John Smoltz signs up for Q School out to prove he deserves his spot
November 18, 2019
By Bob McClellan, PGATOUR.COM
- November 18, 2019
- John Smoltz played in three PGA TOUR Champions events in 2019. (Getty Images)
The word “timid” does not appear on any plaques in Cooperstown.
John Smoltz was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015. He pitched in 41 postseason games including eight in the World Series. He won a Cy Young Award and was named to the National League All-Star team eight times.
You know what he calls his greatest athletic accomplishment? Qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Senior Open.
The man simply loves golf. And he plans to take everything he learned last year at the Senior Open as well as in three PGA TOUR Champions starts on sponsor’s exemptions to navigate his way through the PGA TOUR Champions Qualifying School from Tuesday through Friday at TPC Tampa Bay (First Stage) and see if he can earn his way to full status (Final Stage is at TPC Scottsdale from December 3-6).
“[Qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open], that's my greatest accomplishment in sports,” Smoltz said last week. “Everything else I've been part of was a team-oriented thing. And, you know, I got embarrassed when I got there [Smoltz shot rounds of 85 and 77 to miss the cut] because I didn't exactly have the arsenal to be able to play that, but I learned from it.
“So I would never shy away for a moment to expose myself because I'm not that way. I'm like, that's fine. I'm going to be better now. Next time I get into a qualifier I'm gonna have to think differently, play differently. I'm gonna take the mental toughness I had in baseball and try to figure out how to equal that in golf. Plus I'm at a point where physically I’m starting to pay some of the bills that I cashed my body in for baseball. I want to make sure I take care of the best chances I can to try and see how far I can take it.”
Make no mistake: Smoltz has plenty of game. He has long been a power in the big celebrity events, and he plays as often as he can.
But he’ll be the first to tell anyone there is a huge difference between casual golf and tournament golf. The former Atlanta Braves righthander says he can keep up with almost anyone in a casual round. But under the gun, when the heat is on, the legends of PGA TOUR Champions are at a level with which he is not yet familiar.
“They just don't miss many shots,” Smoltz said. “They don't have the ‘what happened, there’s a hook.’ They're looking at a fairway as an eight-lane highway, and I'm looking at it as a single-lane road.
“They're not bothered by particular things that the course has to offer, other than elements that are going to hit. They’re going to hit almost every fairway. They're going to hit almost every green. And it comes down to the execution of those highlights around the green. I'll get up over a 60-degree shot, and I don't know if I can pull this off. There's less than a 20% chance I think I could execute the shot. I don't know. I can't speak to them, if that even ever happens to them.”
No player is allowed to accept more than three sponsor’s exemptions into PGA TOUR Champions events. Smoltz had five offers in 2018, and he worked with the tour and his schedule with broadcast partners FOX and MLB Network, for whom he is one of the best analysts in the game, to map out his schedule. That led him to play in the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona, in March, the Mitsubishi Electric Classic near his Atlanta home in April, and the American Family Insurance Championship in Madison, Wisconsin, in June.
His best finish was a T53 in the desert. He was 3 over for the week on the ninth hole; if he shoots par on that hole over the three-round event he would have moved up 20 spots. Smoltz admits that he was out of gas for the AmFam and played like it, finishing next to last in the 78-man field. He did play his first nine in 4 under during the final round, offering at least a glimmer of hope to himself.
“Golf is way more difficult mentally than baseball,” Smoltz said. “There’s too much time to think. That's not a good thing for me. Everybody who knows me knows that’s not good. The caddies learn to try to get to me away from thinking too much. But at the same time … I knew exactly what I was going to do under the gun in baseball. I knew my slider was going to break. I knew my fastball could go where I wanted to for the most part. There was no self doubt in that.
“But I still self doubt on the consistency of where my golf ball is going to go. I've tried to eliminate one side of the course, but it takes just one of those swings to create doubt.”
One bad swing for a PGA TOUR Champions regular is a hiccup. Smoltz admits he isn’t there yet. He desperately wants to be. It’s the reason he’s subjecting himself to the grind of Q school. He wants to measure his game under pressure.
