Published: May 2009
By James Deacon
Of all major-sports athletes, pitchers seem to make the best golfers. The question is, why?
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."
Intrigued, I went looking for starters and relievers who were keen golfers to see whether they also thought the two games were similar and whether one game helped them in the other. They weren't difficult to find. At Tucson Electric Park, where the Arizona Diamondbacks train in the spring, I found Randy Johnson pitching an exhibition game against the visiting Chicago White Sox. Johnson is an excellent case study because a) he has won the last two Cy Young Awards as the top hurler in the National League, ousting the aforementioned Atlanta threesome, and b) he is a self-professed golf nut.
Admittedly, his on-field image does not fit that of a thoughtful student of golf. With his scraggly hair, mustache and beard, the Big Unit has the look of a General Custer charging sabre-first into the fray. (The keeper of one of Johnson's fan sites on the Web once wrote of his coif, "You gotta believe in yourself to have hair like that.") Then there's his size. Johnson stands six foot ten, a full seven inches taller than Ernie Els, a comparative giant on the PGA Tour.
But watch Johnson closely, and you see more control than brute force, even in his body language. Heading to the mound to start the game against the Sox, he moved slowly, with careful, oddly short steps for his height. On the mound, he kept his head down, concentrating hard, then peered in for a sign from the catcher over the top of his glove. A southpaw, Johnson began his motion by turning away slowly on the axis of his left leg, then lifted his right knee toward his chin, all the while keeping his throwing arm behind his hip. Next he uncoiled and drove toward the plate, finally snapping his left arm through and delivering a blistering fastball for a strike. It being early in camp, he pitched only three innings, but I saw enough to flesh out my thesis. The deliberate take-away. The full turn. The clearing the hips before unleashing the arm. The follow-through. All are elements of the golf swing, too.
A few days later I stopped by the clubhouse to chat with Johnson about his golf, but before I found him I ran into Matt Williams, the Diamondbacks' affable third baseman. He's a notable slugger who regards serious golfers with a mixture of amusement and envy. As Williams the hitter does at the plate, Williams the golfer sends it deep, but no one on the course is safe. "To give you some idea of my game," he explains, "at the eleventh at the TPC of Scottsdale, I teed off and hit the fifteenth green." Kidding aside, he says the physical and mental attributes that make for good hitting don't necessarily help a batter when he exchanges his bat for clubs. "Hitters don't have a lot of time to think, and, in fact, they don't want to think; they have to react," he says. For the boys on the mound, however, it's a different story. "Pitchers, in general, are thinkers," he adds, "and that's good for their golf."
Johnson arrived from the weight room in sweats, with a towel draped around his neck. Disarmingly soft-spoken and polite, despite his celebrity and a $13 million a year contract, Johnson talked about how, as a hardworking twelve handicap, golf never lets him get too full of himself. "I'm fortunate to be in a position where I get invited to a lot of pro-ams and that sort of thing, so I've had a chance to play with professional golfers," he says with a rueful smile. "It's fun, but wow, it is really humbling."
Johnson is, he figures, the most ardent golfer on the team. He lives amid five Jack Nicklaus-designed courses at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, has a putting green in his backyard and plays with one of a half-dozen sets of clubs that, because of his size, had to be custom-fit. His drivers have fifty-inch shafts, his irons are all three inches longer than standard, and he mentions as an aside that while being fitted for new clubs at the Titleist facility in Carlsbad, California, his driver club-head speed was measured at 190 m.p.h. (For perspective, Tiger allegedly gets through the ball at a measly 130.) Johnson works hard on his swing. "When you are my height," he explains, "you have to have good mechanics, because so much can go wrong." Yet on the course he's more brain than brawn. His strong suit, he remarks without irony, is his short game.
Johnson readily admits he'd play even if he didn't think it helped his pitching, but he insists that it does, both as recreation and as a mental exercise. "During the season, I like to get out on the course the day before I pitch," he says. "It helps me relax, get my mind off the game." In a strange way, though, it keeps his mind in the game, too, and the mental side of golf, Johnson claims, prepares him for the game that pays his bills. "The focus is the same in both sports," he says. "You have to concentrate on your mechanics when you're playing golf, just like you do on the field."
