U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Smoltz Hopes to Bring His Fastball to The Broadmoor June 27, 2018 | Colorado Springs, Colo. By Mike Trostel, USGA

Smoltz hopes to play well enough that he will still be competing this weekend when his broadcast partner, Joe Buck, is calling the action. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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John Smoltz experienced his fair share of rain delays over a 22-year career as a pitcher in Major League Baseball, but nothing compared to what he endured on May 31 in his qualifier for the U.S. Senior Open Championship.

Playing for one of three available spots in the championship, he was in the first group out at Planterra Ridge Golf Club in Peachtree City, Ga., teeing off at 8 a.m. After birdieing three of his last four holes to post a round of 3-under-par 69, Smoltz was forced to wait eight hours to see if his score was good enough to earn his way into the field at The Broadmoor.

“I prepared for my game that I had to [broadcast] for Fox the next day,” said Smoltz, now a baseball analyst, “but I got really frustrated trying to think about baseball when I only wanted to think about golf.”

Ultimately, the 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner would have to go extra innings. He faced a 3-for-1 playoff for the last available spot out of the qualifier.

Though fatigued, Smoltz said he drew from his experience as a pitcher to stay focused, citing the baseball adage of “taking it one pitch at a time.”

His birdie on the first playoff hole was matched by Brian Ferris, eliminating Brian Tennyson. On the third playoff hole, Ferris found the water off the tee and Smoltz seemed a good bet to advance to his first USGA championship. But a lapse in focus led to a mis-hit approach shot from the fairway bunker.

“I walked up to that bunker shot and I thought about playing in the U.S. [Senior] Open instead of hitting the shot,” said Smoltz. “It was similar to my days as a young pitcher thinking about answering questions from the media in the eighth inning before the game was over.”

His shot caromed off the lip of the bunker and found the water. All of a sudden, he was in danger of squandering what appeared to be a golden opportunity. But Smoltz collected himself and, after dropping, hit his next shot to within 12 feet of the hole. His two-putt double bogey wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to punch his ticket to Colorado Springs.

Smoltz’s résumé on the baseball diamond is well documented. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is the only pitcher in history with 200 wins and 150 saves. His 15-4 record and 2.67 earned run average in the postseason compare favorably with the best ever – not to mention that he started three Game 7s in the World Series.

So how did his experience qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open compare?

“It's probably the No. 1 thing that I've ever accomplished,” said Smoltz on Tuesday. “I'm proud of all my accomplishments from a team aspect, but as an individual, I haven't had anything anywhere close to this.”

Smoltz, who turned 51 on May 15, started playing golf in his early 20s while in the minor leagues. During his two decades with the Atlanta Braves, he played a few times a week on his off-days, often with fellow starting pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, also future Hall of Famers.

Over time, Smoltz developed into one of the best golfers who ever donned baseball cleats. As the years passed, it became more than just a game he enjoyed – it was a necessary diversion that he believes elongated his career and played a role in his choice of teams.

“In free agency, it didn’t matter how much money they offered,” said Smoltz. “I wouldn’t go there if they wouldn’t let me play golf.”

He often shared his passion for the game – and his goals in it – with teammates. After retirement from baseball, it became his competitive outlet. On Thursday, he will become just the fourth Major League Baseball player to tee it up in the U.S. Senior Open.

“This has been a dream of mine since I was probably 35 to 40 years old, and I know a lot of my teammates were tired of hearing it,” said Smoltz, laughing. “It is the most excited I've ever been.”

He has had only three days off since qualifying due to his duties as a baseball analyst with Fox and MLB Network. Despite the lack of practice, he is confident in his ability to handle the grand stage of the U.S. Senior Open, even if his skills on the course don’t rival what he did on the baseball field.

“I am nowhere close as a golfer as I was as a pitcher, but I can promise you the pressure is not going to get to me,” said Smoltz. “In baseball, I failed [if] I didn't execute. As a golfer, I don't have all the pitches, so to speak, but if I get exposed it will be my inability to hit a shot, not nerves or pressure.”

One of the strongest aspects of Smoltz’s game is his length off the tee. Despite three shoulder surgeries, professional golfers such as defending U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry marvel at the prodigious distances Smoltz can hit the golf ball.

“He hit it 9 miles,” said Perry, who played with Smoltz in the 1996 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic Pro-Am. “Probably hit it 50 yards past me back then.”

But Smoltz is also a realist, understanding that it takes more than raw power to conquer golf’s ultimate test. When asked what his goal was for this week shortly after he qualified, he said he’d be thrilled to shoot “a pair of 75s.” But after some reflection, caution yielded to ambition, and on Tuesday he amended his answer, saying that he hopes “to make the cut.”

While time will tell whether Smoltz’s optimism is misplaced, he has made a career of perseverance and proving doubters wrong. Whatever the result, it’s clear that Smoltz is having the time of his life.

“I don't know if there's a cloud higher than cloud nine,” said Smoltz. “But that's where I feel like I am.”

Mike Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.

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