Smoltz’s Nationwide start not a wild pitch

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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With 213 victories, 154 saves, eight trips to the All-Star Game, three to the World Series, and the 1996 Cy Young Award, John Smoltz enjoyed a great deal of success at the highest level of professional baseball, one that could culminate with his induction into the Hall of Fame.

The task that Smoltz is facing this week, however, with a smaller ball and different sticks, might be tougher than anything he ever accomplished on the diamond. The 21-year major league veteran — he made eight starts for the Red Sox in 2009 before ending his career with St. Louis — has received a sponsor’s exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s South Georgia Classic.

If history is any indication, Smoltz will have a difficult time competing with those who do it for a living.

Smoltz, even in his playing days (he spent his first 20 years with the Braves), had an interest in golf and could play well. He’s tried — and failed — to qualify for the US Open and the Georgia Open, and turned professional last year. Tiger Woods has been a frequent playing partner through the years, and said Smoltz has come close to beating him a few times. But those have come during friendly rounds. A professional tournament is anything but, as numerous celebrities before Smoltz have discovered.

“I don’t pretend to be a great golfer, but I’m a competitor and I’m really looking forward to this opportunity,’’ Smoltz told reporters after arriving this week at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Ga., which at 7,781 yards is the longest on the Nationwide Tour. “I love the challenge.’’

Athletes from other sports dabbling in professional golf isn’t unprecedented. John Brodie won a Champions Tour event after a long NFL career quarterbacking the 49ers, and Rick Rhoden had three top-10 Champions Tour finishes following a 16-year major league career as a pitcher with the Dodgers, Pirates, Astros, and Yankees. Those are the exceptions, though, and their professional golf was played on the over-50 senior circuit.

If Smoltz were to make the cut this week, it’s believed he’d be the first former athlete or celebrity to qualify for the final two rounds of a tournament on either the PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour.

Smoltz, then, has one goal in mind.

“Making the cut. I’m not going to lie,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t have come here just to play two days of golf. I packed for four days.’’

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