Barry Salberg: NFL Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice Makes Pro Golf Debut on Nationwide Tour

He was a shoo-in Hall-of-Famer, the greatest wide receiver of all time, and some say the best all around football player ever. But it's been the better part of decade since he last suited up in the NFL, and next week, at age 47, Jerry Rice makes his pro golf debut, teeing-it up as a participant in the Fresh Express Classic on the Nationwide tour. Okay, admittedly, he's also the tournament celebrity host, and will be playing on a sponsor's exemption.

But make no mistake, this is a world-class athlete, and a plus index golfer, who takes his golf and his role in this event with all the intensity of tricky five foot slider.

Years ago, while casually talking to a group of golf writers outside the Stanford clubhouse, Rice said something to the tune of all could he think of when he was injured and out of football one season, was his golf game. The next week his quote appeared in Golf World Magazine. "When I got hurt by Warren Sapp, I was on the football field, and thought to myself oh my God, my golf game," he explains. "People realized my passion for football, they already knew that -- the way I worked and the way I performed on the football field, but they also knew my passion for golf. And I knew that my football would come back, but I wasn't sure about the golf."

Clearly, his game did return, his renowned work-ethic carrying over to golf, where he would often hit golf balls both before and after football practice.

Since his retirement from football, Rice has played in a variety of pro-ams and celebrity tournaments -- even winning, as he puts it, "12 grand" one year in the Tahoe celebrity event. But the Nationwide tour is a far different caliber, and the anxiety level is considerably elevated. "I know I have it in me," he says. "But I'm going to have to come out here and perform. I'm not putting pressure on myself to win the tournament -- I would be crazy to do that."

But he does have a goal to make the cut, admitting, "oh yeah, I'm nervous as can be, but this is why we play, this is what I love, being able to fight those nerves and still be able to focus and execute."

And he is not without skills at the pro level, having plenty of length, a solid short-game, and a genuine ability to work the ball. Good enough to hang with the Nationwide heavies? Probably not, but remember, this is a guy who loves the limelight, with a history of rising to the occasion on the big stage. He didn't win Dancing with the Stars, however, and it still bothers him. "I got beat by a little short guy, Drew Lachey," exclaims Rice. "And that pissed me off." Lachey and his brother, Nick, are personal Rice invites joining an assortment of former 49ers, Raiders, and other celebrity buddies in the pro-am portion of the event.

The Fresh Express Classic will be contested at the TPC Stonebrae, located in the Hayward Hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Designed by David McLay Kidd, it is not unfamiliar turf for Rice, who has made several trips from his home across the bay for practice rounds. An avowed golf nut, who reads all the golf magazines, the books, and even cites lines from Bagger Vance, Rice says, "I want to play well, and I want to prove to the guys on this tour that this is not just for publicity, and that I have just as much passion for the game -- I love it, I dream about it."

And though he came close to winning on Dancing with the Stars, his expectations here are different. "I don't expect to win, but if I have a good showing and make the cut, and for some crazy reason I make the top ten, I'll be dancing all over this place, big-time!"

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Jerry Rice photos courtesy PGA tour images.