News & Opinion

Golf offers ex-sports stars extra innings

Mark Mulder made 203 regular-season starts in his major-league career. He won 103 of them. Mulder also beat Roger Clemens in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium, amid the pulsating tension, intensity and blood-pumping adrenaline of October baseball at the game’s cathedral. 

Then, at 30, he was done.

And now, at 40, he plays golf, needs golf, craves golf.

This isn’t about money, obviously, because Mulder and other professional athletes of his generation wade hip-deep in cash. He earned more than $33 million as a baseball player. But how does someone accustomed to the highest level of competition fill the void upon retirement?

Mulder finds his fix on the golf course, and not just hanging with his buddies at home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He returns to the American Century Championship this week in Stateline, Nev., seeking his fourth consecutive victory in the celebrity event on the shores of Lake Tahoe (pairings).

No, this is not the same as squaring off against Clemens and the gentlemen in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium. Yes, this matters to Mulder.

“Your career ends, man, and you have nowhere to compete,” he said. “Golf has kind of given that to us, especially this tournament. It’s like our Super Bowl.”

Scan the list of participants in the tournament, starting Friday at Edgewood Tahoe, and you understand Mulder has good company. Hall of Famers abound, in various sports – from football’s Marcus Allen and Tim Brown to baseball’s Ozzie Smith and Greg Maddux, from basketball’s Ray Allen and Chris Webber to football’s Jerry Rice and Steve Young.

Or consider John Smoltz.

Smoltz, a pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown, also will tee off in Tahoe. He will send good-natured, taunting texts to Mulder, bemoaning the state of his game and his struggles to find time to play.

Mulder and others in the field will not believe Smoltz. Not at all.

Smoltz satisfies his thirst for competition at a notably high level. He qualified for the U.S. Senior Open last month, something he had dreamed about for years and what he described as his No. 1 accomplishment.

He spoke like a wide-eyed kid during media appearances at the Broadmoor, barely able to contain his excitement. Smoltz shot 85-77 and missed the cut by a country mile, but he also finished ahead of 11 players, including three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin.

More importantly, much like Mulder, Smoltz has leaned on golf to help him adapt to life without the adrenaline rush of baseball.

“The hardest part about life in sports is, there’s really nothing that can replace the competitive edge,” Smoltz said. “That’s why golf becomes such a great outlet for a lot of athletes.”

Golf tests retired athletes in a familiar, invigorating way. They find themselves searching for solutions, much as they did in their sport of choice; Mulder endured a frustrating stretch last winter, for example, when his swing mysteriously abandoned him.

He’s still not as comfortable on the tee as he was on a pitcher’s mound, and that’s perfectly understandable. The left-handed Mulder earned his living and made his name in baseball, until two surgeries on his pitching shoulder cut short his career and an Achilles’ tendon injury ended his comeback attempt in 2014.

Now golf is his challenge. The stakes aren’t as high as a playoff game at Yankee Stadium, but rest assured that Mulder wants to win his fourth consecutive Tahoe title on Sunday. He yearns for another dose of tension, intensity and adrenaline.

“I love that feeling of being under the gun, knowing you have to find a way to get the ball in the hole,” Mulder said. “I just love the grind.”

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail:; Twitter: @ronkroichick