Hidden on an Aptos High School football team that ran the Wing T, Trent Dilfer didn’t even make first-team all-league at quarterback his senior year. That distinction went to North Monterey County’s Todd Whitehurst, who went on to become the punter at San Jose State. Dilfer turned down a scholarship offer at Santa Clara (where he would have teamed up with Steve Nash), accepting a chance to play quarterback for Fresno State. A record-setting three-year career as a starter saw Dilfer throw the most passes in the nation without an interception. Dilfer was drafted sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1994 draft, made the 1997 Pro Bowl, and won a Super Bowl starting for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Dilfer played 14 NFL seasons before retiring with the San Francisco 49ers, and has been a football analyst with ESPN since 2008. Also an all-league golfer in high school, Dilfer is an avid player with a competitive career-low of 62.
NCGA Golf caught up with the NCGA member ahead of this year’s American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Edgewood.
This is the full, unedited conversation. A shorter version ran in the summer issue of NCGA Golf.
You’ve been as low as a plus-1.3 in the last year. How’s your game coming into the Celebrity Shootout at Edgewood?
If I’m making putts, which I do a lot of times, I can compete. My issues are I’ve lost so much distance off the tee after I tore my Achilles in 2002, it’s scary. I didn’t know it would affect me like that. Part of it was I was always just athletic over the ball. I could always rotate my hips and generate clubhead speed at the ball with the longer clubs. Once I tore it, I never felt on balance. I wasn’t able to get that push from the ground. Now that I’ve seen my swing on video, I just don’t have any rotation. I can get away with it with my irons. It’s kind of an arms swing. I’ve got to time it up right. I’m hitting it 255, and these guys are hitting it 325. But I hit it pretty straight and have to think my way around the golf course. The biggest place I notice it is when I used to go low, I would take advantage of the par 5s, like everybody. When I’ve struggled in this tournaments and others like it, I haven’t taken advantage of the par 5s.
What’s your best finish out here?
I finished second once, and I’ve finished third a couple times. I’ve had some chances. I’ve played really well and just had guys play better than me. One year a guy shot 30 on the back on me, another year a guy shot 31 on the final nine. And I’ve given a couple away by shooting over par on the final nine.
What does it feel like when you’re in the hunt down the stretch? Does it compare to any of your football experiences?
It’s a lot more nerve-wracking because it’s not what you were designed to do. It’s something we do, and we’re decent at it, but I haven’t prepared my whole life to play the back nine with a golf tournament on the line. I’ve tried to get better at it. There have been times where I haven’t noticed any nerves and I played very confidently. But there have been times where you put your hand on the putter, and you’re like, “Why are they shaking?” I don’t think I’m nervous, but obviously I am. It’s just a different beast. In football, you’re just conditioned to play your best in the biggest moments. A lot of it is how you talk to yourself. In football, you’re always telling yourself, “Make a play,” “Go for it.” You have that aggressive mindset. In golf, a lot of times it’s the don’t. “Don’t hit it left.”
Have you ever gotten that shaking feeling in football, or any other sport you played?
I think early in my career, when I was still new to the position, there were some very nervy times. But once you’ve gone to a couple rodeos, it’s kind of the same. In golf, no matter how much I play, there’s still always an element of nerves.
You’ve got to be pretty comfortable on the golf course to shoot a 62 in competition.
It was the last day of a tournament against the best player in celebrity golf. It was 2001 in San Diego at the Celebrity Championship hosted by Stan Humphries. At that time, there were probably six or seven really nice celebrity events, with Tahoe being the signature one, but I’d put that one as No. 2 or No. 3. It was just one of those weeks where I did everything well, and my putter got smoking hot on the last day. I hit 35 of 36 greens over the two days, and the only green I missed, I chipped in on No. 10 the last day. I made a 45-foot bomb on No. 8 the last round, and besides that, I hit it 12 feet and made it. 15 feet, made it. Eight feet, made it. I shot 67-62.
Once you shoot a number like that, does it take you to a different place mentally?
