The following article includes allegations of domestic abuse and references to substance abuse.
Golf is all about keeping things on the hush-hush and the down low. Unlike the big crowds of wildly cheering fans at other sporting events, the spectators who attend big golf tournaments are expected to stay as quiet as possible while the professional golfers carefully and slowly decide how to play their next shot, or mull over what club they might want to use to do that. Then if they do a good job, they’re greeted with a smattering of light applause, reply with a nod, and move on. No buzzers, no whistles, no music over the loudspeakers — golf is a genteel game played mostly in the mind.
The golfers act accordingly, conducting themselves both on the course and off with discretion and poise… well, usually. If they’re up to anything scandalous, they tend to keep it very quiet. Here are some pro golfers who surprisingly dealt with some major, life-altering issues.
John Daly has struggled with substance use and gambling
Refusing to strike the PGA Tour’s preferred presentation of its golfers as reserved and retreating gentlemen, John Daly hit the circuit in the late 1980s and became a star in the 1990s in part because he was a boisterous everyman type. (He was also pretty good at golf, winning the 1991 PGA Championship, among others.) As hard as Daly played, he partied even harder, consuming copious amounts of alcohol on the PGA Tour. “I played a lot hungover. I played a few rounds where I was still drunk from the night before,” he told USA Today in 2016. During one tournament, he claims to have drank four beers in the middle of a tournament where he finished in seventh place. “Those beers released all the pressure. The golfer’s reputation as a hard drinker was so strong that he inspired a cocktail. An “Arnold Palmer,” named for the legendary golfer, is a nonalcoholic mixture of iced tea and lemonade; a “John Daly” is an Arnold Palmer with vodka added.
Daly, who has tried to get sober throughout his career, is also a self-described gambling addict. As The New York Times noted, his vices hurt his bank account in a big way in 1999 when “Callaway terminated a lucrative endorsement deal after the company said Daly had broken his vow not to drink or gamble.” In his 30 for 30 documentary (via USA Today), he estimated that he’s won $98 million betting on things, but “lost around $50 million.”
John Daly has had a few tumultuous relationships
There’s even more drama in the saga that is the life of Jon Daly. In 1990 (per the Golf Channel), he divorced his first wife, Dale Crafton, and then connected with a Georgia event planner named Bettye Fulford, who in April 1992 sued the golfer for palimony and to establish the paternity of her daughter. Less than a week later, she dropped the suit, and a month after that, Daly and Fulford got married, even after the latter revealed the strange fact that she’d lied about her age, and was 10 years older than previously stated. The Los Angeles Times reported in December 1992 that Daly was arrested in Colorado and booked on a third-degree assault charge after allegedly throwing Fulford into a wall during an alcohol-fueled fight. The charges were dropped. (A month later, according to the New York Times, the PGA ordered Daly to enter a rehab facility.)
After divorcing Fulford in 1995, he married Paulette Dean. Daly was left with a $1,000 bill after destroying a hotel room after a fight with Dean in 1997, and they split up in 1999. Daly then got hitched for a fourth time in 2001, to Memphis car dealer Sherrie Miller. In 2007, according to the AP (via Golf Channel), Daly and Miller accused each other of assault; Daly claimed she attacked him with a steak knife, and Miller said he fabricated this story “to mask his own wrongdoing.” As the outlet noted, they ultimately “called a truce.” As Golf Digest reported, they eventually landed in a tumultuous custody battle.
Drugs and infidelity are problems for Dustin Johnson
If there’s a 21st century successor to Tiger Woods, meaning a golfer who amassed a phenomenal set of early and frequent wins who also gets himself a lot of attention from the celebrity and entertainment media, it’s Dustin Johnson. After joining the PGA Tour at age 23, he quickly racked up more than 20 tournament victories, including two majors: the 2016 U.S. Open and the 2020 Masters.
In 2013, Johnson started dating, and soon announced his engagement to model and Instagram influencer Paulina Gretzky, with whom he had two children, according to ET. Despite ostensibly being a family man, Johnson also became golf’s requisite bad boy. According to RadarOnline, Johnson had a mistress in Alli MacKenzie, wife of fellow PGA golfer Will MacKenzie. The MacKenzies divorced in 2014, but as International Business Times noted, Alli denied Johnson had anything to do with their split.
Johnson also reportedly indulged in other vices. According to the New York Post, he was suspended from the PGA Tour for six months in 2013 after he violated the organization’s drug policy. Johnson tested positive for banned substances three times: one for marijuana and twice for cocaine.
