PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — In golf, as in life, height is an advantage until it isn’t. There comes a point when the benefits of a big swing arc butt up against the challenges of being really tall.
No one needs to tell this to Pau Gasol.
“Length is a plus,” Gasol said. “But this is a sport of accuracy, and for that, I think it’s better to be closer to the ground.”
It was a cool, gray morning in Monterey, and the 7-foot-1 former NBA All-Star was warming up on Spyglass Hill, braced against the chill in long sleeves and a beanie as he prepped for Thursday’s start of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, an event he’s debuting in this year. He’d arrived in town on Tuesday, driving down from his adoptive home, near San Francisco, having just deplaned a flight from his native Spain, where he’d been on a whirlwind for a corporate sponsor.
Jet lag wasn’t going to keep him from getting in his hacks. Aside from family time, not much does these days.
“If I want to get better, if I want to be more competitive, I’ve got to put the work in,” said Gasol, who is 42. “At this moment of transition in my life, this is exactly what I need.”
Golf was not a need Gasol ever felt in his 20-plus-year hoop career. Growing up in Catalonia, he never touched a club. The same was true in a tenure that took him from FC Barcelona to the Milwaukee Bucks, with stops along the way in Memphis, Chicago, San Antonio and, most famously, Los Angeles, where he helped propel the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
His change in outlook came when the world stood still. Rehabbing from a foot injury, mid-pandemic, Gasol had been hoping to get back on the court when he wound up trying his hand on the course. This was on the Big Island of Hawaii. Fresh air. Exercise. Challenge. Beauty. You know how these things go. The man was hooked.
In 2021, when he hung up his hightops for good, golf became the even more essential outlet that it is for countless retired athletes.
“It’s a very humbling game,” Gasol says. “That makes it good for so-called ‘high achievers.’”
His in-laws tried to help him on his way with a drive-by purchase at a sporting goods store, where they snagged the longest clubs on the rack. Gasol soon upgraded to a proper fitting. And lessons from a pro. And a simulator, installed at home. He took to playing upwards of five rounds a week.
“I should probably take more lessons than I have,” he said. “Problem is, I always want to play.”
The soft hands that made hims so effective as a center and power forward have translated into a deft short game. Chipping and putting are Gasol’s strength. But his swing has come around nicely, too. His current focus is on shallowing the club while synching up the action of his upper and lower body.
“I’m trying to take my right side out of the equation,” Gasol said. “It want it to be less of an initiator and more of a follower.”
His right side seems to be obliging. Last summer, when he appeared in a YouTube-broadcast outing at Half Moon Bay, Gasol was listed as a 16 index. This week at Pebble, he is playing off 11.
Though the AT&T is by far the biggest stage to which Gasol has brought his game, it isn’t his first pro-am. He took part in one not long ago, in Spain, at Valderrama, where the crowds were a fraction of what they are in Monterey. It’s like that in his homeland, Gasol said. Despite the prominence of names like Seve, Rahm and Sergio, golf remains a light-hitting domestic draw.
“Soccer, tennis and basketball, those are the big ones,” Gasol said. “Golf just isn’t that closely followed. Even guys like Jon and Sergio, for all they’ve accomplished, they don’t get the same love over there that they do here.”
Gasol was a product of that culture. As a kid, he was aware of Ballesteros but had no sense of his global stature. Even when they met in person, in the early 2000s, at the wedding of a Spanish royal, the young hoopster didn’t grasp the golfer’s global stature.
“I didn’t know how big he was,” Gasol said. “It was only when I started coming to the United States that I was like, ‘Oh, Seve. I get it now.’”
Outwardly, at least, Gasol has none of Seve’s swashbuckle or swagger. In the NBA, he was known as Mr. Nice Guy, unmatched in his openness to autographs and interviews, deeply engaged in philanthropic efforts, while maintaining a Twitter account where he was — and remains — the sunniest presence on social media this side of @sesamestreet.
But no athlete achieves greatness without fire and focus. And on Thursday at Spyglass, Gasol looked locked-in, honing his stroke on the putting green, a 7-footer working on his seven-footers. A flock of fans followed when he strolled to the starter’s tent.
The tallest player ever in the AT&T, Gasol had 13 inches on his pro partner, Mark Hubbard, who returned the favor by outhitting Gasol by roughly 50 yards off the first tee.
Gasol’s drive strayed right, settling on the cart path. But after taking a drop, he hacked out, scrambled and wound up saving par with a crafty chip that would have made Seve proud.
So it went throughout the day.
“I’d watched him play basketball, so I knew he had great hands,” Hubbard said after the round. “What surprised me was his swing. His clubs are about as tall as I am, but he’s got great tempo and good control.”
It was all Gasol could ask for.
“As an amateur, you’ve got to give yourself some grace,” he said. “We’re not pros. We’re here to have fun, hopefully make it fun for our pros too, and maybe move on to a good finish.”
As a team, they stood in a tie for 45th. By any measure, the cut seemed within reach.