‘Smoltzie’ is amazing athlete

Today’s effort comes with two disclaimers. One, John Smoltz happens to be one of my favorite players in recent baseball history. Two, now that Smoltz has retired to the broadcast booth, he has become my favorite broadcaster.

As a player, Smoltz was first a splendid starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. After 10 years as a starter, he moved to the bullpen where he instantly became a record-breaking closer. After seven years in that role, he became a starter again and picked right up where he left off, All-Star caliber again. The guy was a gamer, no matter the role. He struck out more than 3,000 batters. He won more than 200 games. He saved 154. Want more? Besides the Hall of Fame pitching part, he could hit, run the bases, field his position – and, to my delight, always was an interesting interview.

As a TV analyst, he is smart, glib and tells you what you need to know. He doesn’t just state the obvious as so many commentators do. No, he tells you stuff you wouldn’t otherwise know.

Yes, I am a “Smoltzie” fan. As such, I also know that he was an All-State basketball player in high school, headed to Michigan State on a basketball scholarship before he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in baseball. He’s first and foremost an amazing athlete.

And that brings us to the reason for today’s column. Last week, Smoltz, who is 51, played in the U.S. Senior (golf) Open at Colorado Springs. Anybody who knows anything about golf knows what an accomplishment that is. Not just anybody can play in the U.S. Open. You have to qualify to do that. Smoltz was one of only three who qualified at Planterra Ridge Golf Club in Peachtree City, Ga. He shot a 3-under-par 69 and then had to win a three-way sudden death playoff.

Smoltz often played golf with his fellow Hall of Fame Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. All were gifted athletes. All became good golfers. Smoltzie was clearly the best. What Smoltz hated worst about moving to the bullpen was that it limited his opportunities to play golf. As a starter, he could play golf on just about any off day. As a reliever, there weren’t many off days. He always had to be ready to pitch. He has continued to avidly play golf in retirement. He carries a USGA handicap of 1.5, which is better than about 99.9 percent of people who play the sport.

What happened last week at the Senior Open just tells us how good those other 0.1 percent of golfers are. The USGA sets up championship courses to play extremely difficult in all divisions – men’s and women’s, junior and senior, amateur and mid-amateur. When criticized for the difficulty of the golf courses, the USGA has a standard answer: “We are not trying to penalize the greatest golfers in the world, we are trying to identify the greatest golfer in the world.”

Last week, they were trying to identify the greatest 50-and-over golfer. So the course was long, the fairways were narrow, the rough was high and thick, and the greens were fast and hard.

If you have never played a course in that kind of condition, you have no idea. Your normal 8-handicapper at your local country club could not break 100 on the course they played last week.

Smoltz, who is certainly better than 99.999 percent of the seniors who play golf in this country, was not prepared. He shot 85-77, 22 over par for 36 holes.

“I don’t have enough game for this course yet,” Smoltz said after the 85. “... There’s not a 5- or 6- or 7-handicapper who could break 90 at most U.S. Open courses . . .”

 He’s right. I am reminded of a time when the old Viking Classic, a PGA Tour tournament was about to be played at Annandale in Madison. The thick Bermuda rough was especially high that year and I bet a buddy, a solid 5-handicapper, that he couldn’t break 90 from the back tees. He laughed and took the bet. And then he shot 101 and almost broke his wrists trying to hit out of that rough. It’s a different game than we play at our local clubs and public courses.

What happened to Smoltzie last week doesn’t make him any less an athlete. The fact that he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open after a career playing pro baseball is remarkable. What this does tell us is just how uncommonly superb David Toms was to shoot 3-under par for 72 holes and win the Senior Open.

My hat is off to Toms, but Smoltz deserves a tip of the cap for even getting there.

Email Rick Cleveland, rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

Holly Springs South Reporter

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