Publish date:

J.R. Smith Made His College Golf Debut and it Was Pretty Fascinating

Morning Read's Ward Clayton was there when the 36-year-old former NBA star shot an 83–78 for N.C. A&T State that could have been better but for those beguiling greens at Donald Ross-designed Alamance Country Club.
J.R. Smith makes his competitive college golf debut for North Carolina A&T.

J.R. Smith tees off Monday at Alamance Country Club.

BURLINGTON, N.C. – When the most famous college golf freshman in the land stood on the tee early Monday morning, he had officially entered Bizarro World. There were no boos from 18,000 Celtics fans or screens to set for friend LeBron James.

Instead, at quaint Alamance Country Club in central North Carolina, 36-year-old multi-millionaire basketball athlete J.R. Smith of Greensboro’s N.C. A&T State University made his first pass at a second career as a college golfer in blustery and cool fall surroundings, shooting 83-78. A few passing-by mid-major college golfers, coaches and curious onlookers, a smattering of media outlets, including LeBron’s production company, The Spring Hill Company, and HBO Real Sports, and a whole passel of famous friends from social media’s distance were paying attention.

“It’s a bucket list for me, to live my dream twice,” Smith said. “First, to play professional basketball and now play another sport in college. I’m excited about it, but I’m not content.”

Smith and the A&T team awoke at 5:45 a.m., and Smith began his round with an 8:45 a.m., shotgun start on the par-4 fifth hole as the Aggies’ No. 5 player, appropriate since 5 was his most frequent NBA jersey number. Normally, he would have carried or pushed his A&T-branded carry golf bag, but because of a 36-hole opening day the field was allowed to ride. Smith penciled in a playing partner’s score and was paired in a foursome with Elon University sophomore Pedro Rabadan of Spain, Gardner-Webb senior Miles Albright of Ocala, Fla., and Temple freshman Joey Morganti of Philadelphia (Smith’s cart mate and a huge 76ers fan). Rabadan leads the tournament after rounds of 65-66 and his host Phoenix hold a large team lead. They found out their draw on Sunday night.

In the back of Smith’s mind were the mid-terms he had just completed the previous week. His scores didn’t threaten those of more experienced kids who were in elementary school or younger when Smith was their college age a half a lifetime ago. His scores placed him 81st of the 84 counting scores. The final 18 is scheduled for Tuesday morning in the fall 54-holer.

The Alamance course was no challenge for length, at just shy of 6,900 yards, especially for a 6-foot-6 athlete who can regularly pound drives in excess of 300 yards. But the variety of doglegs and undulating Donald Ross-designed greens were enough to get in the head of a teen-aged college golfer much less someone who had never teed it up in an everything-counts competition and admitted to a need for more short-game practice.

“Being on the first tee in golf is like when they call the starting lineup in basketball and now in golf they call the lineup and it’s just you, by yourself,” Smith said. “It’s all on you out here. It’s a lonely feeling, but it can also be an empowering feeling if you gain some confidence.”

Smith’s first round was similar to many rookie college golf rounds. Smith had three double bogeys (two on short par 5s), 34 putts (including three three-putts) and played his last eight holes 12-over par. As the continuous 36 holes turned toward the second round, Smith was more at ease, getting to 1-under early before a double bogey on the back nine resulted in another 42 and then a concluding 36 on the front nine for a 78.

In the annals of dual-sports athletes, it’s challenging to find a similar trek to Smith’s transition from the top of his sport in a professional sport to a minor college sport as an amateur. Just about all are pro in one, then a second.

One comes to mind. Sam Byrd was a reserve outfielder with the powerhouse New York Yankees of the late 1920s and early 1930s, often referred to as the “Legs of the Bambino” for his late-inning replacement role for Babe Ruth. But after winning the 1932 World Series and leaving baseball in the mid-1930s, he turned to professional golf, winning multiple times and contending at majors, including a third and fourth at the 1941 and 1942 Masters as the only man to ever play in a World Series and Masters. There have been a number of professional baseball players whose arms failed them or the curve ball confounded them in the minor leagues and they turned to college football, such as quarterback Chris Weinke who was in the Toronto Blue Jays system before going on to win the 1999 Heisman Trophy at Florida State.

Smith’s journey began earlier this summer when A&T coach Richard Watkins heard from C.J. Paul, the older brother of NBA guard Chris Paul, that Smith was interested in attending the nation’s largest Historically Black College or University and walking on the golf team. Smith was accepted into the university to major in Liberal Studies and began classes, mostly remote, in mid-August.

