Jazz owner Ryan Smith on golf, the NBA, his friendship with Tony Finau and Pebble Beach
Utah Jazz owner takes a deep dive into the intersection of golf and the NBA — and why golf is his sanctuary
Smith says it would have taken just 14 years if his old Qualtrics office hadn’t been located across the street from Riverside Country Club in Provo, distracting him when he needed a break. Riverside is where he has been the club champion, a haven for his mental gymnastics, a retreat, his quiet place, and an enclave where he can recharge.
Golf has always been that way for Smith. As a kid, back when his parents divorced, he found himself at the golf course. When his stepfather died, he found himself on the golf course. He worked on a golf course when he was 14 and learned to love the surroundings, the ambiance. Golf became his endearing friend, his trusted confessor, his emotional freeway to let go.
Smith grew up golfing. Once upon a time he wanted to make BYU’s golf team in high school, a dream that never materialized when BYU featured sons of Johnny Miller and some talent from South America. He once played alongside Dan Forsman, who he said blew him out of the water. He knew then he should work on being the best amateur he could be. Pro golf was for others.
Golf as a lifeline
The NBA is a dominating force in his life now. As an owner, he is reading the pulse of what’s changing and morphing in the league on a daily basis.
“It’s exciting, there’s not a bigger movement than what I see happening with the league going to Africa, “SportsCenter” specials and the schedule coming out. But with it comes a lot of responsibility. I’m still working on doing that in golf. With the family, golf kind of worked itself out on the side, but I feel there’s a little muscle memory there.”
Before a pro-am round of the Siegfried and Jensen Utah Open at Riverside Country Club the third week of August, Smith spoke openly but briefly about his life, his love of golf, the challenge of owning an NBA team and what the game of golf has meant to him over the years.
It was a rare moment of public candor since Smith took ownership of the Jazz; speaking casually with a bevy of reporters as a celebrity golfer. An impassioned businessman, Smith is like a force unto his own. He is open and charismatic. He draws on anecdotes and stories. He is filled with ideas and is a dreamer. He is a power broker whose confidence and faith is inspiring.
Smith is at his best when he’s on a golf course with friends, soaking in the sun, making the turn at the far end of the course where the par-4 14th is within earshot of the Provo River. This is his sanctuary, his castle without a moat, spread amid fairways and greens and the acquired acumen of hitting a little dimpled ball.
Golf vs. NBA time, league wins
Smith said the NBA is like a 24/7 job, but he still finds time to calendar golf, playing in events like the Utah Open, the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, and the famous Dunhill Pro-Am in Scotland. In both those events, Smith partnered with longtime friend Tony Finau, who recently won the Northern Trust, the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
“If you don't play a lot, some weird stuff creeps in,” said Smith of his game. He is a scratch golfer who can drive the ball 300 yards. His passion for playing has been with him his entire life and he’s had his own golf posse of sorts over the years.
One of those friends he has played with the past 20 years is former Boston Celtics president and former BYU basketball star Danny Ainge, who recently moved into a house right by Riverside.
Smith joined an NBA board that is helping review where the game is going, to create ambassadors to represent the game. Part of that is involvement in golf. He said it started during the COVID-19 bubble season when a lot of NBA players either took up golf or brought their clubs to play as things were sorted out with the pandemic.
“Whether it is Dwyane Wade, Mike Conley or Donovan (Mitchell), I play a lot of golf with all of them and wherever they are on the skill level, whether just getting started or played a while, it’s just incredible and it’s good for the game. I think we’ve got a long way to go but I think all of these guys playing is definitely massively positive and incredible marketing and branding for the game of golf.
“Now I think we need to take that even down to the courses with kids. Golf was kind of prohibitive when they were growing up. Was it access, dress code? We’re still off in some of those areas and I’m pretty passionate about some of that.”
Smith looks forward to NBA players impacting society with golf, reaching out to kids, lifting them up, helping them see a vision of what can be and who can be impacted.
Smith said golf is the great equalizer. It’s put him together with people he’d ordinarily not have met and certainly wouldn’t have spent more than four or five hours with. But those paths kind of melded because of playing golf together.
“It’s not like it’s just a little time, but a whole lot of time. I was recently at an event where there was a CEO that I really wanted to meet. We really wanted to get together, but there was no scenario in life where we would get four hours together, except on the golf course. We talked about everything almost to the point where we had nothing else to talk about.
“I look at my life and I look at the people and the memories and who I hang out with and whose paths I’ve crossed and so much of that is because of being in a spot where the game of golf has either put me in that circle with either a generation older or younger.”
Golf is a sanctuary
Smith said golf is his yoga. It’s a place he goes to think and is “noise canceling” for him. “I can focus on it and you can’t focus on a whole lot else than that little ball and trying to get it in. It’s like it tunes everything else out. My wife says, ‘Ryan, you need to go play golf, like just go hit a bucket of balls before you come home.’ It’s been a rough life and she can tell the difference in me when it gets to be a lot.
