What I Learned From Playing Golf With Kenny G
Editor’s note: On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest documentary in its Music Box documentary series on HBO: Listening to Kenny G, which gives a closer look at the life and legacy of the famed saxophonist.
Sherwood Country Club is about 45 miles north and west of downtown Los Angeles—past the Valley, past Calabasas, a good half-hour drive inland from the Malibu coast. As if location alone weren’t enough to keep it isolated, the lush property is gated and monitored by a friendly but ever-present staff. Its golf course, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus, is hyper-exclusive, with fewer than 400 members. The names on its membership roll are eye-popping, but the best celebrity player among them—out of its Timberlakes and Gretzkys, its Pescis and Nicholsons—is Kenny G, the smooth jazz icon so staggeringly successful that China has adopted one of his songs as a nationwide signal for the closings of bars and restaurants. And at the moment, he and I are on the losing end of a $20 Nassau.
Kenny, who is the subject of the new HBO documentary Music Box: Listening to Kenny G and has sold more than 75 million records, is one of the most popular musicians on the planet by any measure. He is also perhaps the best celebrity golfer of the 21st century—not good for a jazz saxophonist good, SportsCenter good. When I arrive on Sherwood’s neatly manicured driving range, the rail-thin 65-year-old is hitting iron shots so pure they could sell training videos.
Not only is Kenny very good—he’s home. A longtime member, Kenny has twice won Sherwood’s club championship. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of each hole, able to say whether a drive will fly a fairway bunker or an approach will roll off the back of the green just after it’s left his clubface. The staff (which includes former college players like our caddy, who will, with a borrowed iron and without warming up, hit his only shot of the day to within 6 feet of the pin on a difficult par-3) shows him the begrudging respect they would reserve for a great player, not a 15-handicapper who tips well.
Right now, though, he’s fighting it. There are encouraging shots, like the arrow-straight, 285-yard drive he hits on number 5. (At just 132 pounds, Kenny figures it might be the most pound-for-pound impressive drive hit in California today. “Print that,” he says.) But through the first several holes, he struggles to make a big enough turn on his backswing and to sufficiently engage his right side on the downswing. He recently started working with the well-known coach George Gankas, and while he has been very encouraged by some quick improvements, Kenny is for the moment able to channel his advice only intermittently. Which is how, just about halfway through the day, he and I are losing to his two friends: a semi-retired psychologist named Brad and the bitingly funny Cesar, who founded then sold a company that produces blueprints for architecture firms, among other services.
“I don’t get nervous, I don’t get intimidated,” Kenny says. “I’m a mechanical player—that’s my problem. People tell me to stop thinking about the mechanics, and I say, ‘I will once I have the mechanics right.’” And at present, he is groping his way through a series of mechanical fixes; while he hopes they’ll help his game in the long run, they seem for the time being to represent an avalanche of data threatening to bury his round. He will finish the front nine seven over.
Kenny was born and raised in Seattle; he started playing the sax at age 10. By the time he was a teenager he was well on his way to mastering it: He quickly earned first chair in Franklin High School’s jazz band and, when he was 17, landed a gig with Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra at a Seattle theater. Kenny’s rise after that is rapid and well documented. Clive Davis signed him to Arista when he was 25; by the time he was 30, he was routinely going multi-platinum. In the way that the careers of violin or tennis prodigies often seem, well into those prodigies’ adulthoods, like the natural outgrowth of a rigorously structured childhood, Kenny’s Billboard dominance could scan, to an untrained eye, as the result of a tunnel vision that stretched back decades. But jazz wasn’t the only thing he picked up at 10. That was also the year his older brother, Brian, introduced him to golf.
