From dawn patrol at the muni to playing with Will Smith and Matt Damon, the prolific comedian is utterly hooked
Interview by Travis Hill
Photos by Gabriel Nivera
Light / Dark
As a writer and producer on “In Living Color,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Office” and “Black-ish,” among others, Larry Wilmore has been making you laugh for years. He’s an Emmy Award–winning writer, an actor and the current host of “Black on the Air” on The Ringer’s podcast network; he rubs elbows with celebrities, politicians and athletes. But as a golf fan, Wilmore is one of us—the kind of enthusiast who bangs balls on the range until it closes and braves ridiculous weather during his annual golf trip. Some on the A-list may keep their golf habit on the low, but as his friendly tiff with Malcolm Gladwell showed, Wilmore’s passion for the game is no joke.
Did you grow up playing golf?
I played many different sports growing up; my father played college football.…But golf was never on my radar. To be honest, I really didn’t even have an opinion about it. I compare it to my experience with The Beatles: I became a Beatles fan later in life. When I was growing up, it was there, but it wasn’t something I paid attention to. Later in life, I was like, “What is this band? This band is fantastic!”
How did you discover it?
Fast-forward to when I was just married and living in Chino Hills, California. My wife and I were looking to find something we could do together as a couple.
I saw a package of golf lessons and said, “Hey, let’s try golf.” She said, “OK.” We take it, and of course I get hooked. The only thing she cared about was the matching outfit, and I couldn’t believe how immediately I was hooked. Suddenly my eyes were opened, and I realized this whole world of golf that I had pretty much ignored, and I couldn’t believe it.
How deep did you dive in?
When I like something, I read up on it and learn about it, so I started doing that with golf. I think by going through the history of it, I really gained an appreciation not just for the game, but the great people that played it. The rules of golf were so interesting to me. I thought, “You call penalties on yourself? What is that all about?” I grew up playing basketball and I’m used to arguing calls. Who does that? What kind of crazy sport is this?
The thing that got me in the beginning was how much the game revealed about yourself and who you are. I’m a very philosophical person, even though I’m very competitive in sports. Because of that, the philosophy of playing this game hooked me because as you’re trying to get better at it, you’re learning who you are. It’s the best way I can explain golf: You get better and worse, and it keeps explaining who you are in an amazing way that no other sport quite does.
Yes, golf forces you to spend a ton of time in your head. Then you have to translate that to your body.
Exactly. You’re constantly shooting a free throw with the crowd yelling at you, but it doesn’t look like it from the outside. It looks like, “Wait, you’re just hitting a ball.” But it’s really not that. I’ve broken golf down into three stages in terms of hitting the shot: There is the shot that your heart wants you to hit. Then there’s the shot that your brain thinks you should hit. Then there’s the shot that your body will allow you to hit. [Laughs.]
Those three things are constantly at play with each other. When you’re playing at your best, your body allows you to be in sync with your heart, and your head doesn’t get too much in the way. Most of the time you have to rely on your head, but we really don’t like to; we’re used to relying on our heart most of the time. All of us amateurs pretty much ignore our body.
Yes. I actively ignore my body.
We all do! As an amateur, what do we care about our bodies? We’re pouring beer into it, smoking cigars, who knows what else. Our body is the inconvenience that happens to go along with us when we just want to play some golf.
I found learning to respect those three things as a player fascinating because it’s not just the skill that makes you a good golfer. It really isn’t. Learning that was one of the hardest things in the world.
That’s the crux of the whole thing: You’ll never be perfect, but you’re going to try.
Yes, and the people who don’t play golf don’t understand that, and that’s why they can be snotty about it. It’s like your single friends that don’t have kids can be completely snotty about kids and don’t understand a thing about it. Or the ones who say, “I have a dog. It’s like the same thing as having a kid.” Oh, really? You’re never going to have to put that dog in private school. You’re not going to worry about other dogs giving your dog drugs, hanging out late at night.
Same with golf. In this case, it’s “Let’s talk after you sink your first 30-foot putt.” Then let’s have a conversation about whether you like the game.
You’re busy these days. How often do you get to play?
Now, it’s kind of tough. When I first got started, it was before we had a kid. I would go to driving ranges after work. I worked in television as a writer, and the hours are kind of janky. Sometimes you get off at 6 or 7, but in California you can hit balls year-round and the driving range will be open until 10. So I’d go and hit huge buckets of balls. I mean, blisters and everything. I was really hooked. I had a lot of time then to play and play. As the years go on, I don’t have as much time, but at least I got to spend a lot of time at the beginning.
Sounds like many of us. Did you have a good time in the beginning?
Of course. The funnest thing that I did was an annual event called Strokes and Smokes. I found a group of friends through a cigar place and we had an annual event in [the Palm Springs, California, area] in August. It sounds ridiculous, I know.
By the way, golf is a thing that produces behavior that just doesn’t sound normal, and most people who don’t play can’t relate to it. We went out to the desert and played in the heat of heat. I have to tell you, somehow your body does not ache at all when you play in that kind of heat. We were playing 36 holes a day. I don’t even know how we did it. You can’t touch your clubs, the iron part, because they’re so hot. You have to be careful! You stay in the cart. You spritz yourself all the time. It was awesome.