In the next five years, I had a lot of rounds where I was 6 or 7 or 8 under and had a chance to do it again, but you have to make a lot of putts. I’ve hit 18 greens and shot 67 or 65. You look back and think, “Could I have gotten more out of that?” I mean, if the hole was the size of a bucket, sure. I don’t ever think about that that number, but I’m trying to get back to where I’m in the 60s once a week instead of once a month.
Golf and football, especially for quarterbacks, seem to mesh. Why is that?
I first came into the league and it was kind of like a rite of passage to be in the quarterback community, to play golf and play it well. Then it went through a lull where nobody really played. And now the young guys are starting to play again. So I think it fits our mindset that the mechanics don’t really fit. That’s the interesting thing. The throwing mechanics and the golf mechanics don’t really marry each other very well. That’s why most of us kind of have an over the top move. We have a hard time tracking the club inside, because of our mechanics from football. Doesn’t carry over. But I think our short games, the way they think through the game is all pretty similar, and our competitive temperament. And we are all deeply competitive and do what it takes to beat the next guy. So I think that’s why you see a lot of quarterbacks successful in this game.
Do you cram all of your golf into the summer months? I’d imagine your schedule gets pretty busy when the NFL season rolls around.
When I played in the NFL until 2008, I had never played a round of golf in the fall, in my whole life. I started playing football when I was 14, and I started golf when I was 12. When I got into TV, I had some opportunities to play in the fall, but it wasn’t like I was playing seriously – I’d go out and play goofy golf. About three years ago, I decided to take advantage of some mid-week opportunities. I go out to the range at least once, I chip and putt at least once, and I play at least once. So I get three days where I am holding a club. Some days it’s only for an hour, some days it’s for two hours, and some days it’s a round, but I try to get out for three days. Part of it is I just need to get out of the office. Steve Young told me four years ago when we were on a plane, “Bro you’re going too far into the X’s and O’s. You’re going to get lost in this thing. Don’t lock yourself in an office and do nothing but watch football. Enjoy life a little bit. With my kids in school all day, and my wife doing her thing, I have windows. I can go out and play or practice.
You grew up in Aptos. Where are you now?
I’m based in Los Gatos. I play the bulk of my golf at Cal Club in San Francisco.
Do you ever play with fellow Cal Club member Steph Curry?
We get to play a lot with each other. If he was playing a lot more often – he’s a lot more pure than I am. He’s super pure. He’s like he is in basketball. It just looks easy. But he doesn’t get to play a ton. I’d say we are pretty similar. If we played 10 times, my guess is we’d split – when he’s playing a lot. He’s a really good player. He’s impressive to watch hit balls, manage a golf course. He just grew up playing the game, knows the game, and makes it look easy, just like he does with basketball. And he’s just a great kid. He’s a lot of fun.
Are you a professional?
I am. It’s been a dilemma. I’ve thought about some of the big amateur championships, but I think I’m going to wait until I’m 50. My youngest kid is 13. I would never be able to play a solid mid-am schedule until she is out of the house. Five years from now, I’ll be 48. That’s probably when I’ll reapply for my amateur status, and then start the mid-am circuit. My wife can enjoy some of the travel with me. That’s kind of the plan. But we’ll see.
Do you ever think about the Champions Tour?
Oh god, no. Those guys are so much better than we are. If I was healthy, and my body was strong, and I could still hit it like I used to hit it, maybe there’s an outside chance. But I’ve played with a lot of those guys. I always look at it as, you don’t judge yourself against those guys round-by-round, you judge yourself week-by-week. If you played seven rounds against, say Lanny Wadkins, I might beat him twice, but he’s going to smash me five times. Because I’m gonna shoot a 76 in there, and he is still going to shoot a 69. When I beat him, I’m going to shoot 69 and he’s going to shoot 70. There’s a vast difference between a golfer like myself – a scratch or plus 1 – and these guys that are plus-4, plus-5.
You played four varsity sports in high school. Were you playing golf and baseball at the same time?
I played baseball until my sophomore year, but I hurt my shoulder. I played golf and would also compete in track events. I would have stayed with baseball, and golf would have been a hobby, but I hurt my shoulder and had surgery, and they kind of said, pick between baseball and football. Basketball was my favorite sport growing up. I was more recruited as a basketball player than any other sport. I’m glad I didn’t go play basketball at Santa Clara, that’s what I was thinking about doing.
