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Golf keeps Raptors’ Kyle Lowry in the swing of things

When the point guard isn’t dishing the rock, chances are you’ll find him on the golf course

SAN FRANCISCO – Hey, Kyle, how did you shoot at the Olympic Club golf course?

Looking the part wearing a black relaxed strap hat, orange golf shirt and slacks, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry answered, “I shot a 92,” on the eve of an October road game against the Golden State Warriors.

The NBA’s most notable golfer is Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who played well in a Web.com tournament event this year. Other current players known for their golf game include Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala, J.R. Smith and Mike Miller. Lowry, however, has quietly become one of the NBA’s most avid golfers, and plays all over the world after hailing from a Philadelphia neighborhood that didn’t even have a golf course.

“I’ve played so many golf courses,” Lowry said. “I have so many goals of places I want to play. There are so many things you can do with golf. You can play golf all over the world. I played a course in China five years ago and it was just me and the caddy out there.

“I have an opportunity to play some of the best courses ever. I can go and play and travel the world playing basketball and travel the world more playing golf. You appreciate it.”

Rapper/actor Will Smith glamorized being from West Philadelphia, born and raised/ on the playground is where I spent most of my days in the theme song for the television show Fresh Prince of Bel Air. North Philadelphia, however, is far from glamorous, with its history of drugs, poverty, violence and police brutality with a predominantly black and Puerto Rican population.

North Philadelphia has a population of close to 60,000 with an average salary of $30,568, a poverty rate of 45.8 percent, an unemployment rate of 21.7 percent, with nearly 40 percent who are not high school graduates and a college graduation rate of just 10.6 percent, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It was the ‘hood, ‘hood,” Lowry said.

Lowry grew up in a row house on 21st and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, where Connie Mack Stadium once stood. The Philadelphia Phillies played in the stadium before it burned down. Today, there is a giant church and a McDonald’s.

“I’m really from the dirt,” Lowry said. “My mom worked two jobs. My grandma worked. They did everything to provide for us.”

Lowry used to walk to a bus stop to take a bus to a subway station and took the subway to get to Cardinal Dougherty High School. Then-Cardinal Dougherty boys basketball coach Dave Distal often gave Lowry a ride home from school, but he didn’t stick around the neighborhood long.

“His neighborhood is actually, ‘the ’hood,’ ” Distal said. “He’s fortunate that their street always stayed as strong as it could. He just turned out the way he did because his mom and grandma never let he and his older brother go out. They did go to the playground and play basketball when the light was out, but they had to be back at a certain time. The sun goes down, you’re not going out.

“There was a subway and bus for him going to our high school. It would be 4 degrees out and he asked, ‘Can you drop me off on the way home?’ I just felt bad because he had to walk to get to the bus and then take a bus to go get the subway and then he would walk to get home. I’d drive 20 minutes out of my way to take him home quite a bit when he was a kid. When I would drive on to that street, when you drove on to that neighborhood, you always knew not to slow down.”

As for golf courses, there were none in North Philadelphia. The area was known for producing basketball players, not golfers, such as Lowry, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus and Markieff Morris, and Maalik Wayns.

Lowry was a basketball star at Dougherty and at Villanova University. The 6-foot, 205-pound guard is a three-time NBA All-Star, but his pro career started slowly after he was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 24th pick in the 2006 NBA draft.

Lowry averaged fewer than 10 points per game and was primarily a reserve during the first four seasons of his career with the Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. During his last season as a reserve, he came off the bench behind Aaron Brooks with the Rockets during the 2009-10 season. Lowry’s breakthrough season came during the 2010-11 campaign, when he started 71 games for Houston and averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 assists. He made his first NBA All-Star game appearance with the Raptors in 2015 and also won a gold medal as a member of the USA Basketball team in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors warms up before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 30, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“I just got famous,” Lowry said with a laugh.

Lowry and his wife, Ayahna, have two sons, Karter and Kameron. But before his marriage and the birth of his kids, he was yearning for something to do with his free time after his third season with the Grizzlies. Distal suggested taking up golfing. At that time, Lowry’s only involvement in golf was playing a Tiger Woods video game.

