News & Opinion

On golf course, John Smoltz still brings the heat

The Hall of Fame pitcher, who shows major-league talent in his adopted sport, will be among the top celebrity sticks in this week's LPGA Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – In a former sporting life, right-handed pitcher John Smoltz would glare 60 feet, 6 inches toward his catcher from a mound in the torrid heat of the postseason in front of 40,000 screaming fans in some far-away, unfriendly stadium. It could be a lonely, lonely place. He’d be faced with the task to bust some elite hitter with a fastball on the hands or freeze him by snapping off the perfect slider across the corner at the knees. Smoltz lived for pressure, and for big moments, and was really good at what he did – good enough to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

John Smoltz (center) yuks it up with Mike Flaskey (left), the chief executive officer of Diamond Resorts, and baseball’s Roger Clemens.

Naturally, one would deduce that the same man peering down at a static, little white golf ball just sitting helplessly atop a tee before it gets sent into orbit would consider it a pretty carefree endeavor for an athlete of his pedigree. Truth is, Smoltz, now 52, can find golf maddening, and incredibly frustrating. Frustrating enough to not touch a club in December. And yet, he also finds the game so challenging, so enriching. That young baseball player who believed golf to be quite boring and not a very athletic sport has spun 180 degrees on his thinking.

Golf now occupies the competitive void that baseball once filled. This week, with the train whistles of Disney World within earshot, Smoltz has returned to the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Four Seasons Resort’s Tranquilo Golf Club – an interesting and fun event in which athletes, musicians and other celebrities share the stage with LPGA champions. Smoltz is here as defending champion, having prevailed in a field of 49 celebrities a year ago over fellow top players Mark Mulder (baseball) and Mardy Fish (tennis). He plays at 9:10 a.m. Thursday with MLB slugger Josh Donaldson and the LPGA’s Brooke Henderson (tee times). Smoltz’s winner’s check for $100,000 in the modified-Stableford scoring event was more than he made in his first 18 months of baseball. Playing golf for something meaningful sparks something inside him.

“When you play in the tournament, there’s something special about playing with a leaderboard, and winning your group, and winning the leaderboard, and trying to find a way to get to the top.” said Smoltz, who played in three Champions Tour events in 2019 (top finish was T-53 in Tucson) and qualified for the 2018 U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado. (He missed the cut.)

“The competitiveness on the celebrity tour from when it started a long time ago to the celebrity events that we have now, it’s so far from where it once was,” he said. “You can see that these athletes are trying to push themselves to see how good they can be. I make no bones about it: I want to see how far I can take my golf game.”

Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, who would host Smoltz at nearby Isleworth when Smoltz and the Braves would show up to spring training outside Orlando years ago, believed that Smoltz had the chops, time permitting, to play the regular PGA Tour – not just the Champions Tour that was out in front of him. “I think he can play out here; I really do,” Janzen told this writer years ago at a PGA Tour stop. “He has the mental capacity to play golf. We’re talking about the best postseason pitcher ever.”

Smoltz hits it long, generally keeps the ball in play and continues to improve in how he game-plans for the courses upon which he competes. Tired of throwing away solid, sub-par rounds with sloppy finishes, Smoltz committed himself to hitting “shots of conviction” during the third round of a Champions Tour event in Wisconsin last June. He shot 4-under 32 on his opening nine before poor weather started moving in. “I had three eagle putts and eight birdie putts [on the day]… I thought, OK, I got this,” he said. “The weather came in, and I shot 32-42. It was ridiculous. That’s the kind of stuff that I need to clean up.”

Though he has a “real” job these days in the booth calling MLB games for Fox, Smoltz is endlessly consumed by his golf and the challenge it presents. Funny, at 21, he could not stand the game. He also was tired of staring at the walls in his hotel room for hours. In Smoltz’s early days in Atlanta, the late Braves pitcher Rick Mahler took him along to play San Francisco Golf Club, one of the country’s best, most exclusive tracks. Smoltz knows now, but had no idea then, what a treat it was. On one hole, he asked his caddie for a yardage to a fairway bunker, then produced a huge puff of smoke off the tee when he struck an exploding ball.

“I didn’t play golf, didn’t understand it. And now I’m obsessed by it,” Smoltz said. “There’s something special about every day being ‘your day.’ ”

Smoltz shared a close bond with fellow Atlanta pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery (Maddux and Glavine are in the Diamond Resorts field this week), and together they had many A-list golf adventures. Smoltz took a little black book with him on the road filled with numbers and contacts to get on great courses in every visiting city. Trip to Philly? Pine Valley and Merion. Facing the Mets in New York? Winged Foot, Deepdale, maybe Quaker Ridge. Cubs matchups produced tee times at Chicago Golf and Butler National.

Off days would deliver things to an entirely different level. On one West Coast trip, Smoltz and his Braves pitching cronies enjoyed a 36-hole day at Cypress Point and Spyglass, teed off at Pebble Beach the next morning, and then drove to the ballpark to take on the San Francisco Giants that night.

He wishes that he had more time to work on his game, but he’s got a nice gig at Fox alongside Joe Buck, and for now, that’s his priority. He holds similar quests as many really good players. He’d like to eliminate one side of the golf course, and he’d like to get better at finding the competitive rhythm and mindset required at a three- or four-day tournament. Oh, and he wants to get rid of those occasional foul balls ...

“Every one of those [PGA Tour Champions] tournaments, I had one swing that came out of nowhere,” he said. “There was no rhyme or reason, and it bothered me more than it should have. Whereas the other guys [professionals] know it’s just one swing, and they’re not going to have that second thought that the ball is now going to go left when I want it to go right.”

Smoltz has a go-low gear that few other celebrity golfers possess. He played so well in one round at Tranquilo last year, making seven birdies and an eagle in what equated to a 65, that LPGA star Lexi Thompson pulled aside LPGA commissioner Mike Whan and said, “Who the hell is that? I thought he was a baseball player.” Actor Jack Wagner, a longtime standout on the celebrity circuit, said this week that the celebs all root for one another, and that Smoltz’s great play in winning a year ago brings the entire group “real value and validity to our games, because we can play like that.”

Smoltz finished his 21-season big-league career with a 213-155 record, 154 saves, 3,084 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.33. Ten times he won 14 or more games in a season. A year after helping the Braves to a 1995 World Series championship, Smoltz finished 24-8 and won the 1996 National League Cy Young Award.

When he stood on a pitcher’s mound, Smoltz said he knew where every pitch out of his hand was going to go. Golf gives him something entirely different. There are no closers available when he steps to the 17th tee at 2 under. He enjoys that part of it, the mental gymnastics that the game puts him through.

I think the game, in and of itself, brings about your own distractions,” he said. “Sure, there is Mother Nature, and weather, and all that stuff. But it’s really about what you do in your own mind that separates these guys. You have five minutes between shots sometimes …”

He thinks about that and chuckles, adding, “If I had five minutes between pitches when I was playing, you’d have never heard of me.”