Michael Phelps unplugged: On a winning mindset, famous friends and chasing scratch

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all-time, but now he’s got his mind set on other things. Among them? His golf handicap.

The post Michael Phelps unplugged: On a winning mindset, famous friends and chasing scratch appeared first on Golf.

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all-time, but now he’s got his mind set on other things. Among them? His golf handicap.

The post Michael Phelps unplugged: On a winning mindset, famous friends and chasing scratch appeared first on Golf.

It’s a typical Wednesday in November, but also atypical because Michael Phelps is calling. As in, the 23-time gold-medal winner and most decorated Olympian of all-time.

Phelps does other stuff these days. He’s a motivational speaker, a mental-game consultant to fellow star athletes, an addicted golfer and tired dad (four boys!), who deals with the same parenting stresses that many of us do, like keeping stir-crazy kids from pestering each other (we bonded over that). Competitive swimming behind him, Phelps, who is 38, is now uber-focused on other projects and passions. Among them: lowering his handicap.

Just as the first hole at any golf course is usually a friendly handshake — often a standard par-4 designed to not immediately ruin scorecards — interviews are the same way, so when the phone rings, and it’s Phelps, we start him off with a soft ball.

Hey Michael, how often are you playing golf these days?

He talks for two minutes straight. About his upcoming rounds at Augusta National (first time!) and his fitness routine that’s focused solely on golf mobility, movements and power. About how he uses the same trainer — Keenan Robinson — from his swimming days. About how he takes 100 swings with a wedge nearly every day, how he’s always looking at ball position and why he’s now working on hip stability. He’s still learning about it all, he says, but he’s loving it.

“I know I gave you a lot there,” he says, laughing.

Yes, Michael Phelps is in a chatty mood today. Let’s dive in.

[This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]


GOLF: So much goes into being an elite athlete or a professional athlete. It sounds like some of the serious training you did for swimming, you’re just tweaking and now focusing those workouts for golf.

Michael Phelps: Yeah, 100 percent. I have goals in the game. I’d like to get down to a scratch. I’m a 7 handicap right now. I’ve kind of corrected my spray off the tee and have been able to dial that in. So I’m giving myself a chance to actually play — teaching myself more feel around the greens, watching some people and talking to [short-game guru] Parker [McLachlin]. I know that to get to a scratch golfer, that’s going to take time. It’s going to take practice. It’s going to take a lot of energy. And that’s something that I’m excited to do, because that’s what I did in order to accomplish the goals that I did in the sport of swimming. So it kinda gives me that competitive focus and a way for me to channel that energy nowadays.

Have you seen your handicap improve much over the last handful of years?

Oh my gosh. When I first picked up a club with Hank Haney when I was on “The Haney Project” on Golf Channel — I was there for six months — honestly, he really taught me the game. We broke 90 for the first time. I was not very good. Hit it a mile, but never know which way it went.

In 2012, when I first retired, I played for about two years. Probably got down to like a 14. And then I retired from the game again to come back and make one more run at the Olympics, and then probably stayed at a 14 for a while. And then the big change really probably happened over the last two years. I think I carded 80 rounds last year. I was playing a lot of golf. Naturally, when you’re playing golf, and for me, as someone who is a feel person — that’s how I was when I swam — you just get into that rhythm the more repetitions that you have.

So as for your 23 Olympic golds, if each of those were worth a stroke, how many would you give up to lower that handicap?

I’m a process person, so I don’t think I’d give up any of them. Every one of those gold medals for me was a step in the process for me to be who I was. As frustrating as it is sometimes, the game of golf, it’s something that’s very similar to swimming because you have to focus on the small, simple technique things. So the more time you put into this sport, the more you are going to get out of it. And it’s not just from getting better, right? You’re gonna learn so much patience and so much more about yourself. So for me, I feel like I’ve learned so much already in the game. But I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of what else I can learn.