A skeptical Lowry took Distal up on the offer by going with his old coach to hit balls before trying the game at a golf course in New Jersey.

“I never watched golf until my third year in the league,” Lowry said. “I was 23 in my third season in the NBA, and I was bored at home. I had nothing to do. You work out and you have nothing to do the rest of the day. I am working out at 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning to 10:30, and I’m done. I have no kids, not married, have my girl who is my wife now. My high school coach was like, ‘Dude, you got to do something. Come play golf with me.’ I said, ‘Golf?’

“I always played the Tiger Woods video game though, supporting the black man of golf. The first time I played I had no idea what was going on. I was just like, ‘Let me hit this ball.’ We went to this little raggedy public course … It was the hardest thing I had done in my life. I couldn’t hit this little ball. It ain’t moving. I tried to hit it so hard and I’m swinging so hard. I’m missing the ball. I’m hitting it two feet right, 30 feet left. I can’t do it. But I was like, this is my challenge, to be good at golf. My challenge until I retire was to be better at golf.”

“I always played the Tiger Woods video game though, supporting the black man of golf.”

After more trips to the golf course and some lessons, Lowry was hooked. He also continued to play the golf video game to become more familiar with the rules of the game, learning the correct clubs to use and dealing with the elements of the course such as distance, slope, chip shots and wind. Distal also told Lowry the game not only gave him a hobby, but also a sport that he could physically play the rest of his life.

Once Lowry fell in love with golf, he began playing three to five times per week during the offseason. After initially using rental clubs, Lowry got golf clubs from his shoe sponsor, Adidas, and played regularly with Miller while with Memphis.

“Would you rather me go play golf or rather me go do something dumb …,” Lowry said. “The one thing that dawned on me is that this could really be my hobby. This is my way away from basketball when the lights are not on and I’m not working. This is something completely different from basketball. But it might be more competitive than basketball when you play with the right people.

“Have you ever heard of, ‘the one good shot’? The first time I was out there I was like, ‘I need to get better at this.’ And then I had that one good shot. Seventeen bad shots and then one good shot. And I was like, ‘Man, how good did that feel?’ I want to do that again. That’s when the bug hit me.”

After getting acquainted with the game in Memphis, Distal said, Lowry began playing golf regularly when he joined the Rockets in 2009.

Distal said during Lowry’s early years he could hit the ball “a mile but it never went straight” and he was too aggressive. But Lowry quickly improved as they tried different shots on the course rather than playing for score.

“He would sit around playing video games,” Distal said. “I said to him, ‘You got to find something to do when you’re not playing basketball. A release. Something that slows you down. Something that is thought-provoking. Something social that you can do with other guys. Why don’t you try golf?’

“I told him that I had been playing almost my whole life. He was like, ‘All right. OK.’ It was as simple as that.”

Playing golf is certainly far from the norm in North Philadelphia. While his friends got a laugh out of it, it didn’t deter Lowry from swinging the clubs.

“Me coming where I come from, I didn’t see a golf course until I was in college,” Lowry said. “They said, ‘Golfing? What?’ One of my boys went out with me one time. What happens is you go from the hectic pace of the city life and concrete to the woods where you are at peace and hear the birds chirping. It’s just you and your thoughts and you and your friends having fun, joking. It’s a different calm that you don’t experience [at home].”

Asked what he would tell someone black from a tough neighborhood who is skeptical about playing golf, Lowry said: “ ‘Come join me for a round. Come experience this. It’s a different world from what we’ve grown up in. You’re always on your phone. But imagine going four hours without your phone? You know how peaceful that is? That’s peaceful.’

“You are out there with your friends. You can drink. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. They have beer and alcohol there. Have fun with it. I want to be good at it. I enjoy playing golf because I love the game of golf.”

Lowry said he played golf with Curry during the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Curry finished 8 over par at a Web.com tournament at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, California, in August. Curry said he and Lowry keep in touch about the golf courses they play on, and “the pursuit of perfection” and yearning for “the perfect swing” attracts them both to the game.

Lowry often plays basketball with a chip on his shoulder. Curry said it’s no different on the golf course.

“Everybody’s golf game is directly the same as their personality in their basketball game,” Curry told ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes. “[Lowry] is kind of feisty. Superserious, but feisty on the course in a good way. Every shot he has to find some angle to attack.

