PALM CITY, Fla. — As Yoenis Cespedes and his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, approached the par-3 eighth hole on Wednesday afternoon, Van Wagenen offered Cespedes a friendly wager he knew he couldn’t resist: closest to the pin, for $100.
Turning serious, Cespedes huddled with the caddie they were using and asked about the direction of the wind. He then took a moment and studied the shape of the green.
Van Wagenen went first and hit a shot that landed on the front right portion of the green. Then Cespedes pulled out a pitching wedge and placed his ball to the back left side. Jeff Wilpon, the third playing partner, recused himself from betting because, after all, he is the Mets’ chief operating officer, but he hit his shot into the bunker anyway.
To the naked eye, it was hard to see whose ball was closer, the one Cespedes hit or the one struck by Van Wagenen. So the caddie took out a tool that looked like a small periscope and did some quick measuring. “I think he’s got you by two feet,” he told Van Wagenen.
“Thank you,” Cespedes yelped as Van Wagenen shook his head.
The two of them have often gone at it this way in the last few years, as Cespedes, the Mets’ Cuban-born outfielder and middle-of-the-lineup slugger, discovered golf and became obsessed with it. This past off-season, he played just about every day and made it part of his routine: Eighteen holes in the morning, then a workout, then maybe more golf in the afternoon. Once the season starts, he hopes to play as much as he can, but his day job may get in the way.
On Wednesday, Cespedes finished his normal spring training routine — which is centered on morning workouts until exhibition games begin — then drove about 25 minutes to play 18 holes here with Van Wagenen and Wilpon at The Floridian, a golf club owned by Jim Crane, the Houston Astros’ owner.
The club’s entrance has an ornate gate adorned with two cranes, and visitors have to use an intercom to gain entrance. After doing so, Cespedes then pulled up to the sleek white clubhouse, where an attendant offered to park his Jeep. Out back was a private dock where members can park their yachts.
Amid the upscale surroundings, Cespedes stood out. He wore bright blue pants, the kind Rickie Fowler might sport. Settling into a golf cart, Cespedes jokingly asked if Van Wagenen had gone to the A.T.M. yet.
They planned to play their usual wager, $5 a hole.
In all, seven golf carts, a half-dozen cameras and 13 people followed the group. Cespedes said the crowd was good practice for when he made the PGA Tour.
He was not necessarily joking. At one point, walking the course, he said he planned to join the tour once he retired from baseball, and in some ways it was hard to argue with him. For instance, on the first hole, from about 120 yards out, he spun a shot that landed a few feet from the pin.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sarcastically, to Wilpon.
The first time Cespedes picked up a golf club was a little over four years ago, after he defected from Cuba. He was working out in the Dominican Republic with the trainer Chris Wray, hoping to sign a major league contract. One day, a friend of Wray’s brought golf clubs to the field. Cespedes proceeded to bet Wray that he could hit a golf ball farther with a bat than Wray could with a club.
Cespedes tossed a golf ball in the air and smacked it over the outfield wall. Wray then teed up a ball and drove it much farther. Cespedes was intrigued.
Still, he didn’t begin golfing until later, somewhere around 2014, when a Florida hospital invited him to play in a charity tournament. He bought clubs and gave it a shot.
“I played terrible that day,” Cespedes said through an interpreter, “and I decided from then on, since I like to set goals for myself, that I was going to get this down. I started going to driving ranges or wherever was available in the mornings, and in the evenings I practiced.”
He joined two country clubs in Boca Raton, Fla., and collected seven sets of clubs. Every time Van Wagenen saw Cespedes, it seemed he had a new driver. This off-season, he played with Wray almost every day, and sometimes twice a day. When Cespedes couldn’t sleep, he found himself watching golf on television at 2 a.m., studying how Jason Day used his driver and how Jordan Spieth worked his irons.
Asked for his dream foursome, living or dead, Cespedes chose three of the best golfers in the world: Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Fowler. “I like Rickie’s Puma outfits,” he said.
Wednesday’s outing marked the first time that Wilpon had played with Cespedes, making him the latest person to marvel at the fact that Cespedes has never taken a lesson. Watch this, Cespedes will say to his playing partner as he steps to his ball, the golf equivalent of Babe Ruth calling his shot. Often enough, he will then drive the ball 300 yards or more. He handles a pitching wedge just as smoothly.
“He’s got a complete game, honestly,” Wray said. “If he would take lessons and leave baseball, he could play on the tour. He’s a three, four handicap, and he’s playing part time.”
On the third hole on Wednesday, Van Wagenen suggested that Wilpon and Cespedes play their own closest-to-the-pin game, as their balls were near each other about 185 yards from the pin. Wilpon, an avid golfer, caught the corner of the green with his approach shot; Cespedes muscled his ball over it. As he put his club back to his bag, he flashed Wilpon a stern look.
But this was tame compared with how competitive Cespedes can get playing with others. He asks his teammates what they shoot when they play without him, just so he can measure himself against them. After finishing a round with Wray, he often sneaks in extra practice at the driving range. When he misses a shot, he sometimes talks to himself in the third person.
After the Mets traded for Cespedes in late July last season, he played about 10 times with the pitcher Jon Niese and a rotating cast of other Mets, including the pitching coach Dan Warthen and the first-base coach Tom Goodwin. They found time to play on off days, on road trips and sometimes before night games.
His golf game came under scrutiny last fall when he was spotted playing on the same day as Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in Chicago and then left that game with a sore shoulder. But the Mets had no problem with what he had done. Cespedes has come to believe that playing golf helps his mechanics, and the Mets see no reason to disrupt his routine. In fact, the hitting coach Kevin Long has made a habit of asking Cespedes whether he had golfed that day because he then seems to hit a home run that night.
“With golf, if you don’t keep your hands on the inside and you don’t watch the ball the whole way, you’re not going to hit it,” Cespedes said. “It keeps me in line.”
And all his practice has paid off — or at least it did on Wednesday. On the par-71 course, Wilpon shot the lowest score, posting a 76, and Cespedes finished close behind with a 79. But he also won 17 of his 18 hole-by-hole bets with Van Wagenen, and some side wagers, too, and by the end of the round, the agent owed Cespedes $190. He paid in cash.
On Thursday, the Mets would be playing their first exhibition game, in Viera. As a veteran, Cespedes would remain back in Port St. Lucie and work out. Surely, his day would be done by noon. Maybe he could sneak out again.