John Smoltz has accomplished just about everything in his legendary baseball career—including winning a World Series title, capturing a Cy Young award, and entering the Hall of Fame—but the eight-time MLB All-Star’s sporting dreams didn’t end when he hung up his cleats. The former Atlanta Braves ace has set his competitive sights on professional golf, and this week he’s taking his best shot yet at qualifying for the PGA Tour Champions circuit.
Smoltz Joins 78 Hopefuls With Cards on the Line
On Tuesday, the 55-year-old Smoltz teed off at TPC Scottsdale among a field of 78 golfers vying for one of five PGA Tour Champions cards being awarded at this week’s qualifying tournament. It marks the pitching great’s fifth attempt to earn playing status on the 50-and-over golf tour through Q-School, and Smoltz carries momentum from his best performance yet at last month’s first stage event in Florida.
The 1995 World Series MVP carded a one-over par 289 to tie for 14th in the initial Champions qualifying phase, displaying the type of consistency that could position Smoltz to realize his goal over 72 holes in Arizona this week. “To me, this has been an incredible journey, just to see where I can take my golf game,” Smoltz told reporters on Monday. “It helps me to become a better golfer. I just want to become a better golfer.”
While the 22-year MLB veteran understands the immense challenge facing him at TPC Scottsdale and holds no illusions of Grandeur about a potential pro golf career, Smoltz remains committed to testing himself against the game’s best older players. “I don’t live in a false reality. This sport is really difficult,” he acknowledged. “But it’s fun to attempt it.”
From MLB Dominance to Golf Obsession
Smoltz’s competitiveness and athleticism first shone through on the pitching mound, where he carved out a Hall-of-Fame worthy career split between the Braves, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Cardinals. The right-hander recorded 213 wins and 154 saves over two decades in the big leagues, earning a reputation as one of baseball’s most dominant starters and closers.
Smoltz anchored the Braves’ stellar pitching staff during a remarkable run that included 14 straight division titles, five National League pennants, and Atlanta’s lone World Series championship in 1995. He capped off his MLB tenure in 2009 before becoming the first player ever inducted into Cooperstown with Tommy John surgery on his resume.
But despite his pitching prowess, Smoltz’s passion for golf burned nearly as strongly over his playing days. He first took to the links as a 10-year-old in Michigan before honing his skills through high school. Eventually, the diamond dutifully lured Smoltz away from the course, but he continued nurturing a fierce golf obsession that frequently irked Bobby Cox and other Braves managers.
“They used to hate me for it because I love golf more than baseball,” Smoltz told Golf Digest in 2019. Stories of the starting pitcher squeezing in rounds between starts or even on game days became clubhouse legend in Atlanta. Smoltz’s golf jones followed him from city to city over 21 years in the bigs.
PGA Tour Quest Begins in Earnest Post-Retirement
Once his playing career concluded in 2009, Smoltz finally had the time to devote himself fully to golf. Just weeks after throwing his final pitch, he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open. More senior tour appearances soon followed, along with regular runs at the PGA Tour Champions Q-School.
Smoltz has so far failed to earn the coveted tour card through four qualifying attempts, with his best previous high-water marks being a share of 33rd place in 2018 and a tie for 23rd in 2021. But strong showings in minor senior events and improved play demonstrated by his 289 (+1) at the first stage last month suggest he could be closing in on a breakthrough this week.
Not that sealing his Champions Tour card would necessarily prompt Smoltz to embark on a second sports career. He understands better than most the grind of professional athletics, even noting that golf’s individual pressures present a different challenge than pitching. “In baseball I could rely on teammates to possibly bail me out of a bad game,” Smoltz said. “In golf, there’s no one to bail me out.”
Nonetheless, the famously competitive ex-hurler won’t stop his tireless preparations as he continues chasing what once seemed like an impossible dream. Other elite athletes harboring major pro golf aspirations should take note of Smoltz’s relentless work ethic.
“I know this is a tall, tall order,” he admitted. “But I don’t go into this thinking that I can’t do it. If I make it through, my world changes a little bit.”
Smoltz Following Lead of Superstar Quarterback Turned Golfer
Plenty of former superstar athletes have tried transitioning to professional golf with only modest success at best. But Smoltz finds inspiration from NFL legend John Elway, whose own Champions qualifying run in 2021 mirrored the former Cy Young winner’s current journey.
After a Hall of Fame football career quarterbacking the Denver Broncos, Elway also became consumed with golf following his retirement in 1999. He developed into a scratch player while competing regularly at celebrity events. In 2021 at age 60, Elway attempted qualifying for the senior tour but narrowly missed out on one of five cards available at final stage while still posting an impressive score of four-under.
Smoltz witnessed his friend’s stirring run which concluded just short of full Champions status. One year later, the long-time Braves ace is aiming to complete what Elway could not by earning a tour card this week. Having a peer blazing the trail from professional ballplayer to pro golfer only further spurs Smoltz’s belief that the feat can in fact be done.
But whether he accomplishes that history-making achievement or not this year, fans can count on Smoltz to continue his dogged golf journey much the way Elway persists striving to master the game in retirement. “The only frustration with golf is that you can’t will yourself to just make putts and just hit great shots” Smoltz said. “It’s a very humbling game.”