Former Atlanta Braves Star Struggles in Nationwide Tour Debut
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

John Smoltz tees off at Kinderlou Forest during a practice round

Apparently the Nationwide Tour tourney’s fairways weren’t wide enough for John Smoltz, who made his first start on the PGA’s developmental tour (analogous to the triple A teams) in Georgia yesterday. The 43-year-old future Hall of Fame pitcher plays to a plus-two handicap and hopes to join the Champions Tour when he turns 50. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption, Smoltz shot 84 in the first round of the weather-delayed South Georgia Classic and currently he’s DFL.

Like many professional athletes, Smoltz loves the game because he can’t perfect it and wants to continue to test his competitive instincts. “You get to test your will and what I call the beast within, the demons that everyone deals with,” he told the NY Times earlier this week. “You either tame them or unleash them.

“I never played in the U.S. Open qualifier to qualify. I wanted to see what my body felt like in a one-day tournament where you had to go low.”

He’s got game, too. Several years ago, Tiger Woods spoke highly of Smoltz’s golfing abilities.

“I had not played with an amateur that had ever shot the scores he shot,” Woods said. “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.”

Some will argue Smoltz has no business playing in a professional golf tournament, and by accepting the sponsor’s exemption, he’s taking a spot away from aspiring pros who are trying to earn a living. I’m not one of them. Sponsor’s exemptions can be granted to whomever the sponsor damn well pleases. Erik Compton receives exemptions because he’s a two-time heart transplant recipient (in my opinion, he can have as many exemptions as he wants). Sam Saunders, who is playing in this week’s Zurich Classic on one, gets them because he’s Arnold Palmer’s grandson.

And Smoltz was given one because he’s a former MLB superstar and more famous than anyone playing in the NWT or PGA Tours this week. He’s attracting more attention to the event than the guys on the leaderboard, like Matthew Goggin, who lost his PGA Tour card last year, and Brendon Todd.

Plus, these days the NWT is being inundated by former PGA Tour players who are prepping for the 50+ tour.

Smoltz said earlier in the week his goal was to make the cut even though he realized it might be a stretch. “Certainly this is one of those events that failure is staring me right in the face,” he said.

But that’s why Smoltz is playing in the first place — to overcome the hurdles.

In the diary Smoltz is keeping at PGATour.com, he confesses to disappointment and he doesn’t think he’s posted an 84 in the last five years. He probably hasn’t, but playing a round at your club is completely different than competing in tournament conditions when you have to cope with unexpected variables, like weather delays. Smoltz admitted to struggling with the stop-and-go of things.

Every second shot came up short. Then of course I chipped it to 4, 5, 8 feet and missed putts. I never got in a rhythm. I never felt like I could roll them in the hole. They got close, but never in. I’ll take this round and use it in the way you should use it. I’ll take some valuable lessons and grind out a really good round tomorrow.

I’m not used to a lot of things out here, but that’s what’s neat about a tournament like this. The delays are not something you practice for, but you have to get used to it. You don’t want to shoot the score I shot, but certainly, I’ll be better for it tomorrow.

I think the biggest thing is just the patience of it. You’re waiting a lot. You’re having to think a lot. And once I get through that process of knowing how to wait and how to think then golf will be a lot different for me. When I get in a golf cart and race up to my ball and play it — I”m pretty good. But I have to learn, especailly from yesterday. I was tested. I’ll attempt things differently tomorrow.

Smoltz’s first-round experience is a testament to just how good “real” professionals are — even at the Nationwide level. Competing in a real pro event is much tougher than playing a round with your pals or your club championship or a celeb pro-am.

Well, I can’t help but cheer for Smoltz to bounce back with a score close to par tomorrow. He has the right attitude. And it can’t get much worse, right? I mean, at least he didn’t get DQ’d for pulling out a rangefinder.

(AP Photo/The Valdosta Daily Times, Adam MacDonald)