Up in Peoria, northwest of Phoenix, where the Seattle Mariners train in the spring, Paul Abbott was waiting out a rain delay in the clubhouse. He had enjoyed a solid season in 2000, finishing with a 9-7 win-loss record in 27 starts. Not bad for a guy who had major elbow and knee injuries in 1998. More to the point, he is an excellent golfer, playing to a six handicap. On a purely recreational level, he says, his experience in golf is like anyone else's. "I love the game, absolutely love it," he says. "But man, sometimes, when I chunk an easy chip, I wonder why I play at all."
Abbott's interest in golf is not entirely casual, however. Pitching, like golf, is a head game, and because of that, Abbott contends that playing golf helps him with the mental aspects of pitching. "Sometimes," he says of golf, "I think that's the main reason I play." The discipline he needs to settle down and hit a straight tee shot after a couple of bad swings is exactly what he requires when he falls behind in the count on the mound and needs to regain control. The pressure is intense when he's down in the count late in a game and needs to make great pitches, he notes, but there's pressure in a four-foot putt to beat your buddies, too. "The focus it demands is the same as you have to have to make perfect pitches," Abbott says. "If you lose your concentration out there, it's as easy to throw a wild pitch as it is to hit a snap hook off the first tee."
For former hurler Erik Hanson, even some of the mechanics are the same. He ought to know. A right-hander who pitched for eleven years in the bigs with Seattle, Cincinnati, Boston and Toronto, Hanson retired after the 1998 season and dedicated his suddenly free time to getting better at golf. It worked: His handicap dropped to one. Splitting the year between homes in Seattle and Scottsdale, he's able to compete in up to forty tournaments around the country. This summer he's playing on the Cascade Golf Tour for purses of about twelve thousand dollars, but he has kept his amateur status so that he can play non-pro events, too.
"A lot of guys live and breathe baseball, and they struggle when they leave the game," Hanson says. "Golf has enabled me to walk away from baseball and not think about it."
Although he played as a kid, Hanson took up the game in earnest in 1994 while pitching for Cincinnati, where the manager, Davey Johnson, was a two-handicap and liked to play regularly. Hanson says the discipline of pitching at a high level helped him learn golf quickly. "Golf and pitching, especially starting pitching, are very similar," he says. "I treat each hole like I'd approach each inning. There are places where you just can't hit it, just like there are pitches you can't throw to certain hitters." Golf, he says, made him a better pitcher and vice versa. "I had my best workouts and the most amount of energy on days when I'd played before going to the ballpark," he says.
Mostly, though, the benefit was to his concentration and mental approach. "Golf reminds you to hit one shot at a time," he says. "If you hit one in the lake, you have to forget it, not get mad, or you'll just compound the mistake. Same goes for pitching. You make a bad pitch and give up a home run, well, it's gone. There's nothing you can do about it. You just have to bear down and make a good pitch to the next hitter."
Ultimately, Hanson says, the crossover benefits of baseball could take him only so far in golf. He says he chose to play the mini-tours rather than the celebrity circuit because "I'm learning more from playing with guys who are career pros than I would playing with a bunch of ex-athletes like myself."
Why's that?At the higher levels of competition, all sports become increasingly specialized. "Even though we've talked a lot about the similarities between pitching and golf," Hanson maintains, "golf's a completely different game to conquer."
That doesn't contradict the pitching-golf thesis. But it may help those inclined toward snobbery to rest easier.
Major League Scoreboard
Since the days of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb's golf duels, major leaguers have competed fiercely on the links. A T&L Golf survey found 26 players with single-digit handicaps—15 of them pitchers (with asterisks). Here are today's best ballplayer golfers and their handicaps.
John Smoltz* -
Atlanta Braves: 0
Mike Trombley* -
Baltimore Orioles: 0
Mark Mulder* -
Oakland Athletics: 3
Bill Spiers -
Houston Astros: 3
Rick Helling* -
Texas Rangers: 4
Gil Heredia* -
Oakland Athletics: 5
Tanyon Sturtze* -
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 5
Todd Walker -
Colorado Rockies: 5
Paul Abbott* -
Seattle Mariners: 6
Jeff Bagwell -
Houston Astros: 6
Kevin Brown* -
Los Angeles Dodgers: 6
Royce Clayton -
Chicago White Sox: 6
Roger Clemens* -
New York Yankees: 6
Troy Glaus -
Anaheim Angels: 6
Ken Griffey Jr. -
Cincinnati Reds: 6
Shigetoshi Hasegawa* -
Anaheim Angels: 6
Wally Joyner -
Anaheim Angels: 6
Chad Kreuter -
Los Angeles Dodgers: 6
Tom Glavine* -
Atlanta Braves: 7
Jason Grimsley* -
Kansas City Royals: 7
Greg Maddux* -
Atlanta Braves: 7
Eric Gagne* -
Los Angeles Dodgers: 8
Benji Gil -
Anaheim Angels: 8
Mark Grudzielanek -
Los Angeles Dodgers: 8
Anthony Telford* -
Montreal Expos: 8
Rob Ducey -
Philadelphia Phillies: 9
Take Me Out To The Golf Course!
