Jim Furyk remembers those days, too, especially the part about the 20-footers from the corner, which he recalled in better detail than a pro athlete with his resume should. See, the 2003 U.S. Open champion and former No. 2 rated player in the world (he’s currently ranked No. 5) was known less for his unconventional golf swing and stellar short game when he was a student at Manheim Township High School in Lancaster, Pa., and more for his stroke from the outside on the Blue Streaks’ basketball team.
At least that’s how I remember it, though Furyk politely corrected some of those memories about his basketball career on Tuesday afternoon as he finished up a practice round at Aronimink Golf Club ahead of the AT&T National. Playing somewhat near his hometown (head out 30 west until you get to Manheim Pike and then make a right at Granite Run… that will take you into his old ‘hood), or at least close enough that fans waiting for autographs called out, “Go Blue Streaks!” at him, Furyk explained that the 20-footer from the corner against Lebanon wasn’t as clutch as believed.
It was still a pretty big shot though.
“We had to beat them once in the next two games in order to win the second-half title,” Furyk said, before calling his abilities on the basketball court, “average.”
For a golfer (whatever that means), he still looks like he could give some high school kids a good run after finishing up 18 holes. Fit and trim as he was in high school, Furyk is playing some of the best golf of his life these days. Perhaps the only things that betray his age are the list of tournaments won and a hairline that has disappeared and crawled away for good.
As for Furyk being just an "average" ballplayer, I beg to differ. Considering that he played at the quintessential suburban high school in which it was somewhat surprising to learn that John Hughes did not scout out the place in order to research some of his movies like Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club or even 16 Candles, they were no pushover for us at the inner-city McCaskey High. We always thought we could waltz into gyms like Manheim Township or Hempfield and just intimidate them because our team was not made up of too many white kids, but that wasn’t always the case.
Township could play and the reason for that was guys like Furyk knew their roles and were put in positions where they could rely on their strengths. For the gang at McCaskey — and every other team in the Lancaster-Lebanon League circa 1988 — that meant Furyk could not be left open.
“You guys had more talent,” Furyk conceded to me, “but we put it together better.”
It’s difficult to argue with that considering Furyk’s team went to the league championship to face Warwick, which was a juggernaut that season with all-stater, Jack Hurd. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Hurd went on to start for four years at La Salle and has a spot in the Big 5 Hall of Fame. You can see his picture hanging on the wall at The Palestra if you look for it. Because of this fact, Hurd was the real star of the sports scene back then. Chalk it up to being the guy with a full ride to play for a Division I basketball program, while the other guy was best known for a sport that doesn't exactly draw too many spectators.
To some degree, Furyk went somewhat unnoticed in those days. Oh sure, we all knew how good he was at golf considering he won the state championship by a record 12 strokes. Even for high school where the talent parity in sports is not the same as it is in higher levels of competition, Furyk was like the Globetrotters playing against the Washington Generals.
All he needed was a bucket of confetti.
“It wasn’t like he shot par and everyone else was terrible,” said a high school and amateur golf competitor of Furyk’s named Ben Miller, from Lancaster. “He shot [two great rounds] and just ran away from everyone.”
That’s kind of the way it was in the 2003 U.S. Open where he tied the all-time record for the lowest 72-hole score in tournament history. The difference there, of course, was that Furyk was beating Tiger Woods and not punk kids named Miller from Lancaster. Still, it was during his senior year at Manheim Township where his path to a career in golf first became crystal clear.
“Up until his junior year he was really, really good,” Miller said. “But by his senior year there was no one who could compete with him. He just went to a different level.”
But consider this… just what in the hell was Furyk doing on the basketball court to begin with? Considering he was the top amateur golfer in Pennsylvania probably since Latrobe's Arnie Palmer tore it up, it’s a wonder he wasn’t sequestered at Meadia Heights hitting balls all day. Or, perhaps, if he had shown such talent for golf these days he could have been enrolled in one of those special schools where kids focus on their sport all day long with some book learnin’ sprinkled in.
Instead Furyk was a regular dude who played whatever sports he could. Miller says Furyk was a champion swimmer when he was a kid and played football, too. Still, think of the time he spent playing competitive high school basketball where an injury could have ruined one of the era’s best all-around golf careers. Didn’t anyone tell him to stop?
“No, all my friends were on the basketball team, so it was a chance for me to hang out with them,” he said, adding that some of the guys from the Township hoops squad were in his wedding and he still keeps in close touch with them now. Golf (obviously) didn’t have that social aspect with all its need to shush anyone who makes even the slightest noise when shifting from one foot to another.
In Lancaster, Pa. in 1988 being on the golf team wasn’t the path to popularity.
“Playing golf wasn’t too cool back then,” Furyk said, noting that during the golf season he had to bring his clubs to school and stash them in the coach’s office. “There was no way I was going to ride the bus to school with my clubs so I used to make my mom drive me. I wasn’t going to be seen carrying my golf bag on the bus or around school.”
Ah, but times change. What was uncool in the 1980s is viewed differently these days and one has to imagine that a state champion golfer would not get picked on for dragging his golf clubs around at school. Maybe getting a ride from mom would be the wrong move, but golf — for someone as good as Furyk — nah, not any more.
Besides, it wasn’t like the cool kids or jocks were pasting a “kick me” sign on his back in the hallways as if he were George McFly. This is Jim Furyk we’re talking about… he was on the basketball team.
Here’s the really interesting part… during Furyk’s senior year Billy Owens of Carlisle High and later Syracuse University (and then six different teams in the NBA), was the best player in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, Furyk says, he never had to face Owens in basketball like some of us. But where it gets interesting is Owens is exactly 11 days older than Furyk and was the more heralded athlete during high school and for many years after, too.
But Owens has been retired from the NBA since 2001 while Furyk, at age 40, has already won two tournaments this year and has won the sixth-most number of tournaments among active players. Yes, at 40, Furyk is just getting started.
“That’s why golf is a great game,” he said.