The secret life of Tiger Woods
In 1997, three-time U.S.Junior National Champion Tiger Woods won The Masters at age 21. This heralding the arrival of a generational talent, or perhaps the best golfer ever. He certainly lived up to the hype, winning all four golf majors and a total of 82 tournaments over his career — tied with Sam Snead for the most ever. Woods seemingly lived a very wholesome and ordinary life, intensely focused on performing at the height of his abilities at the sport he’d been playing since the age of 3. In 2004, he married model Elin Nordegren, and by February 2009, they were the parents of a daughter and a son. The pristine image of Tiger Woods would soon fade.
According to ESPN, around 2:30 a.m. on November 27, 2009, Woods raced out of his Florida home in his SUV and crashed into a fire hydrant and a neighbor’s tree. Nordegren reportedly pulled Woods out of the car after using a golf club to smash through the vehicle’s rear window. According to The Globe and Mail, the accident occurred in between two reports, one in the National Enquirer and one in Us Weekly, alleging that Woods had engaged in extramarital affairs with nightclub hostess Rachel Uchitel and server Jaimee Grubbs, respectively. Then Woods released a statement, admitting to and regretting “transgressions.” Soon after, sponsors Gatorade, Gillette, and Accenture terminated their endorsement deals with Woods. Nordegren subsequently filed for divorce, followed by Woods checking into a rehab facility to treat sexual addiction.
Phil Mickelson got caught up in an insider trading scandal
One of the few left-handed golfers to ever find a place of prominence in the PGA, Phil Mickelson is also one of the most successful golfers of the last few decades, winning 44 tournaments, including the U.S. Open and three iterations of The Masters. Mickelson is second on the all-time earners list, raking in $92.3 million in golf tournament winnings, which has afforded him the opportunity to engage in expensive hobbies, like gambling and stock trading.
In the 1990s, according to Golf Digest, Mickelson became friends with Billy Walters, a professional high-stakes sports gambler. Mickelson liked to bet on big sports events, and Walters would run his bets for him, essentially operating as his bookie. In the 2010s, Walters worked out a scheme in which Tom Davis, chairman of large-scale dairy Dean Foods, would give him insider information about the company.
As Golf Digest notes, the Securities and Exchange Commission found that Walters brought Mickelson in on the plan, and in one instance, the golfer made $931,000 buying and selling Dean Foods stock right around the time the company made a big announcement. After that, Golf Digest continues, “repaid his gambling debt to Walters … apparently in part with the trading proceeds.” Davis helped with the SEC and FBI insider trading investigations, and got a two year prison term, as noted in the Wall Street Journal. Walters got five years, according to the AP. Mickelson got away scot-free, and didn’t even testify.
Jack Nicklaus was sued over a shady construction project
In terms of tournament wins on the PGA Tour, Jack Nicklaus is one of the top two or three golfers of all time. His 73 victories were outdone only by Sam Snead and Tiger Woods, and his 18 wins at the four golf majors remains unrivaled. He took on the nickname Golden Bear after he turned pro in 1961. As his wife, Barbara Nicklaus, recalled to Golf Channel, he was “looking for a logo” at the time, and when an Australian newspaper called him “the Golden Bear” — which happened to be his high school mascot — it felt right. He’d later use the name for some of his companies and business ventures, which is also the source of one of the few controversies in Nicklaus’s long career.
As the AP reported, Judee and E. Jeffrey Donner of Colorado hit Nicklaus and associates with a lawsuit 2011, claiming the golfer’s apparent involvement with Mount Holly Club — a luxurious, yet-to-be-built skiing resort, golf center, and housing development in southern Utah around an 18-hole course designed by the Golden Bear himself — “prompted them to invest $1.5 million in the Mount Holly development.” But then developer Mount Holly Partners LLC abruptly went out of business. The Donners believe that Nicklaus was aware that the developers were in trouble, failed to warn them, and took their money anyway. The legal battle went through multiple rounds of appeals, but as The Salt Lake Tribune reported, “the only remaining claim” was dismissed in 2017.
Rory Sabbatini may be 'the meanest person' in the sport
Rory Sabbatini did pretty well for himself on the PGA Tour in the early 2000s, a top 10-ranked golfer who won six events and came in second place at the 2007 Masters. In a 2015 exposé, The Versed named Sabbatini “the meanest person in golf,” over a series of incidents in which he verbally abused or targeted other golfers, PGA employees, volunteers, and fans.
Before the final day of the 2007 Wachovia Championship, Sabbatini was in first place by one stroke, only to lose by five strokes to Tiger Woods. When a fan at the Bridgestone Invitational heckled him about it, he had the guy removed. After the 2011 Zurich Classic, there were reports of Sabbatini getting into a screaming match, unleashing a string of profanities, with his playing partner Sean O’Hair. (When USA Today asked about the incident, Sabbatini said, “Hearsay is hearsay.” O’Hair told Golf Digest they ironed things out some days later.) And, as the AP pointed out (via ESPN), “Sabbatini was said to have spoken harshly to a teenage volunteer who was trying to help him find a lost ball” at the Northern Trust Open that same year.
