BEHIND THE SCENES
9 Questions With Darius Rucker July 28, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By David Chmiel, USGA

Country music star Darius Rucker is as comfortable with a golf club in his hands as he is with a guitar. (Courtesy/Jim Wright)

 

Music freezes moments in time: a song, a kiss, a concert, a group of friends. An album cover, captured forever at that point in its creativity.

Most people wanted Darius Rucker to remain the frontman for Hootie & the Blowfish, the pop-rock band that started at the University of South Carolina in 1986 when Mark Bryan heard Rucker singing in the shower of their dorm. The band’s first album, Cracked Rear View, spent two months at the top of the Billboard charts in 1995 and spawned three top-10 hits. By 2006, the band had sold 26 million records, won Grammy Awards and filled U.S. arenas with screaming fans. But Rucker was ready to sing a different song. 

He just wanted to play the music he’d loved since he was a kid. By 2008, Rucker had ditched the rock-star life for more down-home sensibilities, signing as a solo artist with Capitol Nashville records. Despite an industry skeptical of a rock-star crossover – especially an African American rock star – Rucker’s first country album, Learn to Live, caught the public’s attention. The first single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About it,” went to No. 1, making him the first African American to top the charts since country icon Charley Pride did it in 1983. With two more No. 1 hits, the album went platinum. Now he’s a Grammy-winning country star, finishing his next album and hoping that his new single, “If I Told You,” becomes his seventh No. 1 country hit.

“We still play four or five shows a year together. They are my friends,” the Charleston, S.C., native said of his former bandmates. “I know we will do something again one of these days and I totally get how connected people were with our music. It is a great feeling to know that we mattered to so many people, but country music is my day job now.”

Actually, country music is Rucker’s night job, especially when he’s headlining sold-out shows across the country. That means he’s got plenty of time for his daytime passion: golf.

“Right now, my Handicap Index is 5.6. I can shoot either a 73 or an 84,” he said. “I never know what it is going to be from one day to the next, but I post every score. I am serious about maintaining my handicap.”

Rucker says he tees it up three or four times a week, especially when he is home in Charleston. The devoted family man is happiest there, with his wife, Beth Leonard, and the children, Caroline, 21; Daniella, 15; and Jack, 11.

Aside from the whole living-out-our-fantasy role model, Rucker is just a guy who thought he was going to be a sportscaster. As he prepared to play a show at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – “I love playing here because it’s close to where my wife grew up” – Rucker talked music, golf and sports:

1) Your new song, If I Told You, seems deeply personal. Is this the most you’ve shared in your country work? What will the rest of the album be like? When is it due?

We went into the studio to start working on the album. In our first session, we recorded six songs and “If I Told You” just shined from the start. It is so well-written [by Ross Cooperman, Shane McAnally and Jon Nite]. It blew me away. It feels so personal and we started building the album around it. We always try for the best mix of stories to tell, well-written up-tempo songs with some mid-tempo tunes and ballads. We hope to have it ready by early next year.

2) You’ve said that you remember gravitating to country music when you were a kid. Are you home or do you still feel the pull of doing a Hootie & the Blowfish collaboration?

I used to love watching Hee Haw on TV when I was a kid. My brothers and sisters weren’t happy about it, but I just loved the music. Back then, it was easier to listen to a lot of different music. I had an AM radio and listened to Al Green, Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, Charley Pride and Cheap Trick – sometimes in the same hour on the same station! That is why it felt so natural to play pop and rock when we started in college. Even when we got popular, I kept saying, ‘Hey, let’s play country music.’ The guys were like, ‘I don’t know about that…’ In 1999, I started saying that I was going to make a country record, but I just thought it would be me and some friends and it wouldn’t sell.

3) What does your success with country music, including your membership in the Grand Old Opry, mean to you?

It’s hard to put into words. It was scary. There were a lot of people, then and now, who didn’t believe it would work, including me. The fans have been so supportive. It’s about the music, not the color of the person playing the music. To be one of three African Americans in the Opry is such an honor. I always say that nothing I deal with is close to what Charley and DeFord Bailey endured.

