John Smoltz and other pro jocks embrace golf for many reasons, but mostly because that competitive fire never leaves

October 22, 2019

Pro jocks embrace golf for all kinds of reasons. For Stephen Curry, it’s a de-stresser. In retirement, Babe Ruth used it as an excuse to get out of the house. Michael Jordan can’t say no to the game because he can’t say no to a challenge. And John Smoltz plays because he has something to prove — to himself.

The king? The king is Smoltz.

You were maybe thinking: What about MJ?

Fame, fortune and a killer smile cannot buy everything, and that’s the only reason Michael Jordan doesn’t own this category, too: Hall of Fame Athletes with Serious Game. Pick a sport, any sport. Name a living Hall of Famer. Your guy may be good, close to scratch. Ivan Lendl, tennis Hall-of-Famer. Brett Hull, hockey Hall-of-Famer. Jerry Rice, football Hall-of-Famer. Your guy can’t beat John Smoltz, baseball Hall-of-Famer, on anything like a regular basis.

Golf is too important to him and winning is, too. Plus, he just has more game. He was born with the gene for golf and he’s made getting better his life’s work. It’s an obsession. In John Smoltz, pitcher-turned-golfer, you actually see glimpses of Tiger Woods.

To differing degrees, you see Tiger in all of them, these really accomplished athletes who get really good at golf. Their first sport gave them the opportunity to dominate others, until they no longer could. And there was golf, ready to fill the void.

This king-of-the-hill thing, it’s not static. There’s always rising talent, the new guy looking to knock off the reigning one. All Tony Romo has to do to unseat Smoltz here is get in football’s Hall of Fame. And if that happens, he’ll need to be looking over his shoulder. Stephen Curry’s soft-spike footsteps, getting louder and louder.

There should be some kind of Myers–Briggs personality test to identify athletes who are on the spectrum for golf obsessiveness. Something that would turn these casual observations into science. The questions would not necessarily be pretty. I have a need to dominate others. (Check one.) Strongly Disagree. Disagree. Undecided. Agree. Strongly Agree. Every name mentioned here so far is putting a heavy check mark on the last.

These days, as a Fox broadcaster, Smoltz is continuing the pattern he had all through his 21-year pitching career, and it will sound familiar to anybody who knows anything about Tiger. Smoltz is out the door at daybreak, slacks and shirt pressed just so, bag on his shoulder, plan in one hand, sunscreen in the other. They both subscribe to Ben Hogan. (“There isn’t enough daylight in any one day to practice all the shots you need to.”) They both subscribe to Butch Harmon. (“You need a plan.”) They both subscribe to Baz Luhrmann. (“Trust me on the sunscreen.”)

Planners need something to plan. Enter golf. These guys are all planners. To get better in golf, you always have to be working on something. You can’t just wing it. Smoltz’s thing is to practice by playing. That’s not what Tiger does, but that’s okay! To be really good in golf, you have to fall in line and do it your own way.

You also have to have time, energy, fitness, intelligence, competitiveness, compulsiveness — and loads of athletic ability. For most athletes with long and great careers, by the time they’re at the finish line, their brains are tired, their bodies are crying uncle, their bank accounts are swollen and their competitive needs have been met. That’s another set of boxes. When those squares are all unchecked, you get a Michael Jordan, a Jerry Rice, an Ivan Lendl, a Brett Hull. A Tony Romo. A Stephen Curry, down the road. A John Smoltz. He qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Open, at age 51.

It’s not a coincidence that in their 30s and 40s and 50s, they all continue to be pretty close to their playing weights. That takes discipline, too.

John Smoltz was a stud for the Braves, but he's got game on the course, too.
AP Photo

At the U.S. Senior Open last year, Smoltz offered some exceptional golf testimony (edited here): “This is probably the No. 1 thing I have ever accomplished. Everything I’ve been part of before has been a team thing, and I’m proud of all my team accomplishments. But as an individual, I haven’t had anything close to this. This has been a dream of mine since I was 35 to 40 years old. This is the most excited I have ever been. My whole life has been about perseverance and overcoming failures. I tell my kids, ‘If you don’t believe it, you’ll never dream it. If you don’t dream it, you’ll never achieve it.’ I’m a big believer in that.”