How competitive were you in golf in high school?
I was about a 4-handicap. I won our league one year, and I was one of the better golfers in Santa Cruz, but when we would go play Stevenson in Pebble Beach, your 76 didn’t match up very well with their 68. I struggled when it became real golf. I hit a giant cut back then, swung as hard as I could. I could always putt and chip, so that helped, but I had 84 in my bag, as well as 72. But my short game was always my thing.
Any reason for that?
Someone asked me what I traced that back to. I started playing golf because of buddy of mine and I were getting into trouble a lot, just goofing around when we were 12. So my mom and his mom kind of came up with this plan that they would drive us out to Spring Hills in Watsonville, drop us off with $5 – which in 1982 could get you lunch – and my grandma’s Wilson irons and persimmon woods. We’d have to find our own golf balls because we couldn’t afford them, so we’d hunt through the holes for golf balls, and chip and putt. When everyone was off the course, the pro would let us go out for free, and I was always Tom Watson, and he was always Jack Nicklaus. We shared this bag of clubs, we couldn’t hit it out of our shadow, but the Wilson wedge was heavy enough that it felt like a man’s club. The rest of the bag is women’s clubs – they were my grandma’s clubs. The wood felt like a whip, all the irons felt off, but the wedge felt right. So I’d hit that wedge from 130 yards to 30 yards. I think I just got really good hitting this blade forged wedge, getting up and down out of crappy lies. We did that all summer. Ever since, I’ve always felt comfortable with my wedges and putting. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had atrocious putting weeks out here, but at the end of the day, I am the player I am because of my short game.
Was Tom Watson your favorite player? Did you ever get to meet him?
He was back in the day. I met him in New Jersey years ago in a great tournament called the Cadillac, where they paired NFL players with Senior Tour players at Upper Montclair, New Jersey. All of those guys were great guys, and I learned a lot about golf. I learned about controlling trajectory and spin, and thinking my way through a golf course. I don’t think I learned how to really manage my game until the mid to late 90s, playing with people better than me. John Brodie had a huge influence on my playing career.
After John Brodie’s rookie year with the 49ers, he won the NCGA Stroke Play Championship.
He was a stick. He understood golf. It was more than just his ball-striking, and the mechanics of the game. He had a great mind. He just new how to get it in the hole and how to compete.
Is it true that John Brodie gave you a lesson in football and golf on a practice green one afternoon?
It was awesome. We were playing at a tournament at Black Diamond in Ocala, Fla. We were staying offsite, and I had stayed after the round at the golf course, and I practiced, and practiced and practiced. I pulled into the hotel resort we were staying at, and he’s up on the hotel deck smoking a cigarette and having a drink. He says, “Why are you practicing so hard?” I said, “I’m trying to get better.” And he says, “You’re not practicing the right stuff. You don’t practice the right stuff in football, and you don’t practice the right stuff in golf.” And he walks down on the putting green, and says, “Let’s start talking about football.” And what he taught me that day with the drop, I have taught hundreds of coaches around the country, who have then taught thousands of kids. It’s one of our core tenants of how we teach footwork at Elite 11, the Nike camp we run. And it was something that no coach had ever taught me. Many coaches, to this day, go, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never thought about it like that. It makes so much sense.” So we did the football first, while I was in my golf spikes, and then we got out there and started working on my golf swing, and my short game. His big message that day was he used to call me par shooter. He says, “You’ve built your whole game around shooting par. Are you comfortable shooting par?” And I said, “No, I want to be able to go low.” And he said,” If you want to go low, here are the things you’ve got to do.” And it was the next year that I won Black Diamond, and shot 67-66 and beat Rich Rhoden in a shootout. It was two years after that, I did the 67-62. John had a lot to do with getting my mind wrapped around being better than I was at the time.
Are there any secrets you can share?