Here's our dome-free, natural-grass-biased rundown of the ten best ballparks in the major leagues, matched with our recommendation of a splendid golf course nearby.
1. Wrigley Field (1914): Home of the Chicago Cubs and on every serious fan's top-three list. Outfield wall ivy. Home-run chasers on Waveland Avenue. Tradition. Cog Hill Golf Club, Dubsdread course 6,940 yards, slope 142; $120; 630-257-5872. Thirty-two miles southwest of Chicago in Lemont, Illinois; consistently among America's top hundred courses; home to the PGA Tour's Advil Western Open.
2. Fenway Park (1912): The Boston Red Sox's home, intimate and quirky. See the majors' oldest park before it's gone. George Wright Golf Course 6,440 yards, slope 129; $25-$28; 617-361-8313. A hilly Donald Ross gem, circa 1938, within ten miles of Fenway.
3. Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1992): Home of the Baltimore Orioles and the first "renaissance" ballpark. Waverly Woods Golf Club 7,024 yards, slope 132; $22-$64; 410-313-9182. Ten miles west in Marriottsville, Maryland. A 1998 Arthur Hills design, almost bunkerless, with fast greens.
4. Coors Field (1995): The Colorado Rockies' home, with mile-high homers and Rockies' sunsets. Riverdale Golf Courses, Dunes course 7,067 yards, slope 129; $31-$33; 303-659-6700. Twenty-five miles north of stadium near Brighton. A linksy, 1985 Pete Dye course that has hosted the Nike Tour.
5. Dodger Stadium (1962): Home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, rich with memories of Koufax, and maybe the best concessions in baseball. Pelican Hill Golf Club, Ocean North course 6,856 yards, slope 133; $175-$270; 949-760-0707. Forty-five miles south of Los Angeles in Orange County. Gorgeous overpriced Tom Fazio job that gazes upon the Pacific.
6. Kauffman Stadium (1973): A purist's delight, home of the Kansas City Royals, without theme-park pools, trains and silliness. Shirkey Golf Club 6,997 yards, slope 139; $25-$30; 816-470-2582. Thirty-two miles northeast of Kansas City in Richmond, Missouri. Zoysia fairways, splendid greens, great value.
7. Yankee Stadium (1923): Home of the New York Yankees, where tradition lives. Spook Rock Golf Course 6,807 yards, slope 127; $52-$67; 845-357-6466. Thirty minutes northwest of Manhattan in Suffern, New York. A classic Westchester-style design with big greens; fits all abilities. Impeccably maintained and often ranked as one of the top public courses in the state.
8. The Ballpark in Arlington (1994): Home of the Texas Rangers, it's a fine retro-style park that sits Oz-like on a hill. Skip the one-hundred-degree summer, though. Texas Star Golf Course 6,936 yards, slope135; $57-$77; 817-685-7888. Eight miles north of the stadium in Euless, Texas. Diverse, difficult holes in a natural prairie setting. This is one of Keith Foster's best.
9. Pacific Bell Park (2000): Home of the San Francisco Giants; most seats provide views of the Bay. Its small capacity makes it wonderful. Presidio Golf Course 6,477 yards, slope 136; $42-$92; 415-561-4653. About ten miles from the stadium in San Francisco. More than a century old, it's hilly, sometimes foggy and often awesome.
10. Turner Field (1997): Home of the Atlanta Braves, it has almost too many non-baseball distractions but is still a great venue. Cobblestone Golf Course 6,759 yards, slope 140; $52-$59; 770-917-5151. Twenty-five miles north of the stadium, in Acworth, Georgia. Best daily-fee course in the area, designed by Ken Dye of Piñon Hills and Paa-Ko Ridge fame.