4) How did you get started playing golf?

I was 14 years old. I spent a lot of time with my friend, Rick Johannes. His dad was a captain in the U.S. Navy, stationed at the base in North Charleston. That family was a huge part of my upbringing. I was at their house for dinner and they were talking about playing at Wrenwoods Golf Course on the base. They said, “Darius, do you want to come with us?” His dad said, “You are coordinated. Hit it hard and hit it far. Then do it again.” I was hooked right away. Rick is a doctor in Boston and we get together whenever we can. I talked to his dad recently; he taught me about many things. I especially owe him for getting me into the game.

Rucker is always happy to be playing golf, especially when he is using his platform to raise money for good causes. (Courtesy/Jim Wright)

5) Do you play nine holes to get a round in between rehearsal and performing? Are you encouraging your kids to get into golf?

About half my rounds are posted away from home. It is not unusual to see the tour van parked in a golf course parking lot. I don’t play just nine holes often, but when I do, I enjoy it. Our middle daughter, Daniella, will play with me a little bit, but our son, Jack, is 11 now and really getting in it. It is fun to watch him. He will try any shot – he really goes for it, over or around anything. He is playing well. I don’t expect him to make a career of it, I just hope we get to play together forever. We are a Tiger household, but DJ is Jack’s favorite. I texted him after he won the Open. I spoke with Tiger a few months ago and he is feeling much better. I am telling you, a Tiger comeback would be a beautiful thing for him and for golf.

6) Does being able to get up in front of an audience of thousands make it any easier to hit the first tee shot of the day?

No, not at all. I know that I can hit the right note, but I am not always sure I can hit it down the middle. I have been lucky enough to play in the AT&T Invitational and that first tee shot at Pebble Beach is one of the most stressful things I do each year. I love playing in it, but it’s scary to see people that close to me when I am not exactly sure where the ball is going to go.

7) Golf is a social game, much like performing with a band. Who do you most like to play golf with?

Absolutely! Whether you are on stage or playing golf, all it takes is one person to throw everything off. I have a group of guys I play with in Charleston. We don’t play too fast or too slow, but we’re upbeat. We like to compete but unless it’s a tournament, we are here to have a lot of fun. It’s hard to deal with when you bring in somebody new and they don’t get that. I don’t care what your handicap is, we are here to enjoy the day. We had a new guy who played poorly and had a terrible attitude. I just looked at him and said, ‘Dude, you’re not good enough to be this upset about your game.’ Life is too short to not enjoy golf.

8) You carry on golf’s tradition of giving back with your “Monday after the Masters” and your “Darius and Friends” events. Why is golf such a good vehicle to help others?

I wish I had a profound answer, but I think it’s that people who love golf simply get it. I do about four or five a year and, in every case, people rally for the cause. With the “Monday After the Masters” and “Darius and Friends” events, we get together, raise a lot of money and have a blast. When a charity event is run correctly, I just look around and see people talking, laughing and enjoying the moment. It just feels right.

9) You just turned 50, so would you rather have another song top the country charts or win the 2016 U.S. Senior Open at Scioto Country Club? I don’t want to stop making hit records and I could never dream of playing golf for a living. I was talking to [former Atlanta Braves pitcher and Fox Sports MLB announcer] John Smoltz. He is a world-class athlete, in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a tremendous golfer, but we agreed that we'd have to change the name of either what we do or what these pros do – because we hit it nothing like them. I have been watching John Daly make progress this year and I hope that he can get the win at Scioto. It would be great for the game.

BONUS QUESTION:

10) Would you rather break 70 or see the Dolphins get a Super Bowl title?

My low round is a 71, but I am a big fan. The kids all were Dolphins fans, but then we went to a Dolphins-Packers game. The Dolphins won, but I watched Jack meet Aaron Rodgers. Just like that, I lost him. So now, I would be happy to keep shooting in the 70s, let the Dolphins win the Super Bowl and maybe get Jack back on the right team.

David Chmiel is manager of member content for the USGA. Contact him at dchmiel@usga.org