“There's no comparison for a sport that I live, breathe and spent my life doing,” Smoltz said. “Now I'm trying to learn something I’m passionate about, love, but don't have the capacity to be able to put the time in that I did baseball. So yeah, you're at a disadvantage there. But I'm not afraid. It would be different if I was afraid. It would cause me not to try to extend myself. So afraid I'm not. But I still get the same stupid feelings like, ‘Why did you do that? Why did you hit this shot? What were you thinking here?’ And the more that I can flush that out and be more confident in standing over a ball. … If I execute and I'm committed, I'll be fine. That's the difference.”
It makes sense that having Smoltz play in a PGA TOUR Champions event is good for the tour. He brings attention, if not perhaps a few more fans. He said to a man the players have gone above and beyond to make him feel welcome.
Because he has been such an avid golfer for years, including his days with the Braves, he has several longtime friends on the tour, including Lee Janzen and Mark O’Meara. They both lived in the Orlando area at a time when the Braves’ spring training home was at Disney World. So they frequently played together around Central Florida.
O’Meara speculated the first time he met Smoltz he was paired with him, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux at the Bob Hope Classic at Indian Wells.
“We’re on the first tee and they had a sheet of paper with a list of bets as long as your arm,” O’Meara said. “How many palm trees will Maddux hit? How many pools will Glavine hit it in? How many birdies? Triples? Over/under on what I’d shot. I had a ball with them.
“I can remember that same day, we’re on the 18th hole, a par 5, we’re in the TV rotation. He hit a good drive and he’s standing in the fairway with a 4- or 5-iron. And a camera guy came behind him and he was getting ready to hit, and he couldn’t draw it back. He kind of froze. I said, ‘Are ou all right?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be honest. I’m so neverous right now. As nervous as I’ve veer been.’ And I said, ‘You pitch in front of 40,000, 50,000 in the World Series. It’s just a 5-iron into the green.’ And he got back over it and I think he knocked it on and two-putted for birdie. But he was outside his own element, playing a sport he loves very much and realized wow, this is not my arena, this is unusual. It was a cool moment at the time.”
Janzen said the first time he came across Smoltz was in the old Merrill Lynch Shootouts the PGA TOUR used to hold on Tuesdays of tournament weeks. He played against Smoltz in one of the shootouts at the Honda Classic.
Janzen and O’Meara both believe Smoltz has enough game to have a chance to make it through Q school. But both were quick to say Q school for PGA TOUR Champions is the most difficult there is. There are only five tour cards available.“One of his assets is he’s a warrior and a fierce competitor,” Janzen said. “If he’s on his game he has a great chance. And he can give himself a chance if he’s not on his game just because of his mental toughness.
“One of his assets is he’s a warrior and a fierce competitor,” Janzen said. “If he’s on his game he has a great chance. And he can give himself a chance if he’s not on his game just because of his mental toughness.
“We like having him out there. We’ve always talked about it and wondered how he would do once he turned 50. I was glad to see him out there.“
Smoltz said his first tour around TPC Tampa Bay will be in the first round on Tuesday, which could help him or hinder him. But either way, he’s eager to give it a go.
“I wouldn't say I'm a motivated guy by people saying you can't do something,” Smoltz said. “But I'm a motivated guy in the sense that when I want to do something, I try to figure out how to do it. I don't pretend to think that this is any kind of lifelong change and I'm going to put down broadcasting or anything like that. But I also want to gain respect in the fact that whatever future tournaments I might be playing in I deserve to be there.
“Casual golf doesn't do it. I mean, it just doesn't. … So there's a lot of things I want to still do, and nothing excites me more than competing against myself and competing against the best just to see where that takes your game. I don't learn well by just practicing. I learn better by engaging in the fire. … I've gotten closer to doing the things that I want to do, but I haven't even come close to accomplishing that release of the golf club. There's a lot of things I still want to get to. Whether I hit a good shot or not, I want to be able to be freed up to hit the shot.”
Even if Smoltz gets through Q school, he’s unsure how often he’d play. His schedule once the baseball season starts is loaded.
“I can make no bones about it. My schedule is not conducive for this, but that's not going to be my excuse,” Smoltz said. “I'm going to go out and give it my best. I signed up for it. And I'm looking forward to it. This to me is fun.”