“You’re competitive with yourself. You know what is going on in the scorecard with the group. And every shot matters. I played with him All-Star weekend last year. He has not been playing that long, but his game is solid for having a day job like everyone else.”

While Lowry’s focus is basketball during the NBA season, it is not uncommon for him to play when time permits or bring his golf clubs on the road with the Raptors. He takes golf trips all over the United States, Canada and other parts of the world. Lowry said his three favorite golf courses are Aviara Golf Club in San Diego, Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and Kingsbarns Golf Links in the United Kingdom. He takes lessons in Toronto during the winter when time permits. On Oct. 24, he played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco after the Raptors practiced and he did weight lifting.

Lowry uses a golf cart to save his legs when he plays during the NBA season.

“When it’s basketball season, I really try to focus on basketball,” Lowry said. “But when I can go play, I play. I love the game. People say, ‘How are you going to play golf [in season]?’ When you play golf, there isn’t a wear and tear [physically] … If you go out, you have to be able to perform.

“I’m carting. I’m not walking. During the season when I get a chance to play, I’m definitely using a cart. But in the summer, I like to walk. It’s very calming, but it’s a hard workout walking up and down the course. It’s a good little burn.”

Through golf, Lowry said he has learned a lesson about patience. Golf has also helped him improve his basketball game.

“We are constantly on our phones, but sometimes at some courses you have to put your phone away,” Lowry said. “That’s when you concentrate on being on the golf course and worry about shot by shot by shot. You’re not thinking about, ‘I got to go home and do this …’ You are really just out there putting your mind on the swing.

“For me, it helped me on the basketball court. You can always think about, ‘This is the next play.’ But you really have to concentrate at times on that possession only. That helps.”

Lowry is recognizable because of his success on the NBA hardwood. That has not kept him from experiencing some uncomfortable feelings from time to time on the golf course where often he is one of the few blacks playing.

“If my kids want to play golf, I want them to be able to say, ‘I will play wherever I want to play and do whatever I want to do,’ ” Lowry said. “I am not worried about nobody but myself. Being a strong black man up there on the course, I’m going to enjoy myself. I am going to have the proper etiquette. I know how to play the game. I know what to do on the course and what not to do. I got everything. You’re not going to catch me out there with cargo fatigue shorts. I’m dressed right. You got to respect the craft.

“You see [racism]. It’s the older white gentlemen. You saw it when I first started playing. But now I am a member of these courses. People know who I am. I know not to hit up on you. Don’t hit up on me. I might be out here and hit a bad shot or two, but I know I got to keep the pace up. Sometimes a hole can beat you up. I’ve never heard racism. But you’ve gone forward enough, where it’s not just a white sport. It’s a black sport. It’s an Asian sport. It’s an Indian sport. It’s an all-type of sport, every nationality sport.”

“Sometimes a hole can beat you up. I’ve never heard racism. But you’ve gone forward enough, where it’s not just a white sport. It’s a black sport. It’s an Asian sport. It’s an Indian sport. It’s an all-type of sport, every nationality sport.”

Distal said Lowry can hit the ball far and will be a great golfer when he masters the short game and “gets up and down [on the] greens.” Lowry actually persuaded Distal to delay knee surgery until October so they could play golf several times before he departed to Raptors training camp.

Distal said Lowry has a 14-15 handicap and can “consistently” score in the 80s or 90s. While they have been great friends for years, Distal says, golf has brought them even closer while playing in Great Britain, Scotland, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Spain, and Las Vegas courses, among other places.

“We’ve probably played 300 times, and he’s probably beaten me two or three times,” Distal said. “And he lets me know when he has beaten me. It’s a lot of fun playing with him right now. He’s very competitive. He wants to win. He wants to see different courses, different layouts. He’s become a golf junkie.

“He’s on the road so much. He sends me [website] links and says, ‘Yo, we got to hit this up this summer. We got to go to this place. We got to go to that place.’ He’s really into it. I’m very fortunate that he doesn’t forget the old white guy. He’s a great kid, man. He really is. This [golf] thing has really given us an opportunity to spend a lot of hours together.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.