From coke addict to golf addict: How Samuel L Jackson found salvation on fairways to heaven

Karen Kay talks to the American actor who has been so badly bitten by the craze that has swept Hollywood that he has it written into contracts that he must have time out from filming to play twice a week
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The Independent Online

As a boy growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, raised by his mother, Elizabeth, and his grandparents, Samuel Leroy Jackson had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take to the fairways - to play or otherwise. With black friends who worked as caddies on the courses of the Deep South, he "refused to carry someone else's golf bag". Instead, he spent his childhood playing hide and seek, and ball games in the street with all the other local kids.

As a boy growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, raised by his mother, Elizabeth, and his grandparents, Samuel Leroy Jackson had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take to the fairways - to play or otherwise. With black friends who worked as caddies on the courses of the Deep South, he "refused to carry someone else's golf bag". Instead, he spent his childhood playing hide and seek, and ball games in the street with all the other local kids.

For the 55-year-old veteran of movies such as Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, Shaft and Pulp Fiction, life couldn't be more different today. Now recognised as one of the Big Screen's most respected actors, he has turned his world around. Once blighted by an upbringing where his father lived hundreds of miles away in Kansas City, Jackson had to fight for his place in a racially prejudiced society, even being expelled from college in 1969 for holding trustees hostage - including Martin Luther King Snr - to protest about the lack of a black studies curriculum.

Since then he's gone on to endure the highs and lows of the Hollywood lifestyle, and today recognises that sport plays a major, stabilising role in his life.

"As I kid I took my outdoor activities for granted. That's all there was to do. Now I am passionate about young people getting out there: physical activity is so important," he says. "To not be in front of a computer or a TV screen, just exercising your thumbs, is so rare these days, and one of the reasons we have problems in society. With sport and other physical activity, you learn to relate to other people, you experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, which is relevant in every area of our lives. All these things build character in a way that video games and television simply can't. And they exercise the mind, too. You know, golf is also a game of strategy and psychology on top of the ability to actually play the shots."

Jackson, a six handicapper who first swung a club eight years ago, was encouraged to pick up some clubs when he moved to Los Angeles from New York in the mid-Nineties, but initially resisted his friends' pleas to join them on the range.

"They kept on nagging at me," he recalls. "And I kept on saying 'no', until one day they tricked me by saying we were going somewhere else and taking me to play golf. Of course, I was hooked by the game immediately. I played as much as I could, at my local public courses: with old ladies, with little kids, I just paid my 15 bucks and went out there to hit balls. I didn't care. I started playing in pro-am tournaments pretty early on, and didn't give a damn that I wasn't up to it. I wasn't embarrassed. By playing with the good guys your game improves much quicker."

The timing of Jackson's introduction to the game couldn't have been sweeter: it came at a point in his life when he was finally coming to terms with alcohol and cocaine addictions he'd suffered earlier in his career.

"It is something I can do that occupies time I would otherwise have spent doing very destructive things," he explains. "I have a sand trap and a putting green in my backyard at home, and a clause in all my contracts that says I have time out from filming to play golf twice a week and have lessons. It gives me a sense of peace every day and I can let go of the business of Hollywood, and the trivial things at home. The golf course is a great place to be, and to learn to live with yourself, finding out who you are, where before I just ran away from all that. It's definitely filled a space in my life. When I had to start dealing with my problems, I was worried I wouldn't find something satisfying, beyond work and family, to keep me going. Thankfully, golf came into my life."

Jackson has just participated in the Dunhill Links Championship, a pro-am tournament played over three of Scotland's finest golf courses: the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns. The event saw amateurs such as actors Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper, sports stars Ian Wright and Matthew Pinsent, and businessmen including the racing tycoon JP McManus, the new IMG boss, Ted Forstmann, and the Miami Dolphins owner, Wayne Huizenga, teeing off alongside a field including Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie. For the pros, it's a chance to compete for a $5m (£2.8m) purse, and for their amateur partners, it's an opportunity to enjoy one of the most coveted golfing experiences life has to offer.

Jackson was paired with the European Ryder Cup rookie David Howell, and the partnership tied in seventh place on a respectable final score of 30 under par, having held the overnight lead after the second round.

"Oh man, I really do feel great," Jackson sighs, with that oh-so-cool, lazy smile. Reclining prone in his chair in the bar of the Old Course Hotel bar in St Andrews, Jackson is dressed in a tobacco-coloured velour hooded tracksuit. The low, pink, early evening sun is streaming across from the Road Hole fairway outside, picking up a swirl of smoke behind the actor, making him appear like a giant Cohiba laid to rest between puffs.

"I took advantage of some of the stroke holes I had, and even made a few birdies which were useful for our score. It's really important to me that I accomplish what I can on the course alongside the pro. Because of the nature of golf, I can contribute to the team score alongside the guy that makes his living from the game."

How did he feel about that guy being one of the team that beat his compatriots in the recent Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills?

"You know, that's just fine by me. The whole experience of being at that event [Jackson participated in the opening ceremony] was about watching great golfers play great golf. The way the Europeans played with each other speaks volumes about why they won. They played a team game, and played it phenomenally well, and anyone who does that deserves to win. David has great attitude, and amazing focus, but he's fun to play with, too. [Ian] Poulter is cool, and has really brought some rock 'n' roll to the fairways. I love that, man. I really love that rappers and rockers are playing this game."

Today, he's flying back to LA to resume filming on XXX II, and concentrating on taking his game to the next level. After he recorded his first hole-in-one at his home club, Mountaingate, the day before his 55th birthday last year, his ambitions are to defend the only golfing title he has: the Kenny Cup, which is a theatrical society event run by his acting friends in Atlanta. And he'd like to go round a course under par, and play with Singh, the world No 1.

Asked how he intends to achieve his goals, he simply plans on using his acting skills. "I pretend to be a professional golfer. I get into character and go out there and play the part."

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