And look, I got three boys right now, with another boy coming (Nico, the fourth, was born in January). In my dream world, I would love for them to play golf and give it a run to try to be a professional golfer. I’m in love with the sport. They watch me obsess about the sport. I have a golf club sitting next to my desk. I always have things around, to try to get feel. So hopefully they’re picking up on that. But at the end of the day, I want them to just be themselves and find something they’re passionate about.

michael phelps at the wm phoenix open
Michael Phelps, who lives in the area, will make his return to the WM Phoenix Open pro-am next week. Getty Images

At one point you didn’t use fairway woods. Is that still a thing?

I used to hate hitting any kind of wood off the tee. And I was hitting a driving iron for a long time. Whatever mental block was in my head, I tried to find the right driver. I went through different lengths. I did this and that. And I finally just got comfortable with the one I have. And when your mind is clear, it’s really, really kinda cool what you can do. For me, it’s just trying to get my head right and believe I can hit the shot. If you watch my game, I really don’t hit driver often. I typically hit my trusty 3-wood that goes pretty much just as far as my driver does.

There are many physical tools that transition well to other sports. But what’s something non-physical that’s benefited you on the golf course that you learned from swimming?

I think confidence. I think that goes a long way. I was always confident in the swimming pool, which meant I got the results that I wanted, most of the time. Preparation is something that’s always important. So if I have the confidence factor and I believe I can do something, then I feel like that’s kinda really all it is. And I know that sounds really simple. But there are days where I feel like you get in your head, especially in the game of golf. You hit two or three bad shots and just get completely frustrated. But now I’ve gotten to the point where I take a step back and try to figure out what the basics are to hit a golf ball. I know how to hit good shots. So it’s just finding a way to get out of your own way. That was something that I did in the pool — just let it happen. So whatever you have that day is what you have that day. And there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Dream foursome. Who ya got?

You gotta put Tiger in there. Tiger, Michael Jordan, me… I don’t know. The fourth? I don’t know. That would be a hard one. I’ve never played with Tiger. I have played with MJ. That would be fun, and the s**t talking that we would have would be incredible.

What’s it like playing with MJ?

We played together back when he had his charity event at Aria. He was playing like twice a day. I don’t know if he’s still playing as much as he used to. I remember I came out for a practice round the day before and he was like 72-69. And [Mario] Lemieux and I went out and beat him the next day. But it was crazy. His game is just so good. And his competitiveness comes out. I watched him get out of a fairway bunker on 18 at Shadow Creek from like 190-something, and then he drained like a 30-footer. I was like, “Dude, you sh***ing me?” I mean, he’s got great hands, and he obviously puts a ton of time in. I’m not talking any s**t to him. I didn’t bet him. [Laughs.] But he’s just a great human. And the time that I’ve been with him has been really fun and special for me.

michael phelps michael jordan
Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps on “Feherty Live” at the 2012 Ryder Cup. Getty Images

Do you use any apps, gadgets or GPS watches when you play?

I enjoy music on the course, so a speaker is typically found in my cart, and a rangefinder. I don’t wear a watch when I play, but I do have a watch on every single day. Omega is the only sponsor that’s been a part of every one of my gold-medal runs. They’re just a part of the family.

Any favorite pieces?

It’s my gold Seamaster. I have a couple gold ones that I absolutely love. Obviously I love gold. But they’re just so timeless and incredible.

If you don’t wear a watch on the course, I guess you can’t track your pace of play. Do you play as fast as you swim?

I despise playing slow. There is nothing more annoying than playing slow. When we play at Silverleaf we’ll play a five- or a six-ball, and we’ll be done in three hours. If it’s over four hours, I start getting really, really, really bored. And it shows in my golf.

How do you mark your golf ball?

It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. It’s usually just a smiley face. We all have those s**tty times in the round where we get pissed off. And if I just look down at the golf ball and there’s a smiley face, every now and then I smile. That or I just put MP.

What color is the smiley face?

It’s either black or red.