At Franklin, Kenny captained the golf team—he recounts with pride beating his coach, who also taught science at the school, and winning an early peek at the class’s next test. After high school, he briefly lost touch with the game (he did not make the University of Washington’s team, though he did compete for the Huskies in Alpine skiing), as in the early years of his musical career, outside pursuits were understandably curtailed. But in the late 1990s, Kenny recommitted himself to the game. He worked his handicap all the way down to scratch—then past it, at one time playing as a plus-1—and, in 2001, teamed up with Phil Mickelson to win a share of the AT&T National Pro-Am title at Pebble Beach. One of his putts was so dazzling it even became a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
For Kenny, the allure of golf is not the pressure of those high-stakes situations—the reactivation of nerves that would inevitably dull after thousands of live performances—but the monastic approach to practice that it requires. Kenny practices his saxophone, without fail, for more than three hours every morning, working on specific aspects of his playing each time: tonguing one day, hitting perfect high notes the next. After more than 50 years of ceaseless repetition, the mechanics of his saxophone playing are automatic, and the instrument has become just that: a conduit through which he can express himself without mechanical fussing. But he still tinkers around the edges, keeping sharp and looking for marginal improvements. “If I’m interested in something, I want to know how it works,” he says. Golf, he explains, is trickier. If you practice bad habits, you simply engrain them, and diligent, well-intentioned work can become entirely counterproductive.
Like every golfer, Kenny has endured spirals when he believes he’s doing just that—making himself worse. Before he got in touch with Gankas, he had been working with a golf-training outfit that took high-tech images and videos of his swing, drowning him in data points. There was no signal in the noise, and Kenny could feel himself losing his game. Sometimes the raw data is not enough; sometimes, in a game as psychologically tormenting as golf, the breakthroughs are syntactical. “He explains things in a way that clicks,” Kenny says of Gankas.
What’s curious, given this appetite for practice and hunger for improvement, is Kenny’s relative restraint. Most weeks, he comes to Sherwood only three times: on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to hit balls at the range, and for his regular round on Fridays. Thursdays are for flying his plane—one of those rich-guy hobbies that must give his friends and family ulcers but Kenny finds calming. Sometimes he’ll sneak in a quick nine holes in the middle of the week; occasionally he will play with friends at other country clubs in the L.A. area. (Some of these friends, naturally, are household names. He says he especially enjoys his rounds with a beloved sitcom actor who’s a good player, even if there’s sometimes too much upper body in his swing.) When I tell him I’m jealous of the courses his tour schedule must allow him to play—he leaves this week to start a series of dates in support of his latest record, New Standards, that will take him into the middle of next year—Kenny says he rarely takes his clubs on the road. Playing as a guest, he explains, is too much of a to-do, with the photo-ops and member glad-handing it inevitably entails. “I’m very happy to do it,” he says, “but I can’t get to the venue tired out.”
This quasi Zen helps him when he does get in high-stakes games, like that final round at Pebble Beach with Mickelson, or those club championships. “I think, ‘I’ve done this before,’” Kenny explains. “I just have to do it again.” But it also means that a bad practice round can cut just as deeply as a botched playoff hole. As our foursome prepares to make the turn, Kenny is dejected by his play on the front nine—the balls straying left, the torso and right shoulder that betray his brain by fractions of an inch—and swears he’s going to play to even par on the back. He, Cesar, and Brad briefly trade barbs about the running games (aside from the team Nassau, he has a side bet with Cesar), but after parking at the 10th tee box, Kenny is back in his own head, muttering notes to himself: new ones, amended ones, searching for whatever might break the spell.
“I wasn’t turning enough.” Kenny is frustrated with himself, but he thinks he may have pinpointed what sunk him on the front nine. “I thought I was. And then, coming through, my right side was too high; there wasn’t enough right-side bend. The club was coming from the outside and my right shoulder was too high, so everything was going to go left.”
Conventional wisdom is that it’s impossible to play good golf with too cluttered a mind. For years, coaches have urged players to keep in their mind a swing thought—a mantra of sorts to reinforce good habits, discourage bad ones, and, perhaps most importantly, take up whatever space might be filled by more intrusive doubts. Some players favor swing thoughts that are literal (“Rotate your hips”; “Cover the ball”); others opt for sensory reminders of what a good swing should feel like (I’ve played with more than one golfer who mumbles about a jar of honey). Just about anything can work. The key is that you’re supposed to have a single swing that you can repeat from the first tee through the 18th fairway, one that can prevent you from thinking about the thousands of tiny mental and physical variables that can affect each of the shots you take that day.
