(Updated with comments below.)
John Smoltz stood in the Marietta Country Club parking lot, between the trunk of his car and a golf cart.
“The hardest thing is picking 14 clubs,” he said, referencing the club limit. “That’s a dumb rule.”
With the Braves, he had his choice of pitches. Same in golf — there are just a few more restrictions. Smoltz will get used to this. The former Braves’ pitcher and now broadcaster, who has long desired to play to play 0n the PGA Champions (formerly Seniors) Tour one day, is playing in a U.S. Open qualifying tournament this morning at Marietta Country Club.
If Smoltz finishes in the top nine — which he puts “20-1″ odds on — he will advance to the 36-hole, sectional qualifying tournament next month in Roswell. Success there would land him in the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach. It’s a long shot but Smoltz isn’t overly concerned.
“This is just a gauge for me,” he said. “I’m out here to have fun, and I’m taking advantage of the schedule.”
What should we expect? His caddy, friend and professional poker, Josh Arieh, believes Smoltz has a good chance to advance.
“I’ve seen him make four birdies in a row. I’ve seen rounds of 66, 67 all the time,” he said.
Asked to describe Smoltz’s golf game, Arieh said: “He’s just like everybody else: streaky.
“He loves being a hero. My
job is just to keep him [in check]. It’s going to be important to make a par or take bogey rather than try be a hero and make birdie and possibly play yourself into a double bogey. One of his favorite things to say on the course is ‘plaques.’ Like putting a plaque down at some spot where he made an amazing shot for birdie from. That’s not what this tournament is about. You have to take what the golf course gives you.”
It’s windy at Marietta Country Club this morning and Smoltz said he doesn’t know what kind of score to expect.
“This is like if I just started pitching, getting ready in two or three weeks for Opening Day,” he said. “I really haven’t had the time to put in. But I’ve had enough rounds where I think I can be competitive.”
UPDATE: Smoltz teed off at 9:40 a.m. at hole 10 and bogeyed.
UPDATE 11:09 a.m.: He missed a 5-foot birdie putt on par-5 13.
UPDATE 11:38 a.m.: Uh oh. Smoltz double bogeyed 7 on par-5 14th hole. He told his caddy, “Three-run homer. I gave it up.” Tee shot was far left, off the fairway into woods and way down embankment. He tried to get back onto fairway but the second shot went into woods on right side. Scrambled for a 7.
UPDATE 12:25 p.m.: After double bogey on 14, Smoltz pars 15, 16, 17 and 18. So he makes the turn at plus-3. Pretty good.
UPDATE: 1:25 p.m.: Smoltz three-putts hole No. 1 for a bogey, then misses a tap-in for potential par on No. 2 hole (his 11th hole for tournament) for another bogey. That puts him 5-over. He’s very unlikely to make it past today.
UPDATE: 2:30 p.m.: Smoltz pars his next two holes, barely missing birdie on a 70-foot chip on No. 4. But he bogeys No. 5 when he misses a five-foot putt for par to drop to 6-over. After a par on No. 6 (his 15th hole), he goes into the final three holes of the day at 6-over.
UPDATE: 2:55 p.m.: Smoltz parred his last three holes of the day, finishing with a nice 15-foot putt on No. 9 (his 18th hole). At 6-over, he will not qualify to move onto the sectionals. Only the top 9 of 144 golfers Monday will move on. (The day was not expected to finish until at least 7 p.m.) Smoltz said he had fun but struggled with his putting most of the day, three-putting on three holes. He failed to birdie a hole. He also struggled with the timing of playing in a tournament, as he normally plays at a faster pace.
Smoltz had a few humorous comments during his round. In addition to the, “Three-run homer” comment above, he walked over to me after missing a two-footer for par on No. 2 and said, “That’s what happens when you don’t putt gimmes. I was already picking that ball up. … I can live with a bad shot but I can’t live with a two-footer.”
I told him it helps that he’s not doing this for a living. “True,” he said.
When Smoltz’s friend Steve Strickland told him to, “Pick it up,” late in the round, Smoltz smiled and said, “I should be playing you. I’d have five birdies by now.”
Here are some post-tournament comments from Smoltz:
“Back to the putting green,” he said, smiling, as he walked off the ninth green. “My biggest thing was to see how my body and mind felt when I was swinging. It felt great. I just wasn’t making any putts.”
On the slower pace of a tournament play: ” I probably would’ve had 27 holes in already. … This is my first real stroke play tournament that’s something other than a celebrity event.”
On his round: “I felt 70 to 73 would be a good gauge. So I was three off my mark. Three three-putts just ain’t gonna cut it. I missed two two-footers that I’ll never miss again. But it was fun. I would’ve liked to have made a birdie though.”
Comparing golf to baseball: “In baseball I loved being under the gun and having that pressure on me. I love that about golf too. It’s just that there’s some exposure in golf that I still haven’t had. I still have to fake my way through some shots.”
On what would’ve happened if he made the U.S. Open field and a baseball team had phoned him to be their closer: “I would’ve been in the Open. I would’ve ate crow and shot 81-81. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
On plans to use one of his other 20 to 25 putters in his next tournament (smiling): “It’s not the Indian, it’s the arrow, that’s what I always say.”