John Smoltz – you know him as a Hall of Fame Braves pitcher, a high-profile TV analyst and a sporting bon vivant – is indulging yet another side of his competitive nature this week. The guy has more on his plate than an overweight man at Golden Corral. And now that includes a side of professional golf.
Spending one of the three sponsor’s exemptions given him this year on the over-50 PGA Tour Champions, Smoltz tees off Friday in the 54-hole Mitsubishi Electric Classic at Sugarloaf.
Excitable by nature anyway, Smoltz is really stoked for this one.
“This is like beyond going to Disney World, right?” he said Wednesday. “Playing in your home city, my whole family, my friends.”
And maybe a little bit nervous.
“The pressure, believe it or not, is 10 times more for me here than it was on the mound,” he allowed.
“I would much rather have the bases loaded every single pitch and a 3-2 count than to sit and wait and think about golf shots.”
This will be Smoltz’s third shot at this elder-gentleman golf thing, a third shot at fulfilling a goal he set for himself while pitching for the Braves and playing golf on his off-days with Maddux and Glavine and the rest. It’s a goal that anyone who has swung a club in his 30s has at least floated once, but never come one waking moment close to realizing: I’ll keep playing, work on my game a little and turn pro at 50 – that’s my retirement plan. How hard can it be?
To his credit, Smoltz has gotten a little more competent with every outing.
Qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open last year, Smoltz was pretty much just happy to be there, shot 85-77 and missed the cut by 14 strokes. The score troubled him only a bit. “I probably got more texts for that than my Hall of Fame notice because in most people's eyes, that was an unbelievable accomplishment,” he said. “In my eyes it was the greatest accomplishment I ever had individually.”
Last month, in Arizona, Smoltz used his first sponsor exemption in a regular PGA Tour Champions event – where there is no cut – and shot 73-74-73, finishing T53 in a field of 78.
Now, the challenge is to stay on that upward trajectory even though he has a real job calling major league games all around the country. As anyone will tell you, full employment is the biggest obstacle to developing a good golf game. Striking that work/tee-time balance is always difficult.
“I'm trying to figure out how to juggle both. I don't want it to obviously take away from my first job, what I'm paid to do,” Smoltz said.
So, taking some lumps is unavoidable. “The reality of playing in these is no different than when I got roughed up in my first couple years in the big leagues,” he said. “Last year's Senior Open, it wasn't pretty, but I learned a ton about my golf game. I'm still learning, I'm still taking notes.”
Currently, full confidence in his game is hard to find. Smoltz said even a presumed strength – his work with his driver – has faltered a bit lately. And he is still learning to re-channel the adrenalin rush and intensity that he took with him to the mound into more controlled realm of golf.
And, did we mention the work responsibilities?
“I'm just trying to catch up, like last-minute studying for an exam, which can be OK,” Smoltz said.
“I make no bones about it, (finding time to hone his golf) has been a lot harder than I thought. But when I get in an event, my competition addiction kicks back in. You kind of miss that competition. And golf – besides over-50 basketball – has been filling that void.”
It’s not likely any of the more seasoned, life-long players out here this week are going to zone in on this one cross-over competitor this weekend. Smoltz said he has been embraced by all – “The first thing I did this year was reach out to six or seven people that I know very well on this tour. I asked them what their thoughts were, and everyone to a person said play in as many as you can. This is great, and we think you're great for our tour and you can play.” But he’s not likely to take money out of many pockets this week.
Smoltz is not alone, though, as the only former major league pitcher playing in this field. Also on a sponsor’s exemption is one-time reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who spent nine seasons with the Angels and Mariners. He’s making his PGA Tour Champions debut this week.
“I just want to play golf. I love competition, like John Smoltz,” Hasegawa said.
Smoltz will be pleased to know that he is, if nothing else, something of a measuring stick now for aspiring pitchers looking for a second competitive life on the gilded fairways of over-50 golf.
With that in mind, Hasegawa throws it out there, with a wide, playful smile: “He might get mad, but my goal this tournament is to try to beat John Smoltz.
“Good goal, right?”
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