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John Smoltz's latest pitch: He wants PGA TOUR Champions card

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JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 30: John Smoltz hits his tee shot on the 7th hole during day one of the ICON Series at Liberty National Golf Club on June 30, 2022 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 30: John Smoltz hits his tee shot on the 7th hole during day one of the ICON Series at Liberty National Golf Club on June 30, 2022 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Former All-Star baseball pitcher is competing at Final Stage of Q-School

    Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62

    Right-hander John Smoltz always could stand tall on a mound in the middle of a baseball diamond knowing that if he made a rare mistake – if his fastball location was poor or he accidentally hung a curve ball in the heart of the zone – he had eight fielders behind him that potentially could bail him out.

    As he attempts to climb to great heights in a different game, the 55-year-old Baseball Hall of Fame inductee – a former Cy Young winner, World Series champion and eight-time All-Star selection – finds the competitive equation to be something drastically different. Golf can be a lonely walk. As Smoltz chases a full-time card on PGA TOUR Champions beginning Tuesday at TPC Scottsdale’s Champions course, having earned his way into the select 78-man, 72-hole Q-School finale, that is one aspect he cherishes about the game.

    Any success is squarely on him. There are no teammates to bail him out. That's not to say that the “one man, one island” aspect of golf does not cause him his share of sleep-deprived nights.

    “The thing about golf,” Smoltz said Monday from TPC Scottsdale, where he readied with one final practice round, “is that it exposes you, whether you want to be exposed or not. I went around the First Stage (of Q-School) for 14 holes and never used my 60-degree (wedge, not one of his strengths). That rarely happens.

    “Golf doesn’t allow you to stay away from the shot that you don’t like,” Smoltz adds with a laugh. “It always finds you.”

    Given the opening, golf also can let a golfer find himself. Smoltz is making the most of that rewarding journey. He thoroughly is enjoying the self-discovery benefit of the game. Already a plus-handicap player at his home club outside Atlanta, he has been enhanced by experience, having already played in nine PGA TOUR Champions events, including the 2018 U.S. Senior Open.

    Few possess a passion for the game that even approaches anything in the same ZIP code as Smoltz. Though at varied times he has been limited physically by bad hands, bad shoulders, a bad back and bad hips – hey, at least he has two new hips – 18 holes a day, even while playing hurt, has seldom been enough. Smoltz goes around golf courses the way a spry greyhound wants to sprint around a racetrack, rarely stopping at 36 holes.

    As he tries to make his way through the arduous gauntlet that is Champions Tour Q-School – only five players will earn full-time cards this week – Smoltz said he does not attempt to fool himself regarding the difficulty of his assignment.

    “I don’t live in a false reality,” he said. “This sport is really difficult. I’m not trying to think that this is something that I could do for a whole year or not ... but it’s fun to attempt it.”

    Many of his fellow athletes from outside golf will be watching closely. Former Major Leaguer Kevin Millar, who jokingly refers to Smoltz as his "swing coach," said he'll be exchanging frequent texts to keep up with Smoltz all week, as will many others. ("It's been crazy," said Smoltz, who acknowledges he is playing for something bigger than himself this week.)

    "Boy, it's what he lives for," Millar said. "Smoltzy is one of the more competitive people that I've ever been around."

    Just by advancing beyond First Stage of Q-School, where Smoltz shot 1-over 289 to finish T14 and advance at Buckhorn Springs Golf & Country Club in Valrico, Florida, Smoltz has attracted attention and inspired others.

    “He has such a passion for the game – that’s one thing,” said former MLB pitcher Derek Lowe, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, among others, and has been paired with Smoltz in a handful of celebrity events. “But the talent he has ... it’s just a great feat. It shows you his tenacity and love for the game. Everybody is rooting for him, no doubt about it.”

    Perhaps it is the critics’ hat that Smoltz wears so well now that he has become an astute voice in the booth as a national baseball analyst for FOX, but Smoltz can be tough on himself as he assesses his golf skills. Maybe that fuels him, pushes him to never be complacent, and keeps him seeking ways to keep getting better.

    As a pitcher, Smoltz always could figure things out mechanically and make needed adjustments. As that goes, golf offers an entirely different world. His desire to grind seldom wanes, but his confidence level can plummet into some valleys. Smoltz did not feel his game was in very good shape entering First Stage of Q-School, but he made the most of some very fast starts. In three of his four rounds, he was under par through nine holes.

    “The highlights were that I started every round really good,” he said, “and that normally doesn’t happen for me. I got to 4 under (for the round) twice with three or four holes to go, but I didn’t finish well. That’s what I’m trying to work on here (at Final Stage). If you have a good round going, then keep your foot on the gas.

    "I did that well as a pitcher.”

    Monday in Arizona, Smoltz was searching to instill more confidence into the game that accompanied him off the plane.

    “I’m battling from a confidence standpoint of where my game is,” Smoltz said candidly. “My ‘grind’ is probably a 9 out of 10, but my game is probably closer to the confidence of what I think I can do. I’m trying to find that out as I play, to see where that matches up.

    "I live for the moment. Love the moment. Golf is about one bad swing away from ruining the moment."

    Smoltz is enjoying this particular moment, though not satisfied with simply advancing to Arizona. He had fallen short in three previous visits to First Stage, but just reaching Final Stage was not his ultimate goal. A card is. That’s who John Smoltz is. Those who invite him to play pickup basketball learn very quickly he is not there just to jog up and down and go through the motions of playing. He will compete at full tilt.

    Years ago, when Smoltz was in his late 30s and finishing off a stellar career as a closer in Atlanta, another very good closer, two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, was asked if he thought Smoltz was good enough at golf to one day play on the Champions Tour.

    Janzen quickly corrected the reporter who was asking the question. Wrong tour, he said. Janzen was convinced that Smoltz had everything needed to compete on the PGA TOUR at that time.

    “He has the mental capacity to play golf,” said Janzen, who used to join Smoltz for rounds at Isleworth when the Atlanta Braves trained near Orlando. “A lot of guys (athletes from other sports) have the talent, but they’d all be out here if they had the mental capacity. I think he can play out here (on the PGA TOUR), I really do.”

    Smoltz understands the magnitude of what he has accomplished by getting to TPC Scottsdale this week. It is not an easy bubble to infiltrate, and Smoltz earned his 10:52 a.m. tee time on Tuesday alongside Daniel Chopra and Jason Bohn, two experienced players who, combined, boast 662 career starts on the PGA TOUR.

    Smoltz is late to the dance, perhaps, but at least he is in the building. It’s holiday season, and if nothing else, a December trip to Arizona puts a nice bow on Smoltz’s year. He began 2023 working for FOX in Arizona for the World Baseball Classic, returned for the World Series in October, and now this. He’ll stay this week with an aunt and uncle. Perfect, really.

    “To me,” Smoltz said, “this has been an incredible journey, just to see where I can take my golf game. It helps me to become a better golfer. I just want to become a better golfer.”

    Sounds like one of his strongest pitches yet.

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