During a career that has included Major League Baseball and the NBA, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has always turned to golf for refuge.By Gary Larrabee | Photography by Dan Cutrona
Golf has always played an important role in Danny Ainge’s life even as he carved out an NBA career and spent the last 15 years as president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.
“I fell in love with the game when I was 16,” he says. “I loved the game as a teenager. But I was so wrapped up at the time with my team sports in high school that golf had to take a backseat. I’ve always loved golf as my way to relax.”
He probably needed it in recent months, which have been a hectic time for Ainge. In June, the Celtics landed the first overall pick in the NBA draft, which Ainge chose to trade to Philadelphia for the third selection. In July, Ainge lured the NBA’s most covered free agent to town, Gordon Hayward.
His North Eugene, Oregon, high school buddies would not have been surprised if Ainge had turned to golf and become a star on the PGA Tour. But he stuck with the three major team sports and became the only three-sport high school All-American as selected by Scholastic and Parade magazines, then went on to a 14-year career with the Celtics, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, while also briefly giving baseball a fling with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Golf has been a sporting refuge throughout 58-year-old Ainge’s life, from his start as high school basketball sensation to his college success as an All-American and John Wooden Player of the Year, and finally, to his career as an NBA player, coach (with the Suns) and executive.
“I got my first and only lesson when I was 16,” says Ainge, who is now a member at Wellesley Country Club and Old Sandwich Golf Club in Plymouth. “I was caddying at Eugene (Country Club) and [future PGA pro] Peter Jacobson, a member of the University of Oregon golf team, saw me on the driving range and gave me a few tips. I still remember them. When I try different things with my game and they don’t work, I refer back to those initial tips from Peter.”
Ainge was busy as a schoolboy, but he found time to learn a lesson from playing too much golf during the basketball season. “We had a great run, winning 51 straight games and two state championships,” he recalls. “I remember being a little bored the day of the game before we started that streak. I played 36 holes that day, we lost that game by one point and I vowed to myself that I’d never play golf again on a game day.”
He did not play any particularly memorable golf during his four years at Brigham Young University, but once he joined the Celtics, he had two willing partners in Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. “We picked our spots in those years and there weren’t all that many opportunities during the season since we were talking October to April, then the playoffs,” he says.
“It hasn’t been easy to connect the last 15 years either, with the three of us coaching or working NBA front offices. We haven’t played together in maybe six, seven years during an NBA summer league stretch. I played with Kevin last winter in Scottsdale, where he has a home. It’s a good way for us to catch up.”
Ainge rarely plays for money on the golf course. “I’m more for the competition and less for the money game,” he says. “I enjoy the trash-talking more than the wagering. No matter what I’m out there for, I’m trying to beat the course and my golf demons, demons we all have when we’re trying to play to our potential.”
He has succeeded more than he is willing to admit. He typically plays to a six-to-eight handicap in the late spring during the hectic playoffs and college draft time, and then to a four or five by late summer when he’s had a chance to play the bulk of his 50 annual rounds.
In recent years he shot a 5-under 65 at Riverside Country Club in Provo, Utah, his home course during college, despite a bogey-bogey finish. He also once carded 66 at a course in Flagstaff, Arizona, while playing for the Suns.
“Once I finished playing and started broadcasting Suns games, I got to play three, four times a week and that’s when I was playing my best. I was a scratch for a while. When I shot par I wasn’t happy,” he says.
With scores like that, he briefly considered entering the Champions Tour qualifying school, but dismissed the idea. “Every golfer dreams about that stuff. But it was only a thought,” he says.
His career best at Wellesley is 73, with a low of 74 at the more difficult Old Sandwich.
“My game comes and goes,” he admits. “I’ll score between 76 and 82 most of the time, never happy, but accepting; just glad to be out there whenever I can.”
With a busy career and 15 grandchildren, golf provides the perfect outlet. But he hopes to have less time to play this spring, which would mean the Celtics have advanced deep into the playoffs.
“We all have high expectations for this group, as we did last fall at training camp,” Ainge says. “A key will be if our good shooters can be great shooters at the right time. Another key will be our young players playing their best when it counts the most. Our two leading big men, Al (Horford) and Amir (Johnson) have to be consistently effective at both ends. Bottom line: we need a lot of our guys to have the best playoff runs of their careers.”
Even after all these years, does Ainge wish he could still be out there playing in front of the roaring playoff crowds?
“My sporting life is all about golf these days and that’s how I like it,” he says. “I don’t even play pick-up ball. I’ve seen too many buddies with broken bones or torn muscles. The only hoops I do these days is maybe getting in some shooting with the players after a practice, or getting involved with some of the soft team drills, but only for fun. I get paid to watch and react these days, and I like it that way.”