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."