Smoltz to make pro debut on Nationwide; loaded field visits Harbour Town

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that John Smoltz would play this week in the South Georgia Classic. The tournament is next week, starting April 28.

John Smoltz was 19 and in Class A ball when he took up golf. He got better fast, thanks partly to his role as part of a golf-mad Atlanta Braves pitching rotation that made up an ever-ready foursome for years. Of the five starters, only Atlanta's starter that night would forgo the day's golf game.

Today, Smoltz is a 43-year-old former ballplayer with limited tournament experience who nevertheless will be the biggest story at next week's Nationwide tour South Georgia Classic at 7,781-yard Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta. Smoltz has his work cut out for him. Nine other professional athletes have tried to play the Nationwide tour, and none has come within five shots of making the cut. Tiger Woods says Smoltz might be different.

"Well, I had not played with an amateur that had ever shot the scores he shot," Woods, one of Smoltz's golf buddies at Isleworth, said recently. "I mean, he is a hell of an athlete. He can play basketball. Obviously he was an incredible pitcher. 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."

Kinderlou is the longest course on both the Nationwide and PGA Tour schedules in 2011. Former University of Georgia standout and two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton also headlines in Valdosta. Compton has made four cuts in four starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished T4, T19 and T4 (last week's Fresh Express Classic) on the Nationwide.

Smoltz, who got a sponsor's exemption into the field, will headline just after NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice hosted and played in last week's Fresh Express Classic. Rice shot 81-82.

But there is reason to believe Smoltz might do better, if not way better. He carries a plus-4 handicap, but says he's more realistically a plus-2, and adds that the numbers don't make any difference, anyway. It's how you do under pressure.

In his first tournament as a professional last summer, the Georgia Open, Smoltz shot 76-72-69-70 to tie for 29th place. He made his first competitive hole-in-one in the final round. And one can imagine the pressure of playing against Woods. No matter how he does, Smoltz isn't about to join the tour full time. He calls baseball games as an analyst for TBS and the MLB network, and plans to play in just one more regulation stroke-play event in 2011, the Georgia Open.

"I know what comes with it," Smoltz said in an interview with PGA Tour Network 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."

Hilton Head tournament fights for survival
After being sponsored by Verizon, MCI and Worldcom in recent years, the low-key Heritage is without a title sponsor and in dire need of one if the tournament is to continue. The tournament is using its cash reserves and money from the town of Hilton Head and Beaufort County to stay afloat and will be courting as many as 12 prospective sponsors this week, tournament director Steve Wilmot told The State newspaper.

Players, especially shorter to medium-length hitters, have always had a soft spot for Harbour Town Golf Links, which they usually play the week after the Masters, as opposed to two weeks this year. They rent bikes to ride along the water and retire to The Quarterdeck bar and restaurant at night. It's a stress-free hang after a stress-filled major. "It's a tournament that everybody wants to keep," said 2006 Heritage champion Aaron Baddeley, who with his wife, Richelle, rents a large house for themselves and vacationing family members.

Perhaps prospective sponsors will be swayed by this year's relatively strong field, which includes Masters runner-up Jason Day, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, defending champ Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and others.

Harrington, Garcia, giant panda make news in China Padraig Harrington took his wife and their two kids to China for a family holiday in advance of this week's Volvo China Open at first-year venue Luxehills International C.C. in Chengdu. The 2008 champion, Harrington and family joined Sergio Garcia at Chengdu's giant panda research and breeding center, where they all got to meet and handle Ya Yun, a giant panda cub. (For pictures, see the European Tour's website.)

Y.E. Yang, who tied for 20th at the Masters, defends.

O'Meara, Price defend Legends title
Tom Lehman, who won the 2009 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf with injured Bernhard Langer, and who has won twice on the Champions tour this season, will partner with fellow U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin in an attempt to get Pavin his first 50-and-over victory in Savannah, Ga., this week.

Mark O'Meara teamed with Nick Price to break through with his first win at last year's Legends. They beat John Cook, who won the recent Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, and Joey Sindelar (T9), who could be a formidable team again this year.

Gibby Gilbert and J.C. Snead shot a pair of 62s to win the Demaret Division by five strokes over Jim Albus and Jim Dent, and Mike Hill and Lee Trevino.

Shag bag
Tim Clark, plagued by tendonitis in his elbow this year, said at the Players Championship media day that he's iffy for this year's tournament. The good news: He'll have plenty to do around the house. Tim and wife Candie had their first child, a boy, April 1. … The R&A and Southeastern announced a high-speed rail service to and from the British Open at Royal St. George's, July 14-17. The trip from central London (St. Pancras International) to Sandwich station and the course will take 95 minutes, reducing the regular commute by an hour. … Of four Nationwide tour events this year, bad weather has shortened one to just 36 holes and another to 54. … Instead of playing in last week's Fresh Express Classic, which he could have done thanks to his runner-up finish at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, University of Florida standout Andres Echavarria played in the SEC Championship in St. Simons Island, Ga., winning the individual title in a playoff and leading Florida to the team title.