Kenny does not seem to subscribe to this approach. Throughout our round, he is constantly telling himself—telling us—what he’s focusing on during each shot. His concerns are mostly physical and could span a whole semester of anatomy; they involve advice from Gankas and frustrating results he’s gotten from his swings so far. Here’s the funny thing: Kenny is good at this. He is somehow able to integrate these innumerable, seemingly disparate bits of feedback into a coherent new approach, which he puts together on the fly. He birdies 10, then 11, then 12. Cesar, even with his metronomically reliable short fades, begins to sweat.
As he plays better, Kenny—who is friendly and gracious by default, or perhaps because of decades in the public eye—grows looser. He fixes my swing by watching my shadow and celebrates when I make a par off of some poor homeowner’s barbecue. He also tells an incredible story about Tiger Woods: Once, Tiger and Kenny were playing here when Tiger, who had reached a green under regulation, missed what appeared to be a half-hearted putt. When Kenny asked if Tiger had missed it on purpose, the superstar admitted he had. “He said he doesn’t like to make eagles on practice days,” Kenny recalls, shaking his head at the embarrassment of riches.
Kenny is a tremendous putter. He says he has recently worked with the renowned putting instructor Preston Combs, but it’s hard to imagine him needing anything beyond a quick tune-up. “I putted well,” he’ll later say. “Plus, I was more interested in the putts because they were birdie putts.” When we turned in—Kenny and I victorious over Brad and Cesar for the team bet, my [ahem] mid-90s round unremarkable but good for a few saved holes—he was one over for the back nine, for an 80 that represented neither how much he struggled when he was trying to integrate all this new advice into his swing nor how superbly he played when the pieces finally cohered.
Sherwood’s clubhouse is stately and, today, mostly empty; a table of near strangers reintroduce themselves to Kenny, who waves politely. We sit down and hear people gossip the way they do at country clubs: who sold which house to whom, which members’ handicaps can’t be trusted. (“You might as well light your money on fire,” someone says about giving strokes to a particularly famous one.) Kenny’s mind, though, has not yet finished processing the round. “I hit some really good shots the other day on the range, so I thought I had my swing thoughts together,” he explains. They were: “Big turn back—really turn my hips coming back—straighten my right leg coming back so I can leave my hips turned, to get that club deeper. Then the thought was, from the top, shallow the club but also square the face with a bowed left wrist.” As mentioned, this bucks all wisdom about quieting one’s mind during a round. But what would overload most players’ psyches merely locks Kenny in.
When the front nine went poorly, he says, he doubled down on these mechanical commitments. “It’s not like I could save a good round,” he shrugs, so he pushed himself to make bigger and bigger turns, until he felt that that was working. Once he did, he could feel his right side again resisting him. But a second correction to that area of his swing allowed him to finish strong on 16, 17, and 18, and secure that impressive back-nine score.
“I just really want to get to the point where my mechanics are sound enough,” he says. “They don’t have to be like my sax playing. In my sax playing, my mechanics are perfect. I just want [my swing mechanics] to be sound, so I’m striking the ball solidly most of the time.” Like any golfer, he says he has realistic expectations for how consistent he can be (“I’m going to hit bad shots—the pros hit a lot of bad shots”); also like any golfer, his voice suggests he doesn’t quite believe this.
Outside the clubhouse, the sun begins to set. It’s winter, and before too long, the course will be too dark to play on. While Cesar and Brad finish their wine and mull a second plate of coconut shrimp, and I try to figure out whether I’m looking at an hour or three getting back to the city, Kenny grows restless. As he recounts the great shots he hit on the back nine—his drives on 13, 14, and 15, his approach on 17—he sounds less and less satisfied. “There’s no reason I should have double-bogeyed that hole,” he says of 13, when that promising drive was sunk by a poor swing from the fairway. Perhaps remembering that misstep, he fixes and refixes his wrist in imaginary practice swings. When the club members at the table next to ours stand and turn toward the showers, Kenny cranes his neck around them, stealing a look out the building’s side window: He’s hoping he can sneak back onto the range.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.