When professional athletes from major team sports turn in their uniforms and leave behind the experience of playing in front of thousands of fans, they often look for something to fill the competitive void.
Many turn to golf, largely because the game can be played for life and requires focus, concentration and timing – skills that they honed in their professional careers
Witness the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur at the Country Club of Birmingham, where three former Major League Baseball players qualified for the championship: former National League Rookie of the Year Chris Sabo, one-time All-Star Erik Hanson and ex-reliever Mike Ignasiak.
All three have previously competed in the Mid-Amateur; Sabo’s last appearance was 15 years ago, when he missed the cut at NCR Country Club. Hanson is playing for a fourth time and has never missed match play. Ignasiak, playing his 10th USGA championship, has never made match play, but was involved in two big playoffs in 2011 at the U.S. Amateur (Erin Hills) and U.S. Mid-Amateur (Shadow Hawk).
Earlier this year, Ignasiak, 47, advanced to sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, where he was paired with Champions Tour player David Frost and 2013 USA Walker Cupper Justin Thomas. He also qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links, but withdrew from the event due to back issues.
All three opened stroke-play qualifying Saturday on the West Course, with Hanson, 48, of Kirkland, Wash., leading the way with a 1-over 72, putting him in solid position to keep his Mid-Amateur match-play streak alive. Sabo, 51, of Cincinnati, and Ignasiak struggled, shooting 83 and 84, respectively.
"Most of my golf is tournament golf," said Ignasiak, who operates a Dairy Queen in Saline, Mich. "I haven’t played 18 holes for fun this year. I haven’t had time."
Ignasiak, who pitched for four seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers (10-4 with a 4.80 earned-run average), the last in 1995, and Sabo both started playing golf after they retired in 1996. Ignasiak sustained a serious back injury that year in spring training with the Boston Red Sox.
Hanson took up the game at 29 after he was traded from Seattle to the Cincinnati Reds in 1993. Before that, Hanson, who retired in 1998 after 11 big-league seasons with Seattle, Cincinnati, Boston and Toronto, had only played in a few charity scrambles.
"Davey Johnson was the manager [in Cincinnati] and he was a good golfer," said Hanson, who finished his career with a record of 89-84 and a 4.15 ERA. "Ray Knight was the bench coach and he was married to [Hall of Famer] Nancy Lopez. [Pitcher] Tom Browning loved to play golf … they all needed people to fill out foursomes. It was a way to create camaraderie.
"Pitching is a lot like golf and golf is a lot like pitching, adds Hanson. It makes you concentrate and focus. You have to build something repeatable."
By the end of the 1993 season, Hanson’s handicap was down to an 8. The next year in Boston, he played regularly with Roger Clemens, another avid golfer, and trimmed his handicap to a 5. He joined Sahalee Country Club in suburban Seattle in 1996 and dropped to a 2. Two years later, he was scratch. Now he’s between a +2 and +4.
It’s a similar story for Sabo and Ignasiak, both Detroit natives who played at the University of Michigan, but not together. Sabo was a good enough athlete to earn scholarship offers for baseball and hockey, where he was a standout goalie. The Michigan hockey coach wanted him on the team, but the baseball coach said no.
Two years after he retired from the game, Sabo, a lifetime .268 hitter with 116 homers and 426 RBIs, qualified for the 1998 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
"I like playing tournaments," said Sabo, a member of the Reds’ 1990 World Series team and a three-time All-Star selection. "The scores count. They are fun.
"I actually played old-man hockey until a couple of years ago. I can’t do that anymore."
Ignasiak needed a full year to recover from his career-ending back injury, but by 1998 he was ready to start playing golf. Two years later, he qualified for the 2000 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. He said he was more nervous on the first tee than he was against Toronto when he faced John Olerud in a relief appearance.
The challenging 7,103-yard, par-71 Donald Ross-designed West Course, however, was a bit too much for Ignasiak on Thursday.
"I think I need to shoot 60 tomorrow [on the East Course] to even have a chance," said Ignasiak of trying to qualify for match play. "The course is tough, but I played terrible. I probably had 40 putts."
Sabo, a past club champion at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, was equally displeased with his score. The West Course, he said, was too long for his game, which relies more on accuracy and precision than power.
"It will be good to play the other course," said Sabo of the 6,504-yard, par-70 companion stroke-play qualifying venue. "This [West Course] is over 7,000 yards. Some of these holes are par-5s for me. I just can’t wait until I get to 55 and start playing with the seniors.
"I have no problem focusing, trying hard and concentrating. Eventually talent wins out."
Recently, Sabo has been assisting University of Cincinnati men’s golf coach and 1984 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Doug Martin. He’ll occasionally practice with the team, but during tournaments, he’ll help Martin with strategy and player updates.
"I like watching guys and see what they do," said Sabo.
Like Ignasiak, Hanson has been battling various ailments that have piled up over the years. During his playing days, Hanson was a workout fanatic, often spending two hours in the weight room. In the past few years, he’s endured four surgeries and had nerve decompression performed on his right leg. The maladies have forced Hanson to cut back his competitive summer schedule.
"I don’t do 36 holes in a day," he said. "I don’t hit a lot of balls [on the range]."
But he’s had good success in USGA events. In five USGA Men’s State Team appearances (15 rounds) for Washington, his score has always counted in the best-2-of-3 format. Making match play at the Mid-Amateur hasn’t been an issue either, but advancing in the bracket has been a struggle.
Last year at Conway Farms, Hanson shot 69 and lost, 2 down, to Kevin Wassmer, who overcame a three-hole deficit to card a second-nine 30, including a hole-out from 83 yards for an eagle-3 at the par-5 closing hole to complete the comeback. At the 2009 Mid-Amateur at Kiawah Island Club, Hanson faced medalist Mike McCoy in the second round. McCoy birdied the final five holes in a 5-and-4 victory.
Unfortunately in golf, Hanson can’t throw a 95 mph fastball at his opponent. Or toss one of his patented curveballs, which at one time was among the best in the big leagues.
All he can do is focus on his task and, like his fellow big league veterans, enjoy the competitive atmosphere they thrived on in their careers.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.