Did you get to play any famous courses?
I have a wish list, and I’ve played Pebble, but that’s probably the most famous course. I’ve never done the big Scotland trip. I’ve been to Augusta as a fan; that was amazing.…I got a hole-in-one at the Alcatraz hole at PGA West—same one Lee Trevino did in the Skins Game back in the day.
That’s some impressive golf nerdery.
When I nerd out on something, I nerd out! That’s why I had this argument with Malcolm Gladwell: “Malcolm, you don’t play the game. You don’t understand. You’re a hater, not a player.” It’s different if you play. Then I would have some respect, but I can’t have respect if you never played. He was hating on country clubs—a completely different thing than the game, but he sucked the game down with it. That’s like complaining about football stadiums and slamming football because of it. No. What are you doing? Those are two different things.
Here’s the thing: I understand his argument about country clubs being exclusionary. As an African-American kid growing up, I was fully aware of not only racism in America, but where it existed in sports. I knew golf was a sport that had excluded blacks on purpose for many different reasons for a long time, but I also knew the breakthroughs that it had. I knew about Lee Elder when he came around, and Calvin Peete was huge in the ’80s. Even though I didn’t play, I was fully aware of the significance of what those guys did.
I love the way that the game has grown globally, especially in South Korea and other parts of Asia. It’s growing in India and South America. It’s a game that has brought many people out of poverty from their country. Greg Norman’s vision of a global game has come through, which I think is great.
Do you watch the pro game these days?
Not as much as I used to. I try to keep up with it, but it’s all a function of time. I still keep up with the young guys. Of course, I’m on the Tiger Tracker.…You notice they put a premium on taking care of their bodies. A lot of people think they’re trying to buff up, but I think what they’re really doing is trying to have body preservation. Some people take it to the extreme; Tiger might have taken [it] to the extreme. But he’s a different animal. Trying to relate to Tiger is nonsense. There’s nothing you can do to try to relate to somebody like that.
Have you come across some celebrities that are of similar wattage to Tiger?
Yes, Will Smith is like that. I worked with him on “Fresh Prince” back in the day. He’s a completely different human, and you can’t be mad at him because he’s also one of the nicer guys. You’re like, “All right, whatever. Some people are just superhuman.” He’s good at everything he does.I used to hit balls with Will back then, and he was so competitive, too. I remember trying to out-hit each other and hit the best shots on the range. Alfonso [Ribeiro], who played Carlton on the show, he played with us too.
It seems like the days of celebrities like Bob Hope and Dean Martin making the game glamorous to the masses have gone.
There’s a lot of people that play in this business. These days I think golfers are in the closet a little bit. I think 20 years ago they weren’t as much; people don’t talk about the game as much as I remember when I was first getting into this business. It could be a class thing; they don’t want to come off as super exclusive.
That said, there’s so many great public courses [in Southern California]. I live near Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena, and I play there all the time. I used to play in the morning and get 13 holes in when it was real early. You get the local rate. You pay $15 or $20 and go walk. That’s not an exclusive activity.
You meet people from all walks of life doing that, too. I really like that aspect in golf more so than the country club type of thing.…I used to test run joke ideas on people who didn’t know what I did for a living. Halfway through the round, I’d sneak jokes in there to see [what] they responded to, not telling them that I was a professional comedian.
Did you kick any other famous asses?
Not really, but I do have one story.…One of the shows I created was “The Bernie Mac Show.” I was very proud of that show. Bernie loved golf too; we had so much fun talking about it. His opinions were hilarious. In the beginning of our second season, the network wanted us to have a guest star. Bernie had worked with Matt Damon on Ocean’s Eleven. He called Matt and asked if he wanted to guest star, and he said yes. I was like, “That’s great!” I found out that Damon loved golf too, and we decided to do a golf charity episode. We tried it at Malibu Golf Club, which was actually a public course.
So here we are, at the course shooting. In between takes, I would get a cart and I would grab Matt Damon. This was me, some writer, trying to play with Matt Damon. We would race out and find an open hole on the course, play the hole and come back and do another take. Damon was the nicest guy, too. He’s one of those kind of stars who remembers everybody’s name on the crew and thanks people. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf. Isn’t that cool? Golf brings people together. That’s my coolest golf celebrity story.
Makes all those range sessions worth it.
Exactly. Because you want to be on that day; you don’t want to look like you’ve never played the game. And with me, I can look really good or I can look really bad. I have that type of game. People would never believe my handicap. I’m around a 12 or 13. But I’m really not a 12 or a 13; I play sometimes like a 6 or a 7, or I’ll play like a 22. I mean, the whole day will be a 22 or the whole day will be a 6 or a 7. People think I’m sandbagging. I’m like, “Guys, I’m not sandbagging! Come out next week and you’ll see.” It’s infuriating!
It’s the worst.
I’m smashing drives, hitting it so well. Irons are good. The next time, it’s like I’ve never played the game, and I’m just trying to hang on and find one shot that can get me through the round. [Laughs.] That’s why when you see a pro shank it, you say, “Yes, there you go. Come on, shake it off now. Go find it and hit it again, buddy.” It’s mean, but it feels good. Everybody does it.