Muhammad Ali Brilliant Boxer Unnatural Golfer?

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He wrestled alligators, tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. He was simply ‘The Greatest’ as there was nothing Muhammad Ali couldn’t do, except golf. He was an entertainer, a civil rights activist, and arguably history’s greatest boxer, but the man had a bit of trouble swinging a golf club.

 In the summer of ‘76—like hundreds of fighters before him who have called New York’s Catskill Mountains their temporary home to train for upcoming fights—The Champ set up camp at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake to prepare for his rubber match with Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium that September.

The Catskills has a rich history of housing fighters, both for training and leisure. Everyone from Rocky Marciano to Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran has trained upstate in the New York mountains. Ali had called the Catskills home twice, training at Kutsher’s Hotel in Monticello twice earlier in his career.

This time, Ali took over the 40-room clubhouse of the Concord Hotel’s “Monster Golf Course,” where members of his entourage would spend non-training hours playing as much golf as they could.

 Famous for his generosity with friends and foes alike, Ali’s inner-circle continuously grew. He extended invites to many former champions, including Joe Louis and Jimmy Ellis, who joined camp regulars like Bundini Brown and trainer Angelo Dundee in helping Ali prepare for what would turn out to be a successful title defense.

As he trained for his upcoming fight, Ali would run the length of the 7.6-mile course each day, following up his training with a feast of a dozen eggs and steak. During his time in the mountains, Ali became fascinated with this peculiar game played with a stick and a ball which he thought seemed so easy. More so, Ali wanted to understand the hold this game had over those who were closest to him. As Hubie Smith – member of the PGA’s Hall of Fame and the hotel’s golf pro at the time – recalls, Ali couldn’t grasp how why boxing greats he admired like Louis and Ellis, would rush out of the gym to hit the course.

 One day towards the end of his camp, The Champ was relaxing in the cool mountain air when he observed Smith with his wife Pamela on the Monster’s practice putting green. Smith recalls, “After we chatted a bit,, Ali grabbed my putter and held the club cross handed. I couldn’t help but laugh.” Smith continued, “I told the champ, he might float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But if you hold your clubs like that, you’ll never beat me.”

Ali’s poor grip changed right there with an impromptu golf lesson from Smith. Despite a Golf Digest article from October 1974 which documented his “first” golf swing, Ali had never been taught to hold a club properly. During his first attempt at golfing at the Stardust Country Club in Mission Valley, California, where he was training, ironically, to fight Ken Norton in their first of three battles, The Champ was able to hit the ball several times despite his bad technique.

But unlike his last time out on the links, this time The Champ learned how to properly hold the club thanks to some help from Smith. Watching Ali take cuts on the Concord’s Monster Golf Course is an experience the 83-year-old Smith says he will never forget.

“Ali was a great guy to be around,” Smith says, “the whole group was… Joe, Bundini… they were the nicest group of boxers we ever had up there.”

As for Ali’s swing, Smith wasn’t as kind.  “Looking back, he kind of reminds me of Charles Barkley with the hitch in the swing—and the talking.”

Written By Alan Berman


Alan Berman is an American Mixed Martial Arts Journalist. He works currently as a freelance news writers for several major outlets. He trains with the Untouchables Boxing Camp out of Monticello, NY and Focus Mixed Martial Arts gym in Brooklyn, NY.