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Q&A: Comedian Henry Cho shapes golf shots with a drawl

Comedian Henry Cho
Comedian Henry Cho has developed a golf game that is no laughing matter.

In 2nd edition of our ‘From the Froghair with David Wood’ interview series, Tennessean Henry Cho talks about lifetime of experiences, funny as well as serious, in golf

Henry Cho has long been one of the premier stand-up comedians in the U.S. His many television credits include “The Tonight Show”; “The Late, Late, Show” on CBS; and “The Young Comedians Special” on NBC. Henry’s one-hour Comedy Central Special “What’s That Clickin Noise?” is on Netflix. He’s also a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry in his native Tennessee.

Cho is one of my closest golfing pals since we met performing at Los Angeles comedy clubs in the mid-1980s. He and I have played hundreds of rounds over the years, and we even used to tour and perform at comedy clubs around the country together just so we could play golf during the day. He’s a strong low-handicap player with a homemade swing that he and others call “unorthodox,” but even golf professionals marvel at his incredible putting prowess. I caught up with him recently via telephone from his home near Nashville to talk golf.

When did you first start playing golf?
In high school in Knoxville, I was a well-above-average baseball player and had played the sport my whole life. I’d always wanted to play golf. The high school golf coach even wanted me to try it, but we weren’t allowed to, because the myth back then was playing golf would mess up your baseball swing. My dad played the game. I would sometimes sneak a few clubs out of his bag and go play with my buddies and hope he wouldn’t miss the clubs if he decided to play.

We would play a little nine-hole course in Knoxville called Orange Tree. We were hacks and had no idea what we were doing. One of my pal’s dad was a golfer and had tried to teach him to play. We’d just mimic him. I remember I’d hit some great shots and then I’d hit a 10-yard grounder. That’s how I came to play the game initially.

When did you start getting more serious about the game?
I started playing real golf in 1986 when I first started doing stand-up comedy. I remember I was in Cincinnati performing at a comedy club. The club had a condo where they put the comedians up, with two lists on the wall: one with the rules of the comedy club and one with a list of local A.A. meetings. The other comedian whom I was working with found an A.A. meeting and left. I didn’t need to go to A.A., so I thought to myself, I need a hobby. As I said, I’d always wanted to play golf, but never had the time or money, but suddenly, I did. That day I went to Kmart and bought a set of Spalding Executive clubs and started playing the local muni courses in Cincinnati that week.

Then I remember playing golf with Ralph Terry at Ka’anapali in Hawaii. He was a New York Yankees pitcher and was the MVP of the 1962 World Series. He was a big golfer and ended up becoming a teaching pro in Kansas. I met him in early 1990 when me and a buddy were traveling around Hawaii, just playing golf for nine days. My comedy career had taken off, and I was invited to play all over the islands. Ralph Terry happened to also be there at Ka’anapali, trying to qualify for a Senior Tour event, but he didn’t make the cut, so he and his wife were hanging out in Hawaii as well.

We got paired up with Ralph by coincidence. Ralph watched my swing and said, “Did you play baseball?” I replied that I had. He said, “Why are you swinging like that? You’re an athlete.” He told me to set up to the ball like you’re a batter stepping up to the plate; just look at the lower-left quadrant of the ball, then swing as hard as you can and knock the crap out it. I did exactly as he said and crushed the best drive I’d ever hit in my life. Ralph said, “That’s it. Just get set up like an athlete, look at the lower-left quadrant of the ball, and swing as hard as you can. When you get to impact, you’re going to hit it good because you’ve been hitting baseballs your whole life.” After Ralph gave me those tips, I remember thinking, By golly, I can hit a golf ball.

I know you play in a ton of celebrity pro-am events. Do you get nervous when playing golf in front of crowds at the tournaments?
Initially, I did. I remember the first one I played in was at Doral for the PGA Tour tournament in the early 1990s. I’m there playing in the pro-am and doing a show for the event that night. We were the group playing behind Raymond Floyd. I was standing with Raymond on the back tee while he waited to tee off. He said, “I wish I could stay around and watch you hit a golf ball.” He had heard through the grapevine my swing was unorthodox. I replied, “Well, you better not hit one bad shot or I’m going to talk about it on stage tonight.” He busted out laughing.

