Moment of Impact: Q&A With Don Cheadle August 17, 2020 By Mike Trostel, USGA
Don Cheadle has played a wide variety of roles in nearly four decades as an actor – from entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. to War Machine, the superhero clad in body armor as part of Marvel Comics’ Avengers series – and everything in between. The Academy Award nominee has shown off his range by starring in such disparate films as Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Hotel Rwanda and Boogie Nights. But even as one of Hollywood’s busiest leading men, golf is never far from Cheadle’s mind.
He was introduced to the game as a teenager growing up in Kansas City, Mo. Tired of being left at home while his father, uncle and cousin went to the course, Cheadle began tagging along and his love for golf was born. He now sports a 7.6 USGA Handicap Index and plays about 50 rounds a year, including several pro-am tournaments.
But beyond his desire to shave a few strokes off his score, it’s Cheadle’s passion to make the game more accessible and sustainable that makes him notable. He recently began a partnership with the USGA to increase the value of public golf to communities throughout America. A few projects are already in the works, aimed at helping public courses near USGA championship venues.
Cheadle, 55, will also serve as a U.S. Open brand ambassador, lending his esteemed voice and stature to showcase what makes the championship truly special. During a commercial shoot in Los Angeles, we had a chance to catch up with Cheadle on the state of his game, some parallels between golf and acting, and which golfer he thinks might have a future in film.
When did you start to take the game seriously?
When I was in my 20s, I was in an HBO movie and they were sponsoring a pro-am tournament in Nevis. I thought, “Free trip to the Caribbean? I’m in!” It was a father-son event so of course I took my dad. That’s when I started taking lessons and really focused on improving my game.
What is the most important thing you learned from playing with your father?
The best lesson I learned was to not take the game too seriously. Enjoy it a little more. Most of us aren’t good enough to get that upset about a couple bad shots.
What’s a scouting report on the strengths and weaknesses in your game?
Like all golfers, it depends what day it is. I’d say putting is probably the best part of my game. And I know how to use the eraser very well!
What was your greatest accomplishment on the golf course?
I made a hole-in-one in a tournament with my wife and kids there. I was playing with a professional who won the event and there was a crowd of about 1,000 people watching. That’s going to be tough to beat.
When was your golfing peak? Or are you still improving?
I got it down to about a 5 handicap a few years ago, which meant I wasn’t working enough [laughs]. But once you know what you are capable of, it’s fun to chase it again. I need a lot of time off to get there though, so maybe I’ll have to stay a 7.5!
I’ve heard you write “L Tru” on your golf balls. What does that mean?
As golfers, we’re all a little crazy. I used to mark my ball with that because it was my swing thought. It is “left and truncated” so I don’t get too long in my backswing. Now it’s evolved a little bit and I’m focused on how I start my swing with the drag back. It’s always something.
What do you love most about the game?
The most rewarding thing is when you can control your emotions, being completely focused and “in the moment.” Not getting ahead of yourself and not being worried about what already happened, but really being present. It’s a great lesson for golf and something that really carries over to life.
What’s the best golf tip you’ve ever gotten?
It’s from my dad, actually. When I was starting, he told me to incorporate a little pause during the transition because I can be pretty quick sometimes. He said to let it collect. And I never really internalized that until much later in my game. And now whenever I do that, I can hit it pretty good.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen on the golf course?
Living in California, we are exposed to a lot of nature. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff. A hawk swoop down and eat a rattlesnake just off the green. A bear climbing a tree. But the one I remember most was a mountain lion on the tee box as we were on the green. We were looking at it saying “Is that a dog? That’s an awfully big dog. Dogs tails don’t look like tha-that’s a mountain lion!”
Does anyone else in your family play golf?
My kids used to but stopped a few years ago. It broke my heart because they had such beautiful swings. My wife doesn’t play much, but she’ll walk or ride around with me and read a book while I’m playing.
If you’re home, do you have a weekly game that you play?
I used to play pretty regularly – a few times a month – with a group of guys. If we were around, I’d get out there with Sam Jackson, Brian Goodman [actor/director], George Lopez, Anthony Anderson and Cedric [the Entertainer]. Everybody works. Everybody has families. But we love getting out whenever we can.
If you take a buddies golf trip, where are you going?
We have one that we call “The Brownie Cup.” We used to play it at Pebble Beach every year but have started moving it around a bit. We’re threatening to go to Bandon Dunes next year. That’s a place I really want to check out. Spend a week up there and lose your mind playing golf every day.
Are there any similarities or parallels between acting and playing golf?