How often do you hear a middle-aged man talking about his dreams? It sounds wonderfully boyish. But Smoltz is also highly cerebral and analytical. Like Hogan, like Nicklaus. Like Woods.

Smoltz has played loads of golf with Woods, and Woods once, and only once, faced Smoltz in the batter’s box, in a simulated game. Tiger went 1 for 4 with a walk. Smoltz didn’t even want to do it, but Tiger insisted. It makes you think that if Tiger could have a new, serious career in a different sport, he’d revel in the challenge. Elite athletes need to be challenged. Luckily for Smoltz, professional baseball to professional golf is at least feasible. Michael Jordan showed how hard it is to go from professional basketball to professional baseball. But he welcomed the challenge. Challenge is the starting point.

Michael Jordan is very good at golf. Lawrence Taylor, the Hall of Fame linebacker, is better. In the years when they played often, serious money on the line, MJ would not take shots from LT. Because that would reduce the challenge for him. It would reduce the meaning of a win.

In his matchups with LT, MJ would lose — but always come back for more.
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Jordan, in those years, would come to greater Miami, where Taylor lived, and they would play all the better public courses. A guy would travel with Jordan and he’d carry a metal briefcase filled with cash. At the end of the day, more often than not, Jordan would say to him some variant of: Pay the man. The next day, Jordan would be back for more. A 36-hole day would be ordinary. For two good players on short courses with no rough and shallow traps and slow greens, each in his own cart? Six hours, with a snack-bar lunch. A 54-hole day would not be easy for Taylor, and he could shoot 210 over it on the daily-fee courses he played. Jordan’s natural proclivity, today and then, is to play courses that are just flat-out hard. The challenge thing, in extremis.

Lawrence Taylor’s golf obsession is different from Smoltz’s or Jordan’s. Taylor is not looking to play against the pros in a senior event. He’s not looking to have his swing reengineered by the likes of Sean Foley. He’s looking to fill his days. He has addictive tendencies. Golf helps keep them at bay. He calls golf his “detox tank.” Years ago, he left a drug rehab facility thinking that days on the golf course would do the same thing, but more entertainingly.

There are other Hall-of-Fame athletes for whom golf is a social outlet, more than anything else. Babe Ruth played golf all through his baseball career. Then he retired from the pastime and started really going at it hard. Golf, for the Babe in retirement, was a way to get out of the house. As the saying sort of goes, Mrs. Ruth married Mr. Ruth for better or worse, but not for lunch. Ruth was an 85 shooter and fine with it. He liked the action, the bar, the camaraderie.

Babe Ruth played golf all through his legendary baseball career.
Bettman Archive

Wayne Gretzky, the same. The Hall of Fame hockey player will shoot 85 and lose no sleep. He’s a social creature and golf is a place for him to be social. More significantly, it’s a way for him to be in intimate settings with Dustin Johnson, who has two children with Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina. Gretzky and Johnson have played together seven times in the AT&T National Pro-Am (four made cuts). Despite what he says, there are no signs of stress from Gretzky when he plays in it, sashaying down the fairways with a cigar in his mouth, knowing that his caddie or Johnson’s gallery will find his ball for him. They also play often at Sherwood in Los Angeles. But it’s at the Gozzer Ranch, in very rural Idaho, that they really have their man-to-mans. On the morning after the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the one where Johnson three-putted that final blotchy green on Sunday to finish a shot out of first, Gretzky and Johnson both woke up at Gozzer and played golf that Monday morning. Eventually, they talked about winning and losing and the fine line between the two. One year later, Johnson won the U.S. Open at Oakmont and he offered more than a nod to Gretzky. Could there be a better place to have that conversation than at a golf course? Gretzky will tell you: There could not.

John Smoltz, by the way, shot a first-round 85 in last year’s U.S. Senior Open. The similarities between a Gretzky 85 and the one Smoltz shot at the Broadmoor is the latter was done with pencil in hand. That’s huge. Beer-league softball vs. the Bigs. Smoltz, by the way, shot 77 the next day. Tom Kite did, too. Do you think that brought John Smoltz any satisfaction?

Not a chance.