2006: Ace of clubs: John Smoltz

Let’s see: Four-game stand in Philadelphia? Smoltz says that would be Pine Valley and Merion. New York? Deepdale and Winged Foot, with an occasional Quaker Ridge. The classic courses roll off his tongue the way a master sommelier knows just the right Sauvignon Blanc to complement a braised tuna steak.

Milwaukee? Easy. Whistling Straits. And trips to the Windy City mean coveted tee times at Chicago Golf Club and Butler National. Those are just the days when the Braves have night games. You’d be amazed what the heavenly open date might produce. Last season Smoltz flew teammates in his plane from Miami to St. Simons Island, Ga., after the Braves clinched yet another National League East title.

“Yeah, we’ve had some pretty strong off days,” says Smoltz, 38, pointing his golf cart up yet another fairway on the Legacy Course at Reunion Resort & Club, just a long tater from Disney World, where the Braves train. “We once played Cypress (Point) in the morning, Spyglass in the afternoon, and Pebble the next morning – then drove to the park to play San Fran. Incredible, huh?”

For years, “the game” was always 3 against 1, Smoltz taking on longtime Braves stalwarts Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. But Glavine and Maddux now pitch elsewhere, and Avery is out of baseball. Today, Smoltz’s chief competition among the Braves is outfielder Jeff Francoeur, a long hitter who has some game. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox allows his pitchers to play golf anytime except days when they’re pitching; everyday players are limited to golf on off days.

When he signed with Detroit out of high school and eventually worked his way to Single-A ball, Smoltz neither fished nor played golf, and needed to pick one just to keep from staring at hotel walls for six hours per day.

“This is how I kill my time,” Smoltz says on a day when his work at spring training was wrapped up by late morning, leaving time to play 30 holes with a couple of teammates and a reporter tagging along at Reunion. “I have a blast doing this. Golf keeps me fresh. There is nothing better.

“I think I have the greatest job in America.”

Better than an NFL punter? He laughs.

“Way better.”

As Smoltz continues to mark off courses he has played on national top-100 lists, his appreciation for the game and its history swells. He loves the individuality of golf, with no teammates behind him to lean on. There’s no flame-throwing closer to hand the ball to when he gets to the 17th tee.

“I think golf is the ultimate pressure of nobody filling in, or coming in, or doing anything to either mess up or help out your round,” Smoltz says.

“I love that. I love that every day could be the day, the new low score, the new challenge, just you against Mother Nature.”

He called a bogey-free 66 this winter at Avila in Tampa “life changing.” As well as he plays, he says it’s not often he finishes under par. At Avila, one of the greatest pressure pitchers in playoff history was trying not to choke his guts out hitting a little white ball on the final hole.

“I got to that last hole, and I’m thinking, ‘You have a chance to do something you’ve never done before,’ ” he says. “It was exciting. I proved something out of my comfort zone.”

In his early days in baseball, he knew little about golf, regarding it as a game for “non-athletes and nobodys.” The late Rick Mahler once took young Smoltz to the venerable San Francisco Golf Club. On one hole, Smoltz peppered his caddie, asking if he could reach a certain fairway bunker, then uncorked a powerful swing . . . and the trick ball he’d placed on the tee exploded into a white cloud of smoke. Bad move.

“I had no idea what kind of treat playing that place was,” Smoltz says. “But that’s the type of golfer I was.”

As one might deduce, Smoltz has his own field of dreams. On it are flagsticks, not bases. His home in metro Atlanta sits on 18 acres, and there are greens at opposite ends of the property. He shaped seven or eight tees, personally manning the Bobcats and bulldozers, to give himself all kinds of challenging shots. The property also boasts football and baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts, and a fishing pond.

But the golf balls strewn everywhere tell a visitor what activity he savors most.

The veteran right-hander carries a 0.2 index, plays the tips and hits the ball a country mile, despite being

slowed by a sore non-pitching shoulder. But he displays the cerebral capacity to plot his way around a course the way other bombers do not.

“He’s a wonderful player,” says Tiger Woods, who teed it up with Smoltz at Augusta National this month. “He’s mentally tough, without a doubt. He talks a lot more trash in golf than he does on the mound.”

Just how long is Smoltz? On this sun-splashed February afternoon, he effortlessly hits 9-iron into the green from 152 yards at the uphill, 527-yard 15th hole. We’re talking second shot, folks.

Smoltz is no Rick Rhoden, but he’s widely regarded as the best all-around golfer now active in the major leagues. Before such a title is dismissed as something akin to being the cutest pig at the county fair, consider this praise from two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen: He believes Smoltz, if he had the desire and practiced more, could one day play the Tour.

The Champions Tour? Janzen, taking a break from hitting balls at Doral, shakes his head. Uh-uh. The PGA Tour. Golf’s own major leagues.

“He’s long off the tee, keeps it in play, and he knows how to manage his game,” says Janzen, who plays host to Smoltz and other Braves at Isleworth each spring. “He has the mental capacity to play golf. . . .

I think he can play out here, I really do. We’re talking about the best postseason pitcher ever.”

Smoltz, who owns 177 career victories and saved 154 games in a four-year stint in the Braves bullpen – he negotiated to make sure the move didn’t affect his golf – has 15 postseason victories, more than any pitcher in history. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his Braves, who have captured their division 14 consecutive years, have collected only one World Series title. Often times it’s the tranquil fairways of a golf course somewhere in October that allow Smoltz to ease through the sting of another tough postseason setback.

“That’s a tough one to swallow for me, personally, because I’ve been involved in every one of them,” says the veteran of 17 MLB seasons. “You don’t ever prepare to end your season on a loss, which we’ve done 13 times. You’d think by sheer numbers alone, by chance, we’d come out on top more often.”

He’ll pitch this season (salary: $8 million) and at least one more for the Braves (the club is expected to pick up his option for 2007 for another $8 million), then it could be on to a new life – as a high school coach. Not as a baseball coach, but in basketball, another passion, at a private Christian school he is helping to build in Alpharetta.

Of course, there will be plenty of time for golf. No matter the season, he always finds time for that. Thanks to that dog-eared black book, a great game is always one call away.

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