“During the day, he’s real simple,” Watkins said. “J.R.’s either in class, on his computer or at the golf course. Going to school is his first item on the agenda. I know where to find him.”

Then came the more complicated process of getting a professional athlete from one sport eligible to compete as an amateur in another, an unusual dynamic with the NCAA which required tracking down high school transcripts from multiple New Jersey high schools that Smith attended, including one that doesn’t exist anymore, and evaluating his classes. That search reached back to before 2004 when Smith attended Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., a school where he wowed NBA scouts and skipped his college scholarship offer to the University of North Carolina, a school but 40 miles away from Burlington. The 2005 Tar Heels won the NCAA title, led by Sean May, Raymond Felton and would-be fellow freshman Marvin Williams.

Smith played 16 years in the NBA with New Orleans, Denver, the New York Knicks, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers, known for his sweet shot and NBA titles alongside LeBron with the Cavaliers (2016) and Lakers (2020). During off days, Smith got the golf bug, first thanks to NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone, who challenged him to take up the game during a charity event. Also, inspiration came from NBA sharpshooter Ray Allen, who used the sport to relax on off days and when he retired, and Chris Paul, who hails from nearby Winston-Salem and carries a golf jones similar to his on-court basketball intensity.

Aside from taking classes for the first time in nearly two decades, the biggest test may have come among his own coaches and teammates at A&T. Watkins and assistant coach Saraid Ruiz put Smith through the ringer, playing numerous rounds at Greensboro-area courses to test his skill. They realized his ability but also his raw sense of golf’s convoluted rules for competition. Smith also didn’t realize that qualifying among teammates was required until this fall.

Watkins recalls that Smith was more used to casual or celebrity golf where balls in water hazards were just dropped without attention to the proper placement, and where mulligans off the first tee were standard.

For the Aggies’ first fall tournament in late September, Smith was the only member of the school’s six-person team to not play in Atlanta at the HBCU Division I Invitational. For the second event in Burlington, the A&T fall schedule is so busy in October that all six team members participated, either as a part of the five-man squad or individually. Nine-hole qualifiers and three tournaments in Burlington, Greensboro and Maryland will serve as a larger, nine-round sample size of Smith’s game. The schedule resumes next March for the more important spring season.

Watkins has been the sole leader of the A&T golf program, which is still in its infancy. He has coached the women's team since the program began five years ago and the men’s program since its inception four years ago.

J.R. Smith's scorecard for the morning round.

JR Smith's opening-round scorecard.

Smith’s presence in A&T’s blue and gold has already brought unprecedented attention to Watkins and his team. They played in the pro-am at the nearby Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour in August and attended the Tour Championship in late September at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, with Jon Rahm stopping by for photos and chit-chat. This fall, A&T is in a new conference, the Big South, which allows for postseason play in most sports, including golf. The top two players on the Aggies’ squad, seniors Xavier Williams from Boiling Springs, N.C., and Diego Gonzalez of Venezuela, have benefitted from the additional focus and have opted to return for their super senior seasons in 2022-23, along with three incoming freshmen. Williams and Christyn Carr from the Aggies women’s team are bound for the Golf Channel-televised inaugural Stephens Cup next week in Arkansas. Golf instructor Claude Harmon III, a pal of Smith’s, has even promised to visit the team in Greensboro this fall.

“People didn’t even know we played golf at A&T until right now,” Watkins said.

HBCUs have also gained some momentum in the golf world. NBA star Steph Curry pledged to financially support the revitalization—after a 40-year absence—of the Howard University men’s and women’s programs in Washington DC. The Bison started playing this year. At Augusta National last April, it was announced that scholarships in honor of Lee Elder would be given to nearby Paine College for the men’s program and the formation of the women’s program. In September, the PGA Tour and United Airlines said they would collaborate to present a $10,000 grant to each of the 51 current men’s and women’s HBCU golf programs so that they can expand their playing schedule.

“Golf is still golf,” Watkins said. “The door is open, but you still have to have the skillset to move into the room. You still have to have the talent to take advantage of the opportunity. Yes, we’re seeing more activity, more effort, to give these kids a chance. There’s involvement at a lot of different levels and jobs, not just playing golf, but working in golf. It’s great to see those kinds of things occur.”

And with Smith’s first rounds completed, more attention is on the way.