Denny Hamlin, fellow NASCAR drivers take competition to golf course

Denny Hamlin has lowered his golf handicap to 3, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how one looks at it.

Hamlin can enjoy his status as the consensus best golfer among those NASCAR Cup Series drivers who play somewhat regularly.

But what it takes to lower his handicap, or win tournaments in which handicaps are part of the equation, means a golf outing can still be just as tough on him as it is for those who aren't even sniffing being close to par.

"Where I'm at right now, I know I'm going to be plateaued for a little while. Unless I'm shooting 75 or below, I'm not happy," Hamlin said with a smile. "You can have holes where you can make it happy, but the end round is tough ... unless I take a bunch of money off my competitors."

Few of Hamlin's competitors should be willing to bet against him straight up on the golf course. He'll probably get in some rounds in the coming days, as the Cup drivers have the weekend off -- a weekend off at least partially because its television partner, Fox, has the U.S. Open and didn't want racing to present a conflict.

Hamlin said he posted 83 rounds last year, and just last week he was in Memphis for a PGA pro-am prior to the weekend's tour stop. Earlier this week was another round of a Hamlin mini-invitational golf tour he created for himself and some of his racing buddies. Hamlin, whose strengths are his driving distance and putting, knows he probably won't win the tour with the scores, based on handicap.

"I have to shoot nearly scratch to win these tournaments, and those guys can go out and shoot 86," Hamlin said. "It's fun. I like being in their group and them watching me roll a birdie in or a par in, knowing they've got to chase [my] points. I like the aspect being the one they have to chase."

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the tour last year; Kyle Larson was the leader this year after the first few events, but a bad round Tuesday dropped him from the top spot.

Stenhouse is probably second best among the Cup drivers who golf, with AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon making the next grouping. Ty Dillon and Bubba Wallace would follow them among the golfers in the garage.

"Denny's definitely the best golfer out of all of us," Allmendinger said. "I want to say he has an unfair advantage, because he tells me when he's struggling, he gets on his plane and go sees Butch Harmon to get lessons. I don't have that luxury. Denny is putting up good scores. I can possibly somewhat hang with Stenhouse, but my game is in transition of mental issues right now. It's like my racing -- every third hole I get it right, about every third lap I nail it."

Allmendinger has a coach and jokes he races cars to pay for his golf habit. He has been a hardcore golfer since he moved to a course in 2013, but he feels as much as he plays, he should be better.

"I've been playing a lot more," Austin Dillon said. "It's the mental challenge of it -- mentally, you have to be so good at that game, to hit every shot the same way, the consistent stroke. It's being consistent and mentally you have to go on to the next shot.

"In racing, if you have a bad race, you've got to get over it and go on to the next one and put it behind you."

It would seem from the outside a little strange that NASCAR drivers enjoy golf. These adrenaline junkies make their living on speed and they play a sport that requires patience and pace to ... relax?

But like most golfers, they do get frustrated. Stenhouse said he hasn't golfed as much this year because he was not playing well. Stenhouse played on his high school team as a freshman before focusing on racing. He said his handicap index is a 5.9.

"There's a lot of sprint-car guys who play golf," Stenhouse said. "Golfing is similar to going on the lake -- it is relaxing, something fun to do and still competitive. We enjoy how hard it is."

Larson is the most relative newcomer to playing golf regularly. He said he wishes he had gotten more involved as a kid because he loves golf and gets to compete in some pro-ams, but he wishes he would be better.

His handicap went from a 24 to an 18 in the last year.

"I don't get to go race 100 times in a sprint car now, so I have time to go golf," Larson said. "Golf is a nice way to get away from the adrenaline and kind of relax -- the best you can when you're not playing awful."

Hamlin said that, with the handicap system, it's fun they can all compete against each other.

"It's still competition, and it's safe," Hamlin said. "It's better than cycling or basketball, in the sense you're not risking injury.

"We all enjoy watching golf on TV, and you can go recreate those shots. ... You get out of the house. It just gives you a chance to escape reality and go out there and compete with your friends."

Plus, the competitive aspect is so different than how they have to approach racing.

"I like [that] if you suck, it's your own fault," Hamlin said. "It's you versus the other person. It's from your toes to your head, and if anything is out of sorts, it messes the whole golf swing up. I like that it is very technical."

Allmendinger agreed. He said in racing, he can study data and study video and work to get better -- and still have the same result.

"You go and struggle all weekend and wonder if it's me, us as a team, what are we missing?" Allmendinger said. "I love golf because it's just on you. If I can't hit the ball well, it's my fault -- go fix it. Go do your work and go figure it out. ... It's me standing over the ball. It's me, mentally."