For newly-elected Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz, golf has always been a part of the equation. He first took up the game to kill time while pitching in Class A Lakeland (Fla.) with the Detroit Tigers organization. He used golf as an outlet for his competitive nature and high-energy personality as he developed into one of baseball’s great pitchers after being traded to the Atlanta Braves.
A long driver with a self-taught swing, Smoltz became both a scratch golfer -- he estimates he’s now a 1-handicapper -- and the ringleader of a golf-crazed Braves pitching staff.
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Smoltz was well-known around the Braves’ clubhouse for his little black book of golf contacts. He had a knack for both the tough shot and the tough get, orchestrating tee times on the road for his fellow Braves and eventual fellow-Hall-of-Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
“The great thing for us with him was when the wheels were going down on the plane wherever you were going on a road trip, it was ‘All right, Smoltzie, where are we playing and what time do we need to be in the lobby?’” Glavine said. “And he had it all handled. It was phenomenal.”
The trio played courses like Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Merion and Pine Valley. Smoltz got them on at Olympic Club, at Riviera, Shinnecock Hills and Cypress Point.
“He knew two weeks in advance what the golf schedule was,” Maddux said recently of the guy he calls one of his all-time favorite teammates. “That was the impressive thing because most guys wouldn’t do that. ‘We’ll wait and call the day of, or the day before.’”
The decorum was no accident. Smoltz inherited an address book of contacts from veteran Braves who taught him how to handle himself on exclusive golf courses -- Rick Mahler and Jerry Royster -- and he spent years adding to it. Smoltz called clubs, talked to pros and built relationships that have helped him create “an army” of people around golf he’s gotten to know and enjoy.
“What I learned to do was just call up the clubs and get the pro’s name and ask the pro ‘What are your rules? How does this work?'” Smoltz said. “And in the early part of my career, not literally but figuratively, I couldn’t get past the ‘Hi, I’m John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves,’ click - because we lost 100 games every year. I just worked my way into finding different people, and they would point me to different people, and you’d inevitably get one or two guys that know like 60 people each.”
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Smoltz said he learned golf etiquette the hard way. He was a rookie pitcher on a trip to the West Coast when Mahler invited him to play at San Francisco Club, when he tried to pull a practical joke.
“I had an exploding golf ball on the first tee, and he didn’t know it,” Smoltz said. “Nobody knew it. I knew it was going to be funny. And so I asked the caddies and everyone standing around ‘How far is the trap way down there?’ And they said, ‘You can’t reach the trap.’ I said ‘Well, watch me, because I can crush a golf ball,’ and I almost started giggling…
“I swung and the ball exploded and nobody said a word. Nobody laughed. And Rick was embarrassed. We were walking down the fairway and I turned to Rick and I said ‘This place is a joke. You can have it.’ And he goes, ‘Listen, don’t utter those words ever again and just be glad that we may come back one day.’ I then realized how awesome this place was and what I had done. And from that point on I started to learn etiquette, what to do and what not to do.”
That little black book, which actually turned into several little black books, is now scattered through the contacts of Smoltz’s phone. He typed in all the numbers himself over plane trips and down time. It’s all the better now for backing them up and for always having them handy.
“I don’t know how many (contacts) you’re allowed in your phone but I’m pushing the limit,” Smoltz said.
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And yes Maddux and Glavine still don’t mind getting Smoltz’s help for tee times from time to time. Now they want to see what kind of pull Smoltz has overseas. The three of them always talked about playing golf together in Scotland and Ireland when they retired. They’re making plans to take a trip to one or the other or both in April if their schedules permit.
Smoltz estimates he’s played 75 of the top 100 courses in the U.S. but the only place he’s played outside the United States is in the Bahamas.
Here are some other fun facts and tall tales about Smoltz in golf.
ACES FOR AN ACE
Smoltz said he has had eight holes in one. Eight! His favorite one was at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. He hit driver on No. 11, a par 4 with an elevated green.
“It was a shot you’re not really supposed to try,” Smoltz said. “There was no room for error. To give you a perspective, it was in a practice round and then the next day of the tournament, I tried it again and I made a 7.”
FIRST TIME AT AUGUSTA
Smoltz has played Augusta National a handful of times, including once with Tiger Woods, but his most vivid memory of playing there is his first time when he played with fellow Braves pitcher Charlie Leibrandt.
“After the ‘91 World Series, we were folk heroes and everyone thought we won, and it was just crazy the way it all went down,” Smoltz said. “We played Augusta in ‘Caddyshack’ rain, coming down so hard that the caddies looked at us and said ‘What are you guys doing?’ We said, ‘We don’t know if we are ever going to get back. We’re playing as long as they don’t kick us off.’”
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy and fellow Atlanta resident is a close friend of Smoltz’s. Their kids attended the same school and they are in the same men’s bible study group. Foxworthy loves to tell the story of how Smoltz finally talked him into playing golf together.
“I remember the first time he wanted to play golf with me, and I’m like ‘No, you play with Tiger, I’m not playing with you.’ And we go over to Golf Club of Georgia and the first hole is a par 5, and I hit my drive about 205 yards. But it’s in the middle. I can see it. I’m happy. He steps up and hits his like 340 yards, just like a rocket launch, and as we were walking back to the cart he said ‘Hey, did you hear they’re going to be building a new mall over here?’ I’m like ‘No, where would they put it?’ He said, ‘Somewhere between your ball and my ball.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a long, long day.’”