Thomas Bjørn kept his mental health issues secret
Thomas Bjørn turned out some impressive performances in the 1990s and 2000s. He also lost a lot of tournaments, and that led Bjorn to suffer from a great deal of what The Guardian called “psychological trauma.” Probably Bjørn’s most famous golfing moment was a tournament collapse. Heading into the final day of the 2003 British Open, Thomas Bjørn was in the lead and he had a great day, up by two shots with just three holes left, only to falter at the end and lose after hitting into a bunker, missing a putt, and winding up in the rough.
Losing in such a fashion contributed to a case of depression that Bjørn struggled against throughout the 2000s. “Every time you met somebody, that was the only thing they asked you about,” Bjørn said of the 2003 British Open in The Guardian. “In the end, it gets you.” The golfer recalled having a hard time getting out of bed in 2004, but forced himself to because he “had kids.” He then had a “good stretch” of relatively pleasant mental health, only for depression symptoms to return in 2010. Bjørn coped with positive thinking and talking it out with self-talk therapy into a mirror.
Rory McIlroy unceremoniously dumped his fianceé
Rory McIlroy became one of the youngest successes in the history of both the European Tour and the PGA Tour. As The Irish News recounts, “he became the youngest player ever to reach €10 million in career earnings on the European Tour, at just 22.” And when he was 23, he racked up “$10 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour.” By 2020, he’d won 28 tournaments, including four majors.
In August 2011, McIlroy told Sports Illustrated that some rumors circulating at the time were true, and that he was, in fact, in a committed romantic relationship with Caroline Wozniacki. That made for an impressive sports world power couple. That year, McIlroy won the U.S. Open by a whopping eight strokes while Wozniacki was the world’s #1 ranked player in women’s tennis. On New Year’s Eve 2013, Wozniacki showed up her newly adorned ring finger in a photo posted to Twitter, announcing that McIlroy had proposed and that she had said “YES!!!!”
The wedding never happened, however. Just before she was set to play in the French Open in May 2014, McIlroy broke off the engagement. According to The Times of London, the professional golfer told the professional tennis player that he didn’t want to marry her in a cold way: He called her up and broke her heart over the phone. The entire conversation lasted all of three minutes, and it was apparently so unexpected that Wozniacki initially thought McIlroy was pulling a prank on her.
Jane Blalock was accused of cheating on the course
Jane Blalock came out swinging in the 1960s, quickly becoming one of the top golfers on the LPGA Tour. In rapid succession between 1969 and 1972, she won Rookie of the Year honors, Most Improved Golfer twice, and then the Dinah Shore Colgate Winner’s Circle, one of the most important tournaments on the tour. She once made the cut in 299 straight tournaments — a record — and won 27 tournaments, placing her among the top 20 winningest golfers in LPGA history. Her impressive career is not without drama, however, as her name is often associated with a fallout over a 1972 incident in which she was accused of cheating during the Suzuki Golf International tournament.
By the end of play, Blalock had won. Weeks later, during the Bluegrass Invitational, the five-woman LPGA executive board disqualified Blalock from the tournament, fined her $500, and suspended her from the tour for a year, on account of how they believed she illegally moved her ball during the Suzuki, according to Sports Illustrated, and had failed to take a two-stroke penalty. Blalock sued to get the suspension lifted and was allowed to play as the legal fight dragged on until 1975, when a court ruled in the golfer’s failure, ordering the LPGA to pay damages of $4,500. Even so, it remains a part of her legacy. As Golf notes, “officially, at least, the black mark is long gone” but she remains “the Hester Prynne of the women’s game.”
Some golfers get a little too friendly with PGA Tour fans
Professional golf may seem like a conservative world, what with all the players dressed in slacks and button-down shirts and competing in front of quiet fans at country clubs, a bastion of restraint and civility. Behind the scenes however, golfers are apparently a lot like other professionals who tour from town to town and have a lot of time to kill and steam to blow off — rock stars, for example. According to The Daily Beast, the PGA Tour is lousy with female fans ready and willing to party with pro golfers, so much so that those in and around the organization joke that PGA stands for “Party Groupie Association.”
It’s reportedly one of a caddie’s unofficial duties to hook up their boss with women in the spectator gallery. “I’ve been told ‘Look around the ropes,'” one caddie said. “‘See who is easy on the eyes.'” They’re also instructed to find so-called “gallery girls” in the post-tournament autograph line and offer them one-on-one hangout sessions with golfers, and according to reports, it sounds like a golfer’s relationship status doesn’t always make a difference. The Daily Beast found “groupies, carousing and wild sex as a central element for many players on the PGA Tour,” calling it “a secret underworld” in the sport.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and mental health, please contact SAMHSA’s 24-hour National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. You can also find more information, resources, and support at www.thehotline.org.
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