So when you were back in your swimming prime, eating right, preserving and using energy, that was super important. It’s also big on the golf course. Do you have a go-to meal or snack or something you used when you were swimming you might use on the golf course now?

I was trying to get as many carbs and calories into my system as I possibly could. Just racing that much over eight days, I had to maintain my racing weight. But on the golf course, the first year or so I never would eat, and I would always crash at the end of the round. I’m like, “What the hell is going on? This is really bizarre.” And I started having a conversation with Jon Rahm and some of the other players about that and asking them what they do and how often they eat. And it makes sense, right? Like, those guys are trying to keep their levels at an even plane. They don’t want the spikes and the lows. They want them all consistently through the round. So naturally Rahm eats his sandwiches and so on.

For me, we have little halfway houses at Silverleaf. And they always have peanut butter and jellies or some kind of chicken salad sandwich. And I’ll grab something every three or four holes. I always have bars or like pretzels in my bag, or almonds, some kind of snack. And I know that if I’m not snacking throughout the round, then my game is going to be affected by that. So I’ve gotten to the point now that I’m just conscious of it like I was when I was swimming. I knew that I had to feed my body like a racecar if I wanted it to perform like a racecar. And it’s the same thing on the golf course, right?

So if your goal is scratch, do you have a timeline to get there?

My schedule is always changing, so I’ll make a couple improvements and then I’ll go backwards. And I drop even more. And then I go backwards. So it’s the consistency for me. I would like to be at a scratch in the next three, four years. I think that’s a possibility.

Where do you need to improve the most in your game? Is it consistency? Putting?

Definitely not putting. I’m a drippy putter. I love, love, love putting. I think my biggest thing is really around the greens. It’s gotten a lot better in the last year, but now I wanna get to the point where I can play different shots.

What’s your gamer putter?

Scotty Cameron just dialed one up for me: an all-gold-plate DSS. It looks so incredible. In my whole career, I’ve only played Scotty blades. My wife likes mallets. She hit my gold [Cameron] a few times, and she’s like, “I could get used to this.” [Laughs.] I’m like, “Get out of here! That is not going in your bag!”


I know you play a good amount of golf with Jon Rahm. What’s that like?

I love Rahmbo. I’ve had a chance to get to know him over the last years, and our relationship just started when he just asked a couple of questions. And it turned into a pretty cool friendship. Our kids play together. It’s just awesome being around him, watching him. I try to help him as much as I can and give him as many pointers as I can. I’m not competing against him out there, the other boys are. He just basically asks a ton of questions here and there and we pick each other’s brains.

What kind of things does he ask you about? He’s spoken to the media before about how you helped him around the time his first son was born.

He just asks about my mental approach to things and like preparation. One of the very first things I remember him saying was like, “How come you, Kobe, LeBron, Tiger all say the same exact answers?” I’m like, “Well, we all got to a certain place. So it must not be rocket science.”

It’s helping him kinda just break the big things down into little pieces. Like whatever he’s trying to focus on, whatever his goal is, instead of just thinking about that goal, it’s trying to break that down into a bunch of different things you can bite off instead of that one big thing at once. So just trying to process things and manage the stresses of life. Obviously with a child, and now with two kids for him, it adds a different layer to it. Just trying to help him along however I can through the things that I’ve experienced in my journey.

I read that you also talked to Jordan Spieth about the mental aspect as well. Are you working with a lot of athletes or pro golfers?

Jordan and I worked together when I was with Under Armour for a bunch of years, so we got to know each other pretty well there. Justin Thomas and I have talked. I’ve got a couple guys that have reached out. And my door is always open. Anything I can give based off my experiences to potentially help somebody, that’s what the game’s about.

In the sport of swimming, I called some of the old-school veterans and was able to pick some of their brains to see how they did it. All I did was implement the things that I liked into how I did it. And they helped me. So if I can help anybody along their journey to make it easier, to make it more enjoyable, to make it less stressful, I’m all in. My playbook was not given to me. There was no blueprint on how to win eight gold medals [at the 2008 Olympics]. It was trial and error. And we had to figure it out. So anything I’ve learned, I’m happy to pass.

