SILVIS, Ill. — After leading the Iowa Hawkeyes to their first NCAA women’s basketball championship game, becoming consensus international of the year and winning the Honda Cup for top women’s collegiate athlete, Caitlin Clark added to her 2023 tally of accomplishments more honor. On Wednesday, she got to play golf alongside US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson, a fellow Iowa native.
Clark, an avid golf fan who has played since he was a child, competed in the John Deere Classic Pro-Am at the TPC Deere Run.
“It’s just unique and special. I haven’t had many opportunities to play any other sport, and that’s in a PGA Tour event,” Clark said. “I’m a big golf fan. I love playing and being involved in golf. Normally every Sunday I have the TV on and watch.
“Obviously a big fan of Zach’s. We worked on my chipping a bit and leaned more on my forefoot.”
Clark teeed off at 8:08 a.m. local time and parted the fairway on her opening shot. She drew a large crowd; The course is located in the greater Quad Cities area, just about 70 miles from where Clark is known for his 3-point shots and pinpoint passing after the logo at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Many spectators wore number 22 jerseys as they lined the fairways asking for autographs from Clark, who was busy signing throughout the 18 holes. Johnson grinned when asked when was the last time he was the second most popular Iowan on a golf course.
“Well, Connor McCaffery was with us today too, so I’m probably third or fourth on the list,” Johnson said, referring to Clark’s friend, who played for his father, Fran McCaffery, on the Iowa men’s basketball team. “That’s great, man. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Connor, Clark’s parents and younger brother, and Iowa Women’s assistant coach Jan Jensen followed Clark through all 18 holes. Her former club basketball coach, Dickson Jensen, acted as her caddy. Clark and her group of amateurs were paired with pro Ludvig Aberg for the first nine holes and then Johnson for the last nine holes.
Johnson is a 12-time PGA Tour winner, including two major championships and six appearances as a Ryder Cup player. Born in Iowa City, Johnson grew up in Cedar Rapids and played in college with Drake in Des Moines, where Clark is from.
Clark said she’s looking forward to watching the Ryder Cup, which will be held September 29-October. 1 in Italy. Iowa, which finished last season 31-7 and defeated the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks in the national semifinals before losing to the LSU Tigers in the finals, will play a team tour in Italy in August.
“If coach [Lisa] Bluder wants me to skip the first month of school and stay in Italy [for the Ryder Cup]”I would totally agree with that,” Clark said, smiling. “But I doubt that will happen.”
Clark started her lap strong in the front nine on Wednesday but admitted she ran out of gas in the back nine as the temperature peaked at 90 degrees. Because this is a pro-am game and amateurs get better on certain holes, Clark was unable to give an exact score. Suffice it to say, however, that she hit a lot of fairways and putted a couple of birdies, but just missed. Golf is just a sport for her, but she can assert herself.
“I had a solo par to start the day, which was nice,” Clark said. “I wasn’t too nervous on the first tee. It was like, ‘Don’t waste your time, just go up and tee off.’ I think it’s the same with basketball. You have to get used to the game a bit.
“I think Zach would say that the mental side of basketball or golf is way more important than the physical ability. I’m only 21 so it was hard to learn, but it’s really true. You have one bad thing: you need to recover. Whether it’s a turnover or a missed putt.”
Last season, Clark averaged 27.8 points (runner-up in Division I) and 8.6 assists, topping the nation. She will be a senior this fall, but due to the COVID-19 exemption, she may have two more years of college to play. Clark, who could be a WNBA #1 draft pick, said she won’t make her decision to enter a fifth year of college until after the season.
Johnson said he spoke to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at the Masters in April, who said she hopes Clark turns pro in 2024. Johnson joked that he was actually trying to get Clark eligible to play in Iowa for three more years. He also said there was a lot of talk about the Iowa-LSU game on April 2, the Sunday before the Augusta National drive, chip and putt contest.
“The hustle and bustle around Augusta National that afternoon was the [women’s championship game] “It’s coming up this afternoon,” Johnson said. “I think that says volumes about where the sport is going.” As an Iowan, but also as a sports fan, what happened at the NCAA women’s tournament this year was nothing short of spectacular.
“I’m a fan of the state and those who excel at a high level. This young lady is outstanding given her talent but I cannot praise the way she treats herself enough.”