“It’s a chance to unplug from today’s world and you can truly unplug from social media and the other media and all that’s around you. I mean the benefit of technology is very clear, but the downside is also. There aren’t enough safe havens to go to and golf is one of those for me.”
The strength of Smith’s game is his driver.
“But it depends on the day. People say there’s not a lot of people on tour that can’t drive the ball and if your driver goes (out) on tour, you won’t be around very long. They say you drive for show and putt for dough but you actually have to do both. The driver is the straightest club in my bag and as long as that continues then I’ll always be able to at least come up with a game.”
Smith said Ainge has been a mentor and friend for 20 years and they play all the time. Some in the media might like to make something of that, now he’s the owner of an NBA franchise, but with Ainge, they were golfers and buddies before Smith ever thought of owning an NBA team.
Another mainstay is local talent Shane Brady and there are many others who join his circle. Smith witnessed firsthand when COVID-19 challenges fired up golf and a mass of humanity hit the golf courses. It was a boom all over the country, not just record-breaking in Utah for rounds played. He always was party to an invite for a morning match at the club.
People always ask Smith what his favorite course is and it is Riverside. “Because it’s a minute away from my house and that’s what it comes down to. It’s where I play. I’ll just come down here and hang out. I’ll go to a green with seven balls and just chip. My little boys are starting to come and mess around and that’s cool. I’ve done a few conference calls on Zoom from right here at the course. It’s therapeutic.”
Pebble Beach, 18th hole abode
Smith was fortunate to buy a house just off the 18th green at Pebble Beach and it’s become one of the family’s favorite stays. “It’s a long story, but Pebble Beach is like our home away from home and it’s been a huge, crazy part of our lives.”
It was there at that house that Smith negotiated his Qualtrics deal with SAP for the first time. “It’s like one of the wonders of the world, looking out over that course at the ocean. We love it. We haven’t been there for a long time but as people say, it is one of the best places land and sea meet.”
Smith said he envisions golf continuing to grow in Utah and he foresees a time the state will host a major PGA Tour event because the sponsorships are there. He believes with the tech industry growth in Utah, it is ripe to host a big event.
Sponsorships, surprisingly, would not be the limiting factor according to Smith. What would be a challenge is finding a course that could host a championship. It takes a lot of work, the right facilities, housing, locker rooms and the course has to have the length.
“There are a lot of phenomenal country clubs across the world that could host an event but don’t because the club doesn’t want to host one. So it’s all about the track and the process to get it done. I know there are a lot of people working on that, but we have to make it much more about the track.
“The Korn Ferry stop at Oakridge for the Utah Championship is a great start,” says Smith. “There is an appetite for it with the growth that is happening and there is no reason there shouldn’t be. I think if we had a course that was ready to go, we could do it.”
Smith said his involvement with the NBA and the Jazz makes him appreciate what the Miller family did over the course of their time with the franchise. He’s learned just how deep their connections were to the community and what they accomplished.
He said owning the Jazz, how it came together, having looked at other NBA teams, it feels to him like it is a stewardship, a kind of calling.
“As every day goes by I’m more and more grateful for the Miller family because people have no idea what they did. I mean hearing Gail talk about holding games in Vegas for part of the season so that they could actually afford to have a team here and then that evolution to building what was the Delta Center.”
Smith said a businessman should ask himself, “If you don’t give back to the community, get involved, what’s the point?”
“It is a labor of love,” is what Smith learned from the Miller family and what they brought to the community.
Tony Finau, a partner
Smith has a special affinity for Finau, who has climbed to the top as one of the world's best golfers.
He reflects on playing with Finau in the Dunhill Pro-Am at the Old Course at St. Andrews, facing a tight lie shot on the finishing hole in front of a huge crowd with the lead on Sunday. It was glorious but it was pressure. “I might as well have had my ball on the cart path. I didn’t know how to hit it.”
He asked Finau for advice and he told Smith to just open up his 60-degree wedge and flop it. Right.
Smith watched Finau shoot 65 and 66 in the wind at Carnoustie, playing beside Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose.
“There’s no better feeling in the world than being there, that spot, that moment,” said Smith reflecting on the experiences in Scotland.
“Tony is a freak,” said Smith, extolling his talent, his skills, his remarkable abilities and length.
Smith was at the Ryder Cup in Paris and witnessed firsthand how Finau took Tommy Fleetwood to the woodshed, throttling him with birdies in a lopsided match-play win.
“Tony has to be one of the greatest humans alive. I hope everyone appreciates the skill level he plays with. We are lucky to have him. He is going to be there week after week. It’s incredible.”