SILVIS, Illinois — After leading the Iowa Hawkeyes to their first NCAA women’s basketball championship game, being consensus national player of the year and winning the Honda Cup as the top collegiate women’s athlete, Caitlin Clark added another honor to her 2023 list of accomplishments. She got to play golf alongside U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson, a fellow Iowa native, on Wednesday.
Clark, an avid golf fan who has played since childhood, competed in the John Deere Classic Pro-Am at TPC Deere Run.
“It’s just unique and special; I haven’t had many opportunities to play a different sport, and at a PGA Tour event,” Clark said. “I’m a big fan of golf. I love to play and be around it. Every Sunday I usually have the TV on and I’m watching.
“Obviously, a big fan of Zach. We worked on my chipping a bit, leaning more on my front foot.”
Clark teed off at 8:08 a.m. local time, splitting the fairway on her opening drive. She drew a large crowd; the course is in the greater Quad Cities area, just about 70 miles from where Clark is known for making from-the-logo 3-pointers and pinpoint passes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Many spectators were sporting No. 22 shirts as they lined the fairways, pleading for autographs from Clark, who kept busy signing throughout the 18 holes. Johnson grinned when asked about the last time he might have been the second-most popular Iowan on a golf course.
“Well, Connor McCaffery was walking with us today, too, so I’m probably third or fourth down the list,” Johnson said, referring to Clark’s boyfriend, who played for his father, Fran McCaffery, on Iowa’s men’s basketball team. “That’s awesome, man. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Connor, Clark’s parents and younger brother, and Iowa women’s assistant coach Jan Jensen followed Clark all 18 holes. Her former club basketball coach, Dickson Jensen, caddied for her. Clark and her group of amateurs were paired with pro Ludvig Aberg for the first nine holes and then with Johnson for the back nine.
Johnson is a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, including two major championships, and six appearances as a player in the Ryder Cup. Born in Iowa City, Johnson grew up in Cedar Rapids and played collegiately at Drake in Des Moines, which is where Clark is from.
Clark said she is looking forward to watching the Ryder Cup, which will be Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Italy. Iowa, which finished 31-7 last season and upset the previously undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks in the national semifinals before losing to the LSU Tigers in the final, will be playing in Italy on a team tour in August.
“If Coach [Lisa] Bluder wants to let me skip the first month of school and stay in Italy [for the Ryder Cup], I would be perfectly fine with that,” Clark said, smiling. “But I doubt that happens.”
Clark started her round Wednesday strong on the front nine, but acknowledged she ran out of gas on the back nine, as the temperature peaked at 90 degrees. Since it is a pro-am and the amateurs pick up on certain holes, Clark didn’t have an exact score. Suffice to say, though, she hit a lot of fairways and putted for birdie a few times, just missing. Golf is just a fun sport for her, but she can hold her own.
“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 kind of, ‘Don’t waste time, just go up there and hit it.’ It think it’s the same with basketball. You have to settle into the game a little bit.
“I think Zach would say the mental side of basketball or golf is way more important that the physical skill. I’m only 21, so being able to learn that has been hard, but it really is true. You have one bad thing, you have to recover. Whether it’s a turnover or a missed putt.”
This past season, Clark averaged 27.8 points (second in Division I) and 8.6 assists, which led the nation. She will be a senior this fall, but because of the COVID-19 waiver, she could play two more years in college. Clark, who could be a WNBA No. 1 draft pick, has said she doesn’t expect to make her decision on a fifth year in college until after the season.
Johnson said that at the Masters in April, he talked to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who said she hoped Clark turns pro in 2024. Johnson joked he’s actually trying to get Clark three more years of eligibility at Iowa. He also said that on April 2, the Sunday before the Drive, Chip and Putt contest at Augusta National, there was a lot of chatter about the Iowa-LSU game.
“The buzz around Augusta National that afternoon was the [women’s championship game] coming up that afternoon,” Johnson said. “I think that speaks volumes of where the sport is going. What happened this year in the NCAA women’s tournament, to me as an Iowan, but also a fan of sports, was just spectacular.
“I’m a fan of the state and those that excel at a high level. This young lady is transcendent given her talent, but I can’t speak highly enough about how she handles herself.”