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Michael Phelps talks about his new sport, playing with Bubba and his deal with Ping

Michael Phelps at the 2012 Ryder Cup
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Michael Phelps at the 2012 Ryder Cup

Michael Phelps, the winner of 22 Olympic swimming medals, including 18 golds, seems to have left the pool behind for the golf course.

He will star in this season's "Haney Project" on the Golf Channel, and Ping announced on Wednesday morning that it has signed the 27-year-old to an endorsement deal. Phelps will be playing 14 custom-fit Ping clubs on the show and in the pro-am at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Phelps's playing partner will be Bubba Watson, the defending Masters champion and a Ping staff player.

Ping outfitted Phelps with a custom-fit set of G25 woods, G25 irons, Tour wedges with Gorge Grooves and a new Scottsdale TR putter. For the 6-foot-4 Phelps, who carries a 21 handicap, Ping made the clubs 1 inch longer than standard, 3° upright and built up the grips by 1/32nd of an inch. Phelps also got a unique paint job.

You can see close-up photos of his set here.

During a phone call on Tuesday, it became clear that Phelps is completely smitten with golf despite his struggles on the course.

At what age did you start swimming competitively?
I started swimming when I was 7 years old.

So you were a competitive swimmer for most of your life, but now you're doing something you're not very good at in front of a lot of people. Does that make you nervous?
I played in an exhibition at the Ryder Cup. On the first tee and on the range I was pretty nervous. It literally got to the point where I could not tee up a driver because my hands were shaking so much while I was trying to stick the tee into the ground. I couldn't place the ball on top of the tee, so I pretty much went with a 3-wood every time and just stuck the tee into the ground as fast as I could.

 

 

You also competed in the 2012 Dunhill Links Championship last October. What was that like?
Being able to be over there and play is one of the coolest things because it gives you a chance to play where golf started. There's so much history over there and so many amazing golfers have walked the same courses that I had a chance to walk. For me that was a massive honor.

Little by little I have been improving, but to be able to sink a putt like that [153-foot putt] was maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

To get something like that done so early is pretty incredible, but this whole experience has been incredible. I've been able to literally do just about everything in golf. I've traveled to some of the coolest events and met some the coolest players. I'm looking forward to playing here in Phoenix and at other pro-ams.

This is fun for me, to be able to play with the pros now and be able to pick their brain and see how they approach things. These guys are the best at what they do, and being able to talk with some of the players and see what they do and mimic what they do has been a lot of fun.

You've played golf in China, Europe and the United States. What have been some of the most memorable places?
Obviously, the Dunhill Links allowed me to play some amazing places [St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, Carnoustie].
I want to play all the major courses and the biggest courses in the country and around the world. I have a little board with all of the top 100 courses from all over the world on it, and I would like to be able to put a little mark next to every single one of them by the time I'm done.

Golfers talk about their dream foursome all the time. If you could play with any three players, who would it be? Would Ray Lewis sneak onto that list?
I have actually talked to Ray about golfing, but I'm not sure he has ever picked up a golf club [laughs]. I told him that he needs to get out there, so hopefully he can pick up some clubs when he is done with his career and we can go out and play some golf.

There are a lot of people that I really want to play with. Obviously I would really love to play with people like Tiger and Bubba. I would also love to play with Phil. I've had the privilege to walk around with some of those guys when we were at the Ryder Cup, and they seemed like just amazing people.

I would like to play with Charles Barkley, too. I think that would be awesome because we would have a lot of great laughs. I also want to play with Michael Jordan. That's the thing about golf, you can always go out with anybody and everybody and have a good time. That something that I really, really love about the sport.

What's the strength of your game right now?
I have only played about two or three rounds since the Olympics, real rounds, so it's hard to say. When Hank and I work together we see a lot of improvements. We work a lot on the range and then go out and play a couple of holes here and there.

Actually, I'm getting over some of the bad parts of my game. I'm getting more confident around the green. I'm a lot more confident in the sand too. That was a major problem for me.

Right now, I'm just working on my grip, my takeaway, swinging out more to the right and closing the face of my club as I come through. It's just about the basics; that's what Hank is trying to force into my brain.

Modern swimsuits are pretty technical, and some have even been banned from competition. Are you a gear head? Are you someone who is into equipment and gizmos?
We were out on the range today, doing some more fitting, and I had zero idea about what the guy was saying. Someone literally said to me, "So we are going to change this to the X9742A shaft that has this much more weight and has this and that." I said, “Yeah, I'm not really sure what that means, but whatever you say sounds good."

Over time, hopefully, I'll really be able to get into it more and be able to see and understand more about what I need. I'm literally a deer in the headlights right now; I'm brand new.

After competing in the Olympics you had a lot of endorsement opportunities, and you're currently signed with companies that include Visa, Omega, Subway, Speedo, Under Armour, and Louis Vuitton. Did you ever think a golf company would be interested in signing you?
Ever since I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to be good at golf. There was even a time when I wanted to quit swimming and join the golf team. My mother was like, "Oh, well, why don't you re-think that. Maybe you should re-think all of your options?" So I ended up realizing that swimming was the best sport for me at that time.

I have goals that I want to achieve and this is something that is very competitive. Golf is the most humbling sport I've ever played in my entire life. I'm somebody that is very goal-oriented, and when I set out to do something I want to go out and do it. I've had a chance to go out and play with a bunch of different clubs, and literally the Ping irons that I am playing feel great and are comfortable. That's what I want.

They look cool too. My driver is painted was a little bit of gold. I have “Phelps 22” on them and the [hosels] of my clubs are red, white and blue. It's just something that I love, and it's something that I'm enjoying.

This is just the start of the next chapter of my life; the sport of swimming is gone, but maybe if I get good enough I can go back and play in the Olympics. You never know what could happen.

Your clubs are pretty tricked out. Lots of red, white and blue, some gold mixed in there with 22s stamped on them. How much say did you have in the customization of your clubs?
I want to be my own individual, so I threw some ideas at them and Ping went above and beyond anything I could've ever imagined to make the set that I have now. It's something that is pretty special and unique. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that nobody else has red, white and blue on their clubs like I do, so it does feel pretty amazing.

 

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