Jon Rahm celebrates with the Masters trophy during the Green Jacket Ceremony after winning the 2023 Masters.
Jon Rahm celebrates with the Masters trophy after winning his second major title last April. Getty Images

Mental health awareness has been a big part of your post-swimming life. You’re traveling places, you’re talking about it. Why has it been so important to you?

It’s just a part of me. I like to help people, and my journey throughout my career wasn’t alone. I had other people that were helping me through it. So if I can help, I wanna help. I’m not competing anymore, so I’ll give away my secrets to people who wanna know.

As for the process of having one big goal and breaking that down into smaller pieces, what’s a mental approach example of this that an average golfer can learn from?

I take every single shot at a time. At my home course I have my bugaboo tee shots that I just don’t like. So instead of trying to think about those three shots that are three holes ahead of me, I just think, “I have this perfect lie in the middle of the fairway. I’m gonna just pay attention to that,” and I set myself up on that exact shot. It’s relatable to the sport of swimming, because it was every single stroke, right? Like, my body and hip position had to be in the right alignment at every single part of the stroke. And if it wasn’t, then I was acting against myself and causing more tension. So it’s just like for me in the sport of golf, it’s literally like, “Alright, I have a tee shot. Where do I wanna hit it? Aim there. Trust it. Make a good swing. Wherever it goes, go to the next shot. Don’t overthink things.” I think that’s one thing for me that I learned through the pandemic is control what you can control. There are so many things that are out of your control. Figure out what you can control. Work on that. And move forward. Everything should be a learning process.

Do you read any sports psychology or self-help books, things like that?

There are some things I dabble in. Sports stuff, I don’t know. I have a hard time believing that somebody who never went through something can tell you how to go through something. But “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, is one that I love. It’s just about living in the moment. That’s one I basically have on repeat. And Mark Nepo has a daily reading called “The Book of Awakening.” There are certain things that I’ve implemented that just help me kind of take that step back, take that pause, take that 30 seconds to just think about whatever moment you’re trying to think about or break down throughout the day. I guess throughout the pandemic, I’ve learned to be more mindful and aware of certain things, focus on that self care, that self awareness and all of those small things.

There seems to be so much more emphasis on the mental aspect of the sport these days. Not just properly preparing and getting yourself in the right mindset, but managing things like stress and anxiety. Why do you think that’s all of a sudden changed?

I think because people were afraid to talk about it before. Generationally, our parents, their parents’ parents, have taught us to stuff things down and compartmentalize and pretend like everything’s OK. But we need to talk about these things. We need to get them out in the open. And I think we’ve really seen a shift in that sense the pandemic. I think for me, I opened up in 2014. And then you saw Kevin Love, you saw Naomi Osaka. You saw Simone Biles. Her mental-health struggles happened at the most high-stress moment of her life, at the Olympic Games. So it just shows that these things sometimes are out of our control. But they are things that we need to talk about and we need to address. The suicide rate continues to rise. And the more that we do to approach these things and talk about these things, then we can make a difference and we can make an impact and save lives.

In our household, we have these things called lion breaths. So a lion breath is just a deep breath. And the kids get to roar and scream as loud as they want. Look, I got boys. It’s loud as hell. But they’re able to take a step back and say, “Beckett hurt my feelings,” or “Maverick hurt my feelings.” Then it’s, “Well, why did he hurt your feelings?” And then they talk through the situation. They’re not gonna carry that thing through life and have that trauma potentially later in life. It’s incredible to watch them talk about their problems. And they do it at school as well. So the more I can teach that, and the more we can try to teach our kids the importance of expressing your feelings and emotions, I think we’re really gonna see a shift.

The post Michael Phelps unplugged: On a winning mindset, famous friends and chasing scratch appeared first on Golf.

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