Smoltz Making His U.S. Open Pitch 

May 3, 2010

By David Shefter, USGA

John Smoltz isn’t sure what to expect when he participates in his first U.S. Open local qualifier May 10 at Marietta Country Club in Kennesaw, Ga.

For the past 21 seasons – all but one with the Atlanta Braves – his spring, summer and portions of the fall were filled with pitching another type of ball. In what many consider a Hall-of-Fame career, Smoltz is the only major-leaguer to register more than 200 wins

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Former National League Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz is making his first attempt at qualifying for the U.S. Open. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)
(213) and at least 150 saves (154). The 1996 Cy Young Award winner had a career ERA of 3.33 with 3,084 strikeouts and helped the Braves win one World Series title in 1995.

Then again, throwing a ball 60 feet, 6 inches at speeds in excess of 95 mph in front of thousands of spectators against the world’s best hitters is something that became natural for the right-hander.

Trying to break 70 under competitive conditions isn’t quite as natural.

But Smoltz, who carries a plus-2.0 USGA Handicap Index and once shot 63 at the tony Floridian in Palm City, is among the 9,052 golfers who filed U.S. Open entries, with the ultimate dream of teeing it up at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links June 17-20. He is one of several current or former athletes whose entry was accepted by the USGA.

Also hoping to qualify in 2010 are current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, current Minnesota Vikings placekicker Ryan Longwell, current Jacksonville Jaguars Josh Scobee, ex-NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, ex-big-league pitchers Mark Mulder and Shane Rawley and former NHL and 2002 Olympic silver medalist goalie Mike Dunham. In the past this list has included tennis Hall of Famers Ivan Lendl and Michael Chang, ex-NHL stars Grant Fuhr, Brett Hull and Dan Quinn, ESPN personality John Buccigross, and former major-leaguers Chris Sabo and Erik Hanson. Hanson, who qualified for the 2009 U.S. Mid-Amateur (Sabo and Dunham also have competed in the Mid-Am), is the lone player from the group to advance to sectional qualifying. Romo has tried to qualify the past several years, but hasn’t advanced.

“This is all about experiencing it more than anything,” said Smoltz. “I haven’t beat a bunch of balls. I am not trying to do anything heroic other than to see what it’s like.

“It takes time to do anything of this kind of nature. You’ve got to get accustomed to it. As much as I do [love to compete], I’ll just be playing a regular round of golf. Of course I’m going to be in a little different mode. I understand the possibilities. I am just looking forward to doing it because I finally can.”

Smoltz, who turns 43 five days after the local qualifier, first picked up a club during his first professional season in Class A ball as a way to pass time between starts. It quickly became a passion and his competitive on-course battles with Atlanta Braves teammates Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (like Smoltz, both are considered locks to make the Hall of Fame) became legendary.

“We had a blast,” said Smoltz, adding that his handicap quickly dropped from high single-digits to near scratch during those days. “It got to a point where I made some pretty big jumps in one year. I was probably playing the best golf of my life before I had to have my shoulder surgery [in 2008] that set me back a little.”

Smoltz’s game was so good that he once beat three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Annika Sorenstam in a fun match with world No. 1 and nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods. Woods, in fact, called Smoltz the best non-PGA Tour golfer he had ever seen. Smoltz thinks Woods was exaggerating.

“I joke with people that maybe he hasn’t played with a lot of them,” said Smoltz, a member at Hawks Ridge Golf Club in Ball Ground, Ga., which was a U.S. Open sectional qualifying site in 2009. “I’m realistic. I know there are days that I can throw up tremendous numbers, but then there are days where it’s just not what I do for a living.”

But like former big-league pitcher Rick Rhoden, who has played in four U.S. Senior Opens and cashed checks in Champions Tour events, Smoltz has aspirations of someday playing professionally on the 50-and-over circuit. A hectic schedule that includes broadcast work for local Braves games as well as occasional national games on TBS, along with business commitments, currently prevent Smoltz from fine-tuning his game.

Smoltz’s backyard, however, looks like a mini country club replete with a couple of synthetic greens, nine teeing grounds and a 10,000-square-foot practice green. Smoltz is involved with Southwest Greens International, which builds synthetic-turf greens, tees and athletic fields, so his yard “basically [became] a showcase for the company.”

“It was designed for me to go to the next level,” said Smoltz, “and I have not utilized it the way I would like yet.”

Pitching at the highest level and playing golf both require tremendous mental fortitude. Does Smoltz see any correlation between the two crafts?

“The one thing [in pitching] is you can get away with a lot of mistakes,” said Smoltz. “In golf, you have to play your foul balls.”

With his baseball career in limbo – there has been talk of him joining a team at some point this season – Smoltz has been able to commit to a few more tournaments. He’ll play in the Lake Tahoe celebrity event this summer. He also played Michael Jordan’s charity tournament in the Bahamas this past January.

While he’s eligible for other USGA events such as the U.S. Amateur or U.S. Mid-Amateur (players 25 and over), Smoltz isn’t sure he can dedicate himself at this point. Sometime in the future, he said he might make a run at qualifying for a Nationwide Tour event.

“I’m at a point where I know I would not want to embarrass myself by any means,” he said.

So the U.S. Open local qualifier could serve as an important barometer.

“You are going to be exposed one way or another in golf,” said Smoltz. “That’s what makes it beautiful. I’m just going to play the best round that I can.”

And if by some wild occurrence, he should make it all the way to Pebble Beach for the championship proper?

“I believe the Miracle on Ice would be forgotten if that happens,” he said with a laugh. “I kid all my buddies that a miracle is about to happen.

“But the reality is when you get there, you are at the mercy of whatever shape your game is in. If they fall, they fall. If they don’t, you’ve learned from it, just like I have learned from every experience I have had in baseball. I cherish the opportunity to be under the gun and have a lot of fun.”

NOTE: Besides the celebrity entries, several offspring of golfing greats have entered the U.S. Open, including Sam Saunders, the grandson of 1960 U.S. Open champion Arnold Palmer… Also entered are Shaun O’Meara, the son of two-time major champion Mark O’Meara; Todd Miller, son of 1973 U.S. Open champion and NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller; Gary Nicklaus, the son of four-time U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus; Steve Irwin, son of three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin; Ray Floyd Jr., son of the four-time major champion; Drew Nelson, son of 1983 U.S. Open champion Larry Nelson; and 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Kevin Tway, the son of 1986 PGA champ Bob Tway. Tim Mickelson, the brother of four-time major winner Phil Mickelson, has filed an entry as well.

David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

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