On Colleges, On Golf
1:41 PM PDT, May 26, 2012
After 14 holes, I risked the wrath of the golf gods by reminding Hunter Hillenmeyer he had yet to three-putt a green.
"Now that's a jinx," he said.
For seven-plus seasons, Hillenmeyer thrived as a Bears linebacker because of his mental toughness. A fifth-round draft pick — by the Packers — the Vanderbilt alumnus joked that he "made up for his lack of strength with a lack of speed."
But with a putter in his hands, his brain cells rebel.
"I've tried a belly putter, a blade putter, a putter that looks like it has six balls trailing it," Hillenmeyer said. "If you're playing me for money, you want me to putt every 3-footer. I don't think I need a lesson; I need a shrink."
For our round at Shoreacres, the North Shore gem that Golf Magazine ranks as the nation's 36th-greatest course, Hillenmeyer used a bizarre long putter he picked up at Golf Galaxy for $100. The Nickent Pipe II weighs more than a goalpost and has a blue grip about as wide as a Coke can.
But, hey, it worked.
Hillenmeyer had everything working. His first swing produced a 301-yard drive on the site of one of Tiger Woods' greatest trick shots. At an outing the day after he won the 2009 BMW Championship, Woods snap-hooked an 8-iron that kissed both tree lines, a 70-yard sideways flight.
The 309-yard third is where J.B. Holmes once drove his ball to the middle of the green — from his knees. Hillenmeyer came up a first down shy, two-putting for birdie.
"He has the best ex-athlete swing I have seen," said head professional Peter McDonald, who has played with the likes of Joe Namath.
Hillenmeyer shot a 76 from the members tees (and an 83 from the tips) at Augusta National on a buddy trip with Brian Urlacher. At Shoreacres he recorded a 4-over 75 with two double bogeys, one of which was not really his fault.
The 13th is one of Shoreacres' finest holes because it calls for a shaped tee shot. Straight is out of bounds. Right is the U.S. Naval Training Center in Great Lakes. A right-hander needs to hit a draw or hook, but it cannot exceed 275 yards. Hillenmeyer did just that with a hybrid, leading to an ugly 6.
On the next tee, he pounded his sides.
"I'm not bludgeoning myself," Hillenmeyer assured me. "Just trying to keep the hips loose."
Bears fans have every right to worry about Hillenmeyer, who looks almost skinny after shaving 35 pounds from a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame. "Even in my playing days," he recalled, "people would say to me, 'You look a lot like Hunter Hillenmeyer, but I bet he's bigger than you.' "
Hillenmeyer left football because of effects from a concussion suffered in a 2010 exhibition game. In the season opener, he said, "I ran down on kickoff (coverage) and felt dizzy and off-balance."
After what he called "a full spectrum of tests with doctors," Hillenmeyer had to retire at 30.
"It's a totally unexplainable confluence of emotions," he said. "Anger, relief, frustration, lack of understanding."
Although Article 45 of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement seems clear, the Bears continue to withhold $900,000 that represented half of his final base salary.
Hillenmeyer is not bitter, saying: "I'm hoping the Bears staff was ahead of the curve in terms of how they handled concussions. Hopefully the long-term symptoms making the front page of the paper these days will not get me decades down the road."
In a column for ChicagoSideSports.com, he compared "The Hunger Games" to the NFL's Bounty-gate.
Back to the golf course, one of Chicago's elite. It's in such immaculate shape that I felt compelled to refrain from tossing broken tees onto the grass. It's so exclusive that we didn't spot another player for 3 1/2 hours. Architect Seth Raynor's 1916 design yields split fairways, ravines, a blind shot over a 45-foot bank, dramatic bunkering, a green that's 88 yards long and a variation of the famous "Road Hole" at St. Andrews.
The course is rarely photographed. Members, such as actor Chris O'Donnell, seek privacy.
Hillenmeyer completed his round without a three-jack. So much for the jinx.
Then he was off to a function at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, where he earned an MBA, before returning to wife Shannon (daughter of former Bulls coach Tim Floyd) and their 16-month-old daughter, Harper, at their Winnetka home.
If he has a son, Hillenmeyer vows to steer him toward golf, not football.
"I'm hoping my children will be professional golfers," he said. "I'll be their caddie."
18 Holes with … Hunter Hillenmeyer
Five-second bio: NFL veteran joked about being the "Ringo" of the Bears linebacking corps. He's now president of a soon-to-be rebranded endorsement company called Pro Player Connect that links athletes to fans.
Where: Shoreacres, Lake Bluff (black tees: 6,530 yards).
Hillenmeyer's handicap: 3.
What he shot: 75.
How he describes his game: "Inconsistent. Normally I look like a sandbagger or like I have an ego handicap."
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