When it was our turn to hit, we were a popular group, and a lot of people were lined up down the tee box. The announcer said, “Now on the tee, comedian Henry Cho.” I turned to the crowd and said, Y’all heard that, right? Comedian? If I was y’all, I’d back up a bit. The crowd laughed and did move back a little, and then I hit it, a great drive right down the middle. It was funny.

What do you enjoy most about the game?
That it’s a lifelong quest. I love that I’m never going to master the game, no matter how hard I practice. It’s a nonstop journey to try to shoot that great round. I also love the camaraderie, especially the guys I play with consistently at my home course, the Golf Club of Tennessee. That’s the only time I see them. I don’t even know what their wives look like, but I see my golf buddies out on the course 150 days a year.

Given all the golf we’ve played together over the years, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this one, but what’s the best part of your game?
Putting. That’s always been there from Day One, just being able to read the green, see the break, and determine the line. I travel and play a lot of courses, but rarely do I leave a round thinking the greens had me fooled. I literally think I can make any putt.

What’s the worst part of your game?
It changes from time to time, but I’d say the tee ball. For the most part, I tend to hit the fairway from the tee, but sometimes I’ll miss like six fairways in a round, and that leads to bogeys, especially if I short-side on the approach after getting it back in play. If I hit the fairway, I’m confident I can make a par. I used to be really consistent off the tee, but it hasn’t been that way for the past two years.

What are your favorite places to play?
I’m blessed enough to have played at Augusta National a half-dozen times. The first time I played there, I was a 12-handicapper and broke 90, so I was happy. The holes on Augusta are etched in everyone’s mind, and most all golfers want to play there. My favorite course is Spyglass. It’s a hard course. If you’re hitting it good, it’s fair, but if you’re not, it’s going to make you pay. That’s what I like about it. I also really like Peachtree Golf Club and Pasatiempo. I like the course you and I played in Seattle, Rainier Golf & Country Club. That’s still one of my favorites.  

I know you play at the Golf Club of Tennessee with your golf pal and (great musician) Vince Gill. Mind talking a bit about playing golf with him?
I met Vince Gill backstage when we were both doing “The Tonight Show” in late 1994. I was hanging out in the dressing rooms and went up to him and asked, “Are you Vince?” That’s how we met. After living in Los Angeles for years, I had just bought a farm in the Nashville area, where Vince lives as well. I asked where I should play golf. He said hands-down the Golf Club of Tennessee. He said I was going to need a couple of recommendation letters. He knew I was currently touring with Reba McEntire, who is also a member there, and told me to ask her to write one and he would write the other. So, I asked Reba, and she did. Then a few weeks later, I got a call from the membership director who said he had received a couple of impressive recommendation letters. That’s how I joined.

Vince Gill is a strong player, right?
Yes, he’s a plus-1 handicap now and has even been better than that. He saw me on the range shortly after I’d joined and asked me if I wanted to play. I was probably a 10-handicap at the time, and we went and played. He was really long off the tee! I thought, Holy cow! This guy can play! So, Vince and I started playing regularly when we both weren’t touring.

What is your dream foursome?
Dude, you’re in it! I’ve always had more fun playing golf with you. You’re one of my golf guys. If I only had one round of golf left to play, it would Vince Gill, Danny Briggs a Nashville-area professional golfer who spent several years on the PGA Tour whom I play with at least once a week and who almost never misses a shot and you.

What’s the best single bit of advice you’ve ever received on playing the crazy game of golf?
Besides Ralph Terry telling me to play like an athlete, I was playing once with Tom Pernice Jr. [who has won two times on the PGA Tour and six times on the Champions Tour] in a pro-am. He plays at the Golf Club of Tennessee also, so we play together often. In the pro-am, I had an extremely tough up-and-down over a bunker. He came over and said to imagine the hole as an 8-foot chimney and you’re going to drop the ball straight down the chute. By gosh, I visualized that and hit it to 2 feet. So, I use that visualization to this day when I have a similar shot. 

David Wood was a longtime stand-up comedian with several David Letterman Show appearances. He’s the author of “Around the World in 80 Rounds” and host of “Have Clubs Will Travel” on The Morning Read. Follow David on Instagram and Twitter: @authordavidwood.  

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