I think there are. Number one, you have to be patient. Don’t force things, just let them come to you. You can’t try to chase perfection. The next is being in the moment. That’s probably the most important one because if you’re thinking about your score or you’re grumbling about what just happened, you’re probably going to mess up the shot you’re standing over. Same thing with acting. Don’t project into the future or live in the past, be in the “now.”
How much do you get to play when you’re shooting a movie on location?
As often as I can. When we did “The Avengers” movies I played a lot, at least a few times a week. When we shot The Guard in Ireland, I made sure to bring my clubs. If the weather is right and the opportunity is there, I tend to play a lot.
Of the actors you’ve played with, who has the best game?
Probably Oliver Hudson. He’s right around a scratch golfer.
Have any professional golfers you’ve played with been interested in a career in acting?
[Laughs] No, I’ve never talked to one who said they want to give it a shot full-time. But I do think some of them should try it because they might be crazy enough to pull it off. Pat Perez would be really interesting to watch because he’s a banana bird [laughs]. It’d be fun to watch him give it a go.
Would you have any interest in being in a golf movie?
If the role was right. I’ve been in fits and starts with a few golf movies to this point. I actually co-wrote a script that got sold, but never made.
Is there a truly great film about golf?
I think Tin Cup is really good. It’s such a human movie. It’s not really about golf; it explores personalities and the inner self. It’s about a guy trying to overcome his demons with the game, but for that dude [Roy McAvoy], if it wasn’t golf, it would have been something else. That’s why a movie like that is great, because it’s universal. People can connect to the human being through the sport.
You’re a pretty stylish guy. Do you have any fashion advice for guys on the golf course?
Thank goodness fashion has really stepped up the past few years. Now at least you can go out there and not look like a complete dork. Guys, you should think about the colors you are wearing. Coordinate a little bit, it helps the look. But I do think there is an opportunity to get in that market even more. Golf clothes are better, but still have a ways to go.
What is your favorite U.S. Open memory?
I love watching the U.S. Open because it’s a straight meritocracy, so if you qualify, you can play in it. But having played with a lot of professional golfers and seeing how good they are, it gives you a lot of insight into how challenging the U.S. Open can be. Tiger winning in that playoff over Rocco was amazing. Then we find out later he had a broken leg? Incredible! I asked Adam Scott one time who is the most underrated golfer out there. He said Tiger Woods. He’s the most celebrated golfer out there, but the most underappreciated at the same time. People have no idea how impossible what he’s accomplished actually is.
If you played Winged Foot in U.S. Open conditions, what would you shoot?
Oh man. I haven’t played Winged Foot yet, but I’ve played some other U.S. Open courses. When we were shooting Traffic, I played Torrey Pines a lot. It’s not the distance that’s the problem, it would be hitting it straight and staying out of that rough. If I put my ego away and hit 5-irons off every tee, I think I might have a chance to break 100. Take my bogeys, be happy and move on. But honestly it depends what day it is. Tuesday I might break 100 and Wednesday I might not be under 150.
Talk a bit about your passion for environmental causes.
Golf is a sport that requires large tracts of land, so it’s important to understand the impact that golf courses have on the communities in which they are located. They use natural resources and are home to many species of wildlife. We need to be mindful about what that means and understand the responsibility of golf courses within the ecosystem. I’m very happy to be partnering with the USGA because this isn’t just about doing one commercial and moving on. This is about looking at the impact that golf has on the environment and ensuring that it’s a sustainable relationship. It’s our responsibility to create a symbiotic relationship between the golf industry, the environment and the communities where these golf courses are located to make sure that everyone gets the benefit of them for generations to come.
When you’re out on a golf course, how do you view its role in the ecosystem?
I feel very fortunate to have played on beautiful courses on these pristine pieces of land. It’s important to ask yourself how you are participating as a steward of the world when you’re out here in your recreational joy. What is your responsibility? How do you give back? I was on the practice range at my home course talking about how a family friend started a movement to eliminate all plastic bags from Santa Monica. The conversation turned to how our course could do away with Styrofoam cups and plastic straws. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the son of the president of the course was hitting balls a couple of bays down and overheard this. He went home and asked his dad why the course wasn’t doing more to help protect the environment. The next day, his dad called and said, “We’re getting rid of single-use cups and straws.” It was an indirect thing that happened, but if you walk in your truth and are clear about what you want, good things can happen.
What are 1-2 small things that golfers can do each time they play to help the environment?
One simple thing is that everyone can bring a canteen and fill it with water. That way you don’t have to use the plastic cups or straws, which are really bad for the environment. Taking it a step further, you can find out what your course is – or isn’t – doing to be environmentally conscious and get involved in steering things in the direction you want them to go. Educate yourself. Organize. Most people don’t believe they have any power to affect the change that they want to see, but you usually have a lot more power than you believe you have.