On the pitcher’s mound, John Smoltz never shied away from pressure.
This week, the man considered by some to be the most clutch postseason pitcher in baseball history finds himself dealing with an entirely new sort of stress.
The Hall of Famer qualified for a spot in the U.S. Senior Open, which starts Thursday in Colorado Springs. Instead of delivering the nasty stuff, he’ll be trying to avoid it on a Broadmoor East Course that ate up the seniors 10 years ago for this tournament — won by Eduardo Romero, whose 6 under was one of only three scores in the red for the week.
“I love pressure,” Smoltz said in an interview earlier this month, shortly after he won a three-man playoff to qualify. “But I don’t think people understand this is a different kind of pressure. This has more to do with the difference between what I’m accustomed to doing on a daily basis of average golf versus what this tournament is, which is ‘One bad swing, and see ya.'”
The 51-year-old grew up in Michigan and, brought up in a world of indoor sports, said he saw very little value in golf.
“I didn’t appreciate the history involved,” he said. “I didn’t find it to be as athletic a sport as the others.”
Only out of sheer boredom while playing Class A ball in Florida did Smoltz wander out to the golf course where, like all the other sports he played, he taught himself.
He got good and, as his baseball career progressed, he found himself playing on off days with his Atlanta Braves teammates.
Yet as a signal of how oblivious he was to the etiquette and history of the game, he thought it would be funny to use an exploding golf ball for his first tee shot as a guest at the storied San Francisco Golf Club, where Jerry Royster and Rick Mahler asked him to join them.
“We’re standing there with all the caddies, the pros. Nobody laughed,” Smoltz said. “Rick was so embarrassed. I was so naive. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care who you are, just pray to God you’re ever able to play this place again.'”
As one of greatest control pitchers in the history of the game, Smoltz says there are some elements of baseball that transfer over to golf — namely keeping his weight back to create leverage and power for the pitch or the swing.
But the mental parts of these games, in Smoltz’s view, are completely different.
“In baseball, it’s having this tunnel where you’re throwing to a catcher. In golf, there’s all this space and awareness of what’s out there,” he said. “That’s why maybe I hit better shots out of the woods, where it’s narrow shots through a small gap. I’m more in my element.”
If, however, Smoltz is hitting from the trees, it will be a long couple of days.
Though he’s long dreamed of playing professional golf, his day job involves calling baseball games for the Fox networks, which will be airing this week’s tournament. Smoltz has offered to wear a mic on the course to enhance the network’s coverage. He may show up in the booth come the weekend if he doesn’t make the cut.
The man who has played in five World Series, pitched in 41 postseason games, posted 213 overall wins as a starter and recorded 154 saves as a reliever understands that dominance on the diamond does not mean he’ll have the stuff to seriously contend with Bernhard Langer, Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie.
Then again, Smoltz wouldn’t be Smoltz if he didn’t set the bar high.
“People who know me say, ‘You’re going there to win it,'” he said. “Well, c’mon. Within reality, I want to compete and see how well I can do. If I make the cut, that would be unreal. But I expect to. I don’t expect to go there and shoot 85-86. That would be a hollow experience if I can’t go there and figure out how to play the golf course.”