by John Davis, Special for Golfweek
TUCSON — John Smoltz used to tame batters with a blazing fastball and a wicked slider. Now he’s hoping to tame golf courses with a self-standing putter and exemptions he recently received from the PGA Tour Champions.
The Hall of Fame pitcher and former National League Cy Young Award winner is going to use the first of his three exemptions to tee it up March 1-3 in the Cologuard Classic at Omni Tucson National Resort.
“I would rather be throwing a 3-2 pitch in the ninth inning, with the bases loaded and Albert Pujols at the plate, than have to hit a big golf shot when it really mattered,” Smoltz said in a press conference Monday at the resort. “But I believe in dreaming and attacking my dreams.”
“Smoltzie,” who was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball during the 1990s, also has shown plenty of game on the golf course.
He qualified last summer for the U.S. Senior Open by surviving a three-hole playoff, has excelled in celebrity events and last month Smoltz won the celebrity division at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, the LPGA Tour’s 2019 opener.
“Celebrity golf has gotten significantly better the last few years,” he said, “but it’s a whole lot different when you have to play against guys who are hitting the ball 40 yards past you on every shot.
“But I love to compete and I’m fortunate to work for companies that allow me to do that. Every pro athlete loves to compete every chance they get and I can’t wait to get out here and compete with these guys and see what I can do.”
Smoltz, who started playing golf when he was 21 with Atlanta Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, mainly as a way to spend time on their days off between starts, is the lead baseball analyst for Fox Network.
He chose the Tucson event, along with others in Atlanta in April and Madison, Wis., in June, because they fit best with his announcing schedule.
In Tucson, he will be part of a stellar field this year that includes defending champion Steve Stricker, 2017 winner Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer, Darren Clarke, Chris DiMarco, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jose Maria Olazabal, Kenny Perry, Hal Sutton and Retief Goosen. The Tucson Conquistadores, the civic organization that runs the event, also gave exemptions to former University of Arizona stars David Berganio and Robert Gamez.
On the course, Smoltz has attracted a lot of attention with his Bloodline putter, a model that he bought in Arizona last year, which stands up on the green by itself, allowing him to walk around behind it and read the line.
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“I can line other people up to putt, but for whatever reason, I just can’t line myself up in the conventional way,” he said. “This has helped me so much with lining up putts. It has made a huge difference.”
His first order of business after Monday’s press conference was getting that putter repaired or replaced as he discovered the head had been snapped off when he pulled it out of his travel bag Sunday.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I was in a panic. I can only imagine if it was tournament week.”
Smoltz appeared in five World Series, has one of the most stellar post-season records for any pitcher in history and is the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves. But, he said, qualifying for the Senior Open last year, “quite honestly, was the greatest accomplishment I’ve ever had.”
“That sounds strange when you’ve had a 22-year career, but that was a team sport, where you get bailed out a lot. There’s no one to bail you out on a golf course. So last year (qualifying for the Open) was incredible and I relish every second of it, although it was a miserable result. I learned so much from it.”
Immediately after he qualified for the Open, Smoltz said, he called his wife, who couldn’t understand him because he was screaming into the phone. Then, he called his Fox partner, Joe Buck, who couldn’t understand him because he was screaming into the phone.
In the Open he shot rounds of 85-77, putting him well below the cut line, but said that instead of being discouraged, he is using it for motivation.
“I learned so much from my failures and became a much better golfer immediately after that event,” he said. “So this is beyond a treat for me.
“I can’t even tell you how excited and thrilled I am to be able to do this, and the feeling of winning something like I did last month has certainly helped. That was pretty cool. I would love to feel that again.”