just a highly demanding skill, more akin to bowling than boxing?

The question was given serious analysis in a study conducted in 2004 by ESPN.com, and, for golf lovers, the process resulted in an unflattering answer. A panel of experts which included sports scientists from the U.S. Olympic Committee, academics who study the science of muscles and movement, sports journalists and former pro baseball and football player Brian Jordan was polled to identify the most demanding of 60 sports.
Various activities were graded on 10 components of athleticism: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude. Boxing ranked first, followed by hockey, football and basketball. Golf ranked -- take a deep breath -- 51st out of the 60 sports, just behind table tennis and horse racing. It did, however, place just ahead of cheerleading and roller-skating, with fishing finishing last.
Those poor fish have no one to defend them. We do.

We present Golf Digest's ranking of athlete-golfers, and almost to a man and woman, those on the list say ESPN's conclusion was bunk. "If I were a golfer,'' says former tennis pro Gigi Fernandez, with a 1.6 Handicap Index, "I'd be insulted.'' Former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe (who has a
2.4 handicap) says golf belongs in the Big Four, just behind football, basketball and baseball.

These and other crossover stars cite golf's precise synchronized movements, its mental demands and the training required to master repetition under pressure as the very essence of athletics.

"Sure it's a sport,'' says former NHL superstar and scratch golfer Brett Hull. "People don't understand what it takes to be an elite athlete in any sport. To me the mental preparation and toughness in golf blows away what it takes in any sport. Just because golfers don't wear running shoes and don't run down the fairway doesn't mean they aren't athletes.''

The unique blend of demands is the reason so many jocks, both current practitioners and alumni of their primary sport, gravitate to golf. "They fall in love with golf because it's so frustrating and difficult,'' says Toby Dawson, a bronze medalist in mogul skiing at the 2006 Olympics and an 11.8 Index.
"That's what athletes love. They love adversity; they like to be challenged to the extent where they have to push themselves beyond a certain level.''

No one has done that better than former major league pitcher Rick Rhoden, the all-time leading money-winner on the Celebrity Players Tour and the No. 1 athlete-golfer on Golf Digest's ranking. Rhoden, 53, now a professional golfer, has struggled to find success on the Champions Tour and says the transition from one playing field to another is filled with unexpected challenges. "There'd be a lot of guys doing it if it were such an easy sport,'' says Rhoden, who says it's difficult to overcome the accumulated knowledge and experience of players who grew up playing golf and continued working at it throughout their careers.

"After 10 years I'd seen and been through everything in baseball," says Rhoden. "Every golf course in America has scratch players, but that doesn't mean they can make a dime playing professional golf. Those guys are very good at not wasting shots, at shooting par or better when everything's not clicking. On the celebrity tour, if I shot around par, very few players would pass me. On [the pro] tour, 50 guys would.''

For some highly successful athletes who have tried to master golf, that sedentary, unsporty reputation had to be overcome. "At first I didn't think golfers were athletes," says Ivan Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam winner in tennis whose daughters are top junior golfers.

"I thought golfers were overweight, and just seeing them walking around and hitting a ball, you don't think there's much to it,'' says Lendl, a 4.5-handicapper and now fully converted. "The more I play, I understand how difficult it is.''

Adds former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, a 7-handicapper: "Golf is a different kind of sport than tennis if you're talking about athleticism. I will say that walking four days in a row is exhausting; I just did it at Michael Jordan's tournament, and you're definitely exhausted after doing that.

"Not all golfers are athletes, but there are a lot more today than there used to be," says Becker. "It's why Tiger is so much better than everyone: He's the best athlete."

Dan Jansen, the former Olympic speedskating champion who is married to LPGA teaching professional Karen Palacios-Jansen, is a 3.5-handicapper and still doesn't see golf on quite the same level as other "real'' sports. His reason is often cited and difficult to refute. "At the risk of offending golfers, which is not what I want to do, I don't know that it is a sport,'' Jansen says. "The difference is, you can smoke a cigarette while doing it. But it is a game, and it's the hardest game I've ever played.''

Adds Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic figure skating gold medalist and a
10.9-handicapper: "Golf is hard. It's really hard. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, arguably, and he's not that great. He's a good golfer, but he's not that great. What is he, a 6-handicap? Tiger's a plus-5.'' (For the record, Jordan plays off a 1, and Golf Digest once estimated Woods' handicap at plus-9.7.)

Hockey players, baseball pitchers and quarterbacks heavily populate our list of athlete-golfers; of the 220 athletes on our ranking, 159 come from the NHL, baseball and football. Only 23 come from the too-tall NBA, and though ESPN ranked boxing the No. 1 most demanding sport, only three boxers made our cut.

John Smoltz, a starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, ranks basketball players as the best athletes but says hitting a round object squarely (in both baseball and golf) is the toughest thing to do. "In baseball, if you succeed three times out of 10, you're successful. You need a higher average than that in golf," says Smoltz, whose Handicap Index is 0.2. Like many athletes interviewed for this article, Smoltz credits Woods for "forcing the issue'' of athleticism on today's top golfers. Says Dawson, the Olympic
skier: "These days, if you're not working out and don't have a build like Tiger and all these young guys, you're not going to be as competitive.
You're not going to be able to get the clubhead speed, you're not going to hit the ball as far and you can't hit it out of the 7-inch rough that they're going to put everywhere to keep up with technology.''

Ryan Longwell, who kicks for the Minnesota Vikings and plays to a plus-1.8 at Isleworth, has seen Woods' intensive training up close. "He runs more than anyone would ever imagine,'' says Longwell, the son of a former Seattle club pro. "He's out there sweating and huffing and puffing. Absolutely they're athletes the way guys are approaching it now.''

Former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, a neophyte golfer who rarely plays all 18 holes and has no established handicap, says the emergence of Woods in the past decade will attract more and better athletes to the game. "Black athletes at one time didn't think golf was for them,''
he says.

The focus required on the course and in the ring is something that connects golf with the sweet science, says Lewis. "Someone's trying to hit you, and you're trying to hit them. You definitely can't take your eye off the ball.''

Fernandez, who considered trying pro golf but now plays amateur events in Florida, says golf is the "most brutal'' sport because of the lifetime it takes to master all the shots and situations. Plus, unlike tennis and other sports, there's almost no margin for error if you want to win. "In tennis, you can be down 6-0, 5-0, 40-0 and you can still come back and win," she says. "It's a forgiving sport. In golf, if you're 6 over after three holes, you're done; you're not going to win. Sure, anybody can go out there and play, but to do it at the highest level, it's the hardest thing I know.''

Billy Joe Tolliver, a former NFL quarterback and one of the top players on the celebrity tour at plus-1.5, draws a distinction between being an athlete and making an athletic move, and he adds a spicy comparison. "Swinging the club is certainly an athletic movement, but you don't have to be an athlete to do it,'' says Tolliver, who, like all the jocks we talked to, has the highest regard for tour players. "Golf is like sex: You don't have to be an athlete to do it. And you don't have to be good at it to enjoy it.''

There. Now that makes us feel better, doesn't it?