Smoltz takes his golf game to mountaintop at U.S. Senior Open

Even on the weekend of his Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2015, golf was a big part of the celebration for John Smoltz. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Credit: Mike Groll

Credit: Mike Groll

Even on the weekend of his Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2015, golf was a big part of the celebration for John Smoltz. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

In his head, John Smoltz always had this other vision of himself. Yeah, it’s crowded in there.

He had done the pitching thing – both starting and closing – so well that he now sublets a little corner of Cooperstown. He hadn’t crossed over into baseball broadcasting but hardly a minute before he was earning all the plum assignments. And yet, there has always been this other unfulfilled part of him that wanted to show out a little.

Golfer John Smoltz always dreamed big, too.

He had to wait a bit, had to let the calendar slowly transport him to a place where his distracted game might have a real chance. But next week, finally, at the Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado, the 51-year-old Smoltz has his fantasy tee time. He’ll be playing for a major – granted a major with a few miles on it – at the U.S. Senior Open.

Excitement abounds.

Certainly for the former Braves star, who earned a spot in the field earlier this month during a qualifying event in Peachtree City, one complete with a tense and sometimes messy three-hole playoff.

“I’m having the time of my life the last three weeks, while at the same time, trying to do my job (with MLB Network and Fox TV). That’s been a little difficult because all I can think about is golf,” Smoltz said.

Those with whom he’ll be sharing the course seem a little geeked, too. These are some real familiar names qualified for this field. Like Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Mark O’Meara, John Daly. It takes a lot to impress them. Consider them impressed by this.

Speaking from Wisconsin, where he’s playing in the over-50 tour’s American Family Insurance Championship, Atlanta’s Billy Andrade said, “It’s really incredible. All the guys out here are talking about it. Wow, how about Smoltz qualifying? Everybody was really jacked up. It’s pretty cool when you get a Hall of Fame pitcher who goes to qualifying and makes it.

“There’s a lot of chatter among the guys. They’re really happy for him, all rooting for him to do well.”

So, you’re saying there might be some players in this Open hunting an autograph as well as a few birdies?

“Maybe,” Andrade said. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Lee Janzen (a two-time champ of the younger man’s U.S. Open) will probably have a dozen balls he’ll want signed.”

Smoltz is scheduled to play a Tuesday afternoon practice round with Andrade, and hook up with Couples and Janzen the next day. The fact-finding will be rather intense.

His preparation is unlike any those other rank-and-file players. Meaning he’s squeezing in as much golf as possible around real life, not the other way around. While at MLB Network headquarters in New Jersey the week before his date with the Senior Open, he was seeking out rounds of golf while not on the air. The weekend before the tournament was going to include working a couple of games for Fox then coming back home to Atlanta for a kid’s Sunday soccer game. But precious little practice time.

Part of his prep has been taking place at the dinner table and from behind the steering wheel.

As a rather hyper soul, Smoltz realizes he maybe doesn’t have the best wiring for a setting like a Senior Open. Believe it or not, there are things slower than baseball. Golf, especially at this level, is a very deliberate pursuit. These fellows are on a five-hour grind, playing one meticulous shot after another. Smoltz has found himself trying to adjust the tempo of his life to match.

Here’s a whole different kind of swing tip for you struggling players:

“I have been eating slower, driving slower, brushing my teeth slower, trying to do everything I can possibly do that is opposite of my personality,” he said. “So, when I get there I’ll be more prepared to do it slower. This has been hard on me – when there’s an open lane I take it. Now I’m staying behind the car and taking my time.”

In his playing days, Smoltz had big plans for his golf game after pitching was done. Golf had been the bonding agent on those Braves teams of the 1990s, especially among the Hall of Fame starting trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz. It was certainly no secret that Smoltz saw himself transitioning to a competitive life in golf, and still does to some extent, saying this week that he’d like to experience PGA Tour Champions qualifying school, just to see where he fit.

But, in the past, issues with a bum shoulder – throw enough sliders, that’s bound to happen – and then the time constraints because of family and his second career in broadcasting put golf on a low simmer.

Other stabs at real, meaningful golf haven’t played out well. A handful of qualifying attempts at the U.S. Open fell short. An appearance on the then-Nationwide Tour was downright ugly – Smoltz shot 84-87 in the 2011 South Georgia Classic.

So, when he did escape the Senior Open qualifying with an invitation to the big dance, he heard about it from all corners. That’s including plenty of old Braves teammates as well as one of his former golfing buddies, Tiger Woods. Smoltz figures he has received as much reaction to qualifying for the Senior Open – if not more – than to anything else he’s done in a rather accomplished athletic life. And that’s including making the Hall of Fame.

“For most of the guys that I told I was going to do this someday, I’m sure back then there were like: Would you just shut up and let it go. I got a lot of texts from those people who said you know what, you said you were going to do it and you did it. Congratulations.”

His immediate reaction – after posting a score early in qualifying, loitering the rest of the day and then surviving a three-way playoff (winning with a double bogey on the third hole) – was to certifiably lose it. Smoltz just sat in his closed car for a moment screaming like a lottery winner. Then he called his wife. And then he called his baseball broadcast partner Joe Buck, who also is the lead announcer for the USGA events for Fox.

“I told Joe Buck three years ago, ‘Joe, I’m going to make the U.S. Senior Open one of these years. You’re going to have the call and I’m going to wear a mike and I’m going to have the time of my life,’” Smoltz said. “I called him and said, ‘Joe, get that mike ready.’”

A Hall of Fame pitcher in the field figures to be one of the big stories in Colorado for as long as he lasts. Fox is bound to play up one of their guys in the field, big-time. And Smoltz being Smoltz, he has indeed offered to wear a microphone during the round.

Bad idea, Andrade said. “I think there’s going to be a pretty good circus atmosphere around him,” Andrade said. “My advice to him is you got to say a lot of “Nos” to a lot of people. Wearing a mike, if he’s asking me advice on that, I’d say no way.

“This isn’t the American Century Classic at Lake Tahoe. This is the U.S. Senior Open. It’s a big deal. You can do all that before Thursday. Once Thursday hits, he should just focus in on his game and enjoy that aspect of it.”

That said, Andrade expressed high admiration for Smoltz for putting himself out there, taking his chances on a big stage playing a game that’s not his first choice. Like a pitcher on the mound in the playoffs, relying solely on his secondary pitches. Only more difficult.

“When you play competitive golf and you’re on TV and you’re trying to shoot a number and you don’t want to embarrass yourself, it’s like walking out on a golf course and you’re naked,” Andrade said.

He added: “I respect guys like Smoltz who put his reputation and game on the line, go out there got to go shoot a score and it counts. You got to have some big cajones to want to do that.”

Going to Colorado with the stated goal of making the cut, Smoltz said he’s not packing the I’m-just-happy-to-be-there attitude.

“I’m approaching this as I approached anything else I’ve ever done. I don’t think about how far-fetched it is. I try to think about how good I can do,” he said. “I’ve learned from past experiences not doing very well and what that feels like, and I think I’m more ready today than if I hadn’t gone through those.

“I’m going to try to have the best time I ever had because I don’t know if I’ll get another opportunity like this. I’m certainly not going to go there with nothing to lose. That’s not my mindset. I’m going there trying to play the very best golf I can play.”

And you just know, in his head, he sees himself playing the rounds of his life.