Insider: Smoltz sets realistic expectations for GeorgiaApril 20, 2011
John Dell, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
If future baseball hall-of-famer John Smoltz has a bad hole next week in his Nationwide Tour debut at the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta, Ga. he'll have to figure it out on his own.
"No, Bobby Cox won't be there to take me out of the game," joked Smoltz, a former Atlanta Braves pitcher. "In golf, it's all on you so if I have a bad hole I'm going to have to keep playing and fix things myself."
Smoltz, 43, who will play on a sponsor's exemption, doesn't have any expectations heading into his debut nor does he have any notions of making golf his career. There are those far away dreams of possibly trying the Champions Tour when he reaches the age of 50 but other than that Smoltz is most anxious to see how he handles himself.
When he was on the mound carving out a 22-year career that should result in induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Smoltz never let anything bother him. He was the Cy Young winner in 1996, an eight-time All-Star selection and got it done as a starter and closer.
He's still involved in baseball working nearly 20 games a season on television for the Braves and the MLB Network, and says he's content with his life after his retirement from baseball in 2009.
Smoltz laughs at the notion that baseball got in the way of an aspiring pro golfer, because he says that it was golf that was his release during the long seasons of life on the road as a major leaguer.
"There's no question that without golf I would have been out of baseball long before I was," said Smoltz. "I would have gone crazy because baseball is something that you can't let take over your life. I was told when I was a young player by a veteran that I needed to find something else to do and for me it was golf."
He recalled starting to play golf when he was in the minors in Lakeland, Fla. in 1986. By 1990 he was so hooked on the game that he and two of his fellow starters with the Braves at the time, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, played in a big-time celebrity tournament put on by Ken Green.
Smoltz remembers the event like it was yesterday because he was an 8 handicap at the time and shot a 2-under 70. Among those in the tournament were Marc Calcavecchia, Lee Trevino and Green.
"I remember Calc looking at my driver after I kept smoking it down the middle," Smoltz said. "Let's just say I was never an 8 handicap after that tournament."
Smoltz continued to improve his game by playing a lot during most of his team's road trips, playing 18 holes even on days when he was a star reliever.
"When I closed and everyone was concerned that first year, because I was playing golf, I had 55 saves (in 2002) and I don't think anyone worried about me playing golf again," Smoltz said "It's what I needed and it's what worked for me. If I was walking 36 holes a day it would have more of an effect than a casual round of golf."
Smoltz now carries a 2 handicap, and says he's been thinking a lot about his foray into the world of big-time pro golf. He wants it to be known that he never asked for the exemption and that officials with the tournament approached him.
He also doesn't want to be the focus of the tournament, because he knows how hard the Nationwide Tour players are working to make a living.
"I may not be ready when I get out there but I'm not going to be afraid of the situation and I think golf is perfect for that," said Smoltz, who is scheduled to play in the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational in Las Vegas and he'll also play in the Georgia Open this summer.
Smoltz, who had a record 213-155 in his career with 154 saves, can count Tiger Woods as one of his playing partners through the years. They have played on several occasions and Woods has said that Smoltz has a lot of game.
"Obviously he was an incredible pitcher," Woods told reporters earlier this year. "But I think just the way he's able to take that same tenacity into golf is pretty amazing. I've gone out there and played with him and he shot, what, 69-67 in the same day. Not too many amateurs can do that, especially when they are still playing a professional sport at the time. So it's pretty phenomenal."
Whether Smoltz will play well this week remains to be seen.
"If I start thinking about everything that people might say about this then I have no business being out there," Smoltz said. "My goal is to have a blast and enjoy the moment."
When Smoltz was asked about trying to play on the Champions Tour down the road he said that will be a long shot at best. "I guess it's about a billion-to-one to make it on that Tour," he said.
He's also prepared for the backlash of taking up a spot from a player on the Nationwide Tour.
"I know what comes with it," he said about the sponsor's exemption. "I know the talk of always taking a spot. I want to respect the game the way it's supposed to be respected. This is just a one-time opportunity for me and I hope to do the best I can.
"Along the way if it brings notoriety to the Nationwide Tour, I'm all for it. I just want to respect what the (players) are doing and not get carried away with anything."
John Dell has covered golf for the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina for the last 17 years. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.