His big thing was trajectory. He was all about controlling line, and controlling distances is all about controlling trajectory. So it was about feeling the clubface and what the clubface is doing at impact to control trajectory – starting at 10 yards and working back to 180 yards. I’ve never been a guy who can shape the ball, but if you can control your trajectory, you can get to pins and give yourself opportunities to make birdies. But the biggest thing about trajectory is you have to have a shot that you can trust in all circumstances, no matter how nervous you are. You have to have one shot. For me, it’s a bullet cut. Kind of a hold-on cut. I don’t lose much distance, and I know it’s not going left.
I’m sure winning the Super Bowl is up there with your favorite NFL memories?
It is, but my favorite memory is the Titans game Week 11 from that season (in 2000). I lost us the game. We were moving the ball, and all we have to do is not turn the ball over, and we kick the game-winning field goal. I threw an 87-yard pick-six. We get the ball back with 2:30 left and we get in the huddle, and every guy looked at me and said, “OK, now you get to be the hero.” And we went down and I threw a touchdown with 29 seconds left on the clock to win. I think that launched that run as much as anything. I think you truly have to be at the bottom, and pull yourself out. I always say confidence isn’t previous success, confidence is overcoming tough stuff. If you can overcome tough stuff, you’re going to have confidence in a lot of different situations. Overcoming that is what gave my teammates confidence in me, and we knew we weren’t going to get beat again. (The Ravens won their last 11 games en route to their first Super Bowl.)
You won 15 NFL starts between the Ravens in 2000 and the Seahawks in 2001. But then you sprained your MCL in preseason before the 2002 season and tore your Achilles in Week 8. Do you ever look back at that time and think about what might have been if you stayed healthy?
I try not to get into the what-ifs. I can identify why I had that success. It’s a great golf parallel. There’s something to just getting the ball in the hole. You hit a bad shot, recover, hit a good chip, and still get the ball in the hole with a par. I’ve always been pretty good in not getting caught up in the how in golf. I learned that in football. Early in my career, it was so much about the how. If we weren’t doing it the way we thought we were going to do it, then our chances of winning were going to be significantly less. But I realized my last year in Tampa that’s not true. There’s something just about winning. There are a lot of ways to win football games. One of the biggest ways is to learn how to not give it away. I learned how not to give it away, for the most part. By doing that, your teammates always feel like they have a chance, you play close games, and they make big plays in big moments. That’s what those 15 straight wins were about. Could I have continued to do that if I did not get hurt? Maybe? But I got hurt a lot the back half of my career. I was very healthy the first half, hurt a lot the back half. Why? There are probably a lot of reasons for it, but I try not to have regrets.
Did you always know you were going to transition into becoming an analyst?
I had no idea. I was in Cleveland, and our PR guy kept saying, “You’ve got to do some TV. You’re really good at this.” And I kept telling him, “No, I don’t want to be in TV. I don’t like those guys.” Through some different circumstances, I had the chance to go to Seattle, where I had just played, and cover the Seahawks for a couple of weeks. What I learned was how the football fan was uneducated in terms of what was really going on out on the field.
Football is by far the most popular sport, but its fans seem to know the least about how it is played.
Yes. And that’s what I started seeing. I thought, “Wow, this is a really good opportunity to teach them, and just be kind of a coach to the fan.” Everybody thought I was going to be a coach. I was offered a ton of jobs, but I didn’t want to do that from a lifestyle standpoint. But I thought, “Maybe I can just teach the audience.” That’s the approach I started taking, and some people hate it, some people love it, but that’s what I try to do.
Do you ever worry about being too accurate or too critical in your analysis that you might lose some friends from the locker room?
It’s a tough line. I’ve lost a lot of friends, honestly. People I didn’t realize were so sensitive to criticism. My method is usually compliment the guy first, then criticize, but some people just don’t like being criticized, especially when you are exposing stuff behind the veil. I think that’s where I’ve been the most polarizing. I haven’t been afraid to expose some stuff behind the veil that I think a lot of people wanted to keep secret.
Is that a regret to lose those friendships?
No, because if I’m going to lose a friendship because they don’t like what I have to say about something, then they weren’t that close of a friend.
You talked earlier about the skill of learning how to win. Where do you stand on the emergence of advanced stats vs. the intangible attributes that scouts and coaches seek?
