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Ball Fore!

One of golf's long-held conceits is that it's wholly unlike any other sport. This may sound like mere snobbery, since obviously no two sports are ever exactly alike. But somehow golf does seem more different, from the equipment to the swing mechanics to the etiquette to Jesper Parnevik's wardrobe. The most important difference, perhaps, is that golfers don't directly engage each other physically. Heavily padded goaltenders don't defend the hole, opposing linemen don't charge like enraged wildebeests, and golfers don't have to swing at balls that someone has hurled toward them at ninety-seven m.p.h.

Furthermore, golf requires a unique set of skills that doesn't overlap with that of other sports. Otherwise, avid golfers such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway and Wade Boggs would all be challenging Tiger Woods now that they are finished with their hall-of-fame careers in their primary sports. Instead, not one of them is within sniffing distance of even the NGA/Hooters Tour, let alone the big show. Their athleticism and competitiveness may help in club championships, but playing golf at the highest level demands far more. And in case you're wondering, it works the other way, too: I once watched Tiger take batting practice at the Atlanta Braves camp, and it was immediately clear he had made the right career choice.

That said, there are certain skills used in other major sports that do appear to translate to golf. The hard slap shots and little flicks of the wrist that hockey players employ bear more than a passing resemblance to golf swings, and many National Hockey Leaguers out there sport low handicaps—most notably Pittsburgh's comeback superstar, Mario Lemieux. Placekicker Al Del Greco, ex-Tennessee Titan, spent his career driving footballs through uprights and has a solid golf game, too. And in baseball, hitters swing at a little white ball using some of the same mechanics as in golf—just ask Johnny Bench and the legion of other sluggers who have taken up golf with much success.

But of all the athletes in major-league sports, the best golfers seem to be pitchers. The most well-known examples are the great Atlanta Braves trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, who, taken together, won seven Cy Young Awards during the 1990s while maintaining skimpy, single-digit handicaps. Indeed, most pitchers I know love golf.

Why are pitchers so good?Well, it may be that they simply have more time to practice and play golf—especially starters, who pitch only every fifth game. But last spring, while I watched a couple of minor-league hurlers in the Colorado Rockies system work out at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona, it occurred to me that there may be more fundamental reasons behind the phenomenon.

Everything the minor leaguers were doing was relevant to golf. Like most pitchers, they had idiosyncracies in their pre-throw routines, little waggles or twitches they executed consistently before rearing back and letting fly—just as the best golfers have consistent but idiosyncratic pre-shot routines. Under the watchful eye of a graying instructor, they worked on posture, weight transfer and rhythm—the same things golf instructors emphasize. They had to balance the desire for power with the need for accuracy, as in golf, and they needed to be able to work the ball left and right. Their practice was geared toward developing repeatable mechanics that in turn would enable them to pitch well under wilting, bases-full, behind-in-the-count pressure. Sound familiar?And like the golfer over the ball, they alone were responsible for initiating every play. Obviously, the throwing motion is different from the golf swing, but not the rest of it. As John Smoltz, the Atlanta ace, once told writer John Paul Newport, "A competitive round of golf exhausts me far more than pitching, but otherwise, the two things are so much alike, it's scary."


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