Smoltz Strikes Out In U.S. Open Qualifying

By Michelle Hiskey

May 10, 2010

Kennesaw, Ga. – One day John Smoltz may be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but on Monday he was just another amateur golfer trying – unsuccessfully – to qualify for the 2010 U.S. Open.

The former Atlanta Braves right-handed pitcher, now a broadcaster, shot a 6-over-par 76 at Marietta Country Club – seven shots shy of advancing to sectional qualifying in a field of 144 golfers. They were playing for nine spots at one of the 111 local qualifiers being held across the country May 7-20.

The USGA accepted 9,052 entries for this year’s U.S. Open, which will be held at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links June 17-20.

Smoltz’s problem on Monday was location -- with both his wedge and putter. On 10 of 13 driving holes, his 300-plus-yard tee

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Former Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz carded a 76 in a U.S. Open local qualifier on May 10, but missed advancing by seven strokes. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)
shots put him in birdie position. He made none.

“I was close, but close doesn’t count,” he said of his 33 putts. “Close is great for pitching, but not for this.”

A small gallery of Braves fans and golf pals followed Smoltz, who turns 43 on May 15.

Everyone knew his baseball statistics: A career 3.33 ERA, eight-time All Star, 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner, 213 victories compiled over 21 big-league seasons.

The question remained what number he could post on a course that stretched 6,848 yards.

After an opening bogey, Smoltz missed a birdie from 4 feet at the fourth. The miss, he said later, made him press on his next drive and eventually sent his round south.

On No. 5, Smoltz hooked his tee shot into a lateral water hazard, and found his ball between two branches on an uphill slope, leaving a blind recovery shot.

He punched through the fairway – and ended up behind a tree. After another chip-out and an approach that stopped short of the green, Smoltz took another three shots to double bogey what typically is a birdie hole.

“Three-run homer. I gave it up,” he muttered to his caddie and frequent golf partner, professional poker player Josh Arieh.

“That changed the whole round for me,” he said.  “One bad 3-wood – I got greedy.”

The double bogey disappointed 12-year-old spectator Chandler Lawrence.

“I think he’s a better baseball player than he is a golfer,” said the sixth-grader, who later was thrilled when Smoltz tossed him a golf ball.

As his score increased, so did the sympathy from the spectators.

“He’s a great pitcher who’s struggling a little bit out here,” said Scotti Madison, 51, a former third baseman/catcher for the Cincinnati Reds who lives in a nearby Atlanta suburb.

Not as intense as when he stared down batters, and looking casual in black shorts, the 6-foot-3 Smoltz appeared relaxed and joked frequently.

His only nerves, he said, came early on the second nine, after he missed a pair of 2-foot par putts. The second rimmed the hole as the Alpharetta, Ga., resident bent to pick it up.

“That’s what happens when you don’t putt gimmes,” said Smoltz, referring to casual rounds with friends when short putts are often conceded.

By not tapping in short ones, Smoltz usually plays 2½-hour cart rounds. Scott Strickland noticed his pal’s impatience during the 4½-hour qualifier.

With four holes to play, Strickland said to him, “You look like you’re pressing.”

“Oh yeah, I have to press now,” Smoltz shot back. “I look like you when you’re playing golf against me!”

Smoltz lived up to his reputation as a closer, something he did during his latter days with the Braves. He is the only major-leaguer with more than 200 wins and 150 saves.

On the final hole, he made his longest putt of the day, a 20-foot downhill effort for par.

“My biggest thing was to see how my body and mind felt out here,” said Smoltz after signing his scorecard and autographs. “I felt great. I just didn’t putt.”

Did the day remind him of steppingstones in baseball?

“The first three years [in baseball] I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I had to learn what to do under the gun. I had to learn different things and what my comfort zone was. I love being under the gun and to have pressure in baseball, but golf, there’s more exposure. There are shots I don’t have, that I have to fake my way through. In baseball I knew the pitches I could make. I’m learning about myself through golf.”

Among the field, Smoltz finished 12 shots back of medalist Kevin Kisner (64) of the Nationwide Tour.

At 65 was two-time Georgia Amateur champion Russell Henley, who at 21, was born shortly after Smoltz reached the majors.

“I know he’s an incredible pitcher, one of the ones I grew up watching on the Braves,” said Henley. “But you can’t be good at everything.”

NOTE: Former big-league pitcher Mark Mulder of Scottsdale, Ariz., shot an 80 in his U.S. Open qualifier at Ruby Hill Golf Club in northern California on May 10 and missed advancing by six shots. Like Smoltz, this was Mulder's first attempt to qualify...Minnesota Vikings placekicker Ryan Longwell of Windermere, Fla., shot 83 at MetroWest in Orlando, Fla., and missed by 14 strokes...Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee carded an 81 at Timuquana C.C. in Jacksonville and missed by 11 strokes.

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer based in the Atlanta area.

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