The answer is it’s both. In football, everybody wants definite, yes or no answers, and there just aren’t many of those out there. Because there’s limited times, sound bites, word counts, everybody feels the pressure to do the either/or. I just don’t feel the pressure to do that. I’m completely comfortable saying it’s both. A player may have intangible qualities that bring out the best in others. He might also have some flaws that the metrics show. I think it’s hard because people who have never been in the cauldron, have never been in the action, don’t know what it feels like to be inspired by someone next to them. So they can’t comprehend that. They sit at a cubicle all day long, and nobody inspires them. There are players who aren’t the best players on your team, but inspire you to give more of yourself to the team. Those are winners. It doesn’t mean you want 53 of those. You want some freak athletes that can just do phenomenal things. But there’s a balance. I think the scouting vs. advanced metrics war is one that’s going to become even more prevalent because of daily fantasy football leagues and all that stuff. But the answer is going to continue to be both. The short-sighted people who want to say it’s one of the other are just wrong. The scout is wrong who says it’s all intangibles and grit and grind, and the stat geek who is all about the numbers is wrong, too. It’s right in the middle. The smart ones are going to be the ones who can blend – and understand both. A lot of scouts and coaches can’t understand the numbers. And the stats guys can’t understand the coaches because they haven’t been in the fire.
How much has fantasy football changed how the sport is consumed?
It’s massively changed everything. And it’s not just the daily leagues. I started seeing it 10 years ago. I think the easiest way to explain it is it has changed the pageantry from being team-based to individual. In college, there is so much pageantry around the sport, because it is about colors, numbers, the name of the front, the mascot, the fight song, the stadium, the culture. The NFL has become about people. I remember going into New York as a Seahawks, and Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander are getting off the bus, and these guys with Giants jerseys are going, “Matt! Shaun! We’ve got you in fantasy this week. Hope you have a great game! Hope you lose, but hope you have a great game!” We’re playing the Giants, and they’re rooting for Matt and Shaun to go off.
Is that a good thing?
It depends how you look at it. It’s hard for the Old School person to say it’s good, but it increases the exposure of the game. I mean, my sister plays fantasy football. My 13-year-old daughter wanted me to do a league with her last year, because that’s what everybody’s doing, and it’s fun, and it’s community based. I think for that it’s fine, as long as people are willing to understand that it’s just a small little piece of the picture.
As a former quarterback, what do you make of the Tom Brady deflate-gate?
I think this is the most sensationalized story I’ve ever seen in the National Football League, to be quite honest with you. In 2004, there was a conference call amongst quarterbacks in the NFL and kind of an understanding you could do whatever you wanted to do with the footballs except turn them blue, because up until then they were the league kind of controlled them and we were getting in a situation where you go to a game and you have the film was still on the ball, or one ball would be rock hard or one would be soft and there was no consistency. And then they tried to introduce some footballs with synthetic laces, which was a train wreck. So it was real contentious. So I think Tom and everyone else have been working under that premise ever since.
The way it works is you spend all week with the ball boys getting the footballs ready. Some guys rub them down, some put dirt on them. I had my formula that I taught to Alex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck, and they all liked it. And we all had our way of getting the footballs ready. And the inspection process was pretty simple. The ball boys, two hours before the game, takes the ball bag to the refs and there’s 24 balls in the bag, 12 you’re going to use and 12 that are backups. And the refs open the ball bag and say, stick a needle in one, close enough, good, let’s go. How it got to this point, I have no idea. I can’t comprehend how this got this far, because in the world I lived in, this was never an issue. I don’t know what else to say about that. I can’t believe it to be honest with you. I’ve stayed away from the whole story just because I’m sickened by it. It’s harder to throw a ball that’s deflated. Science has proven it. Sports Science did a study on it. Most quarterbacks would tell you it’s harder to spin a soft ball. It might be easier to hold on to in the colder weather, like people are talking about, but it’s much harder to spin.
Favorite golf course?
It’s hard, but at the end of the day, my favorite is Cypress Point. Pine Valley is up there, and Cal Club is up there, and SF Club is up there, and Ballybunion is up there. Shinnecock is up there. But if I had one round of golf to play before I died, it would be at Cypress Point.