The American Family Insurance Championship has landed a Hall of Famer for this year’s tournament. A baseball Hall of Famer.
John Smoltz, who was inducted into Cooperstown in 2015 following a 22-year career in the major leagues, will play in the Am Fam event June 21-23 at University Ridge Golf Course.
Smoltz, who qualified to play in the U.S. Senior Open last year, was allowed three PGA Tour Champions sponsor’s exemptions for this season. He chose to play in the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona, in March, the Mitsubishi Electric Classic in Duluth, Georgia, in April and the Am Fam.
The other two events were natural choices for Smoltz. The first event dovetails with his duties as a broadcaster for the MLB Network, as he will be reporting on spring training in Arizona. His parents also live in the Phoenix area. The Mitsubishi event takes place just outside Atlanta, where he spent most of his career pitching for the Braves and where he still lives.
He has no such connection to the Am Fam, but said he was attracted by the reputation the tournament has established in its three years of existence.
“First and foremost, I have heard incredible things about this tournament, I have heard incredible things about the golf course,” Smoltz said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “I have never been to Madison or to the Ridge.
“I have heard incredible things about the American Family Insurance (Championship) and what goes on, whether it is Toby Keith and the celebrities that they have. I have watched it on TV from afar when I have time.”
While he’s never been to Madison, Smoltz said he is quite familiar with many of the premier golf courses in Wisconsin. Smoltz, 51, didn’t begin playing golf until he was 20, but quickly became obsessed with the sport and would play with future Hall of Fame teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine whenever possible.
He took advantage of road trips to Milwaukee to play a number of courses in the area, including Whistling Straits and other courses in the Kohler area, the Milwaukee Country Club, the Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa and several courses in Lake Geneva. He’s also since played Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open.
“I couldn’t believe some of the golf was in that area and just how good the golf courses were,” Smoltz said. “I didn’t come across one that I didn’t think was spectacular.
“To get to Madison is going to be pretty cool for me. All I can do is look at the aerial maps and stuff that is provided nowadays. I can’t wait to get there and just experience how great of an event everyone that I have talked to in the events that I get a chance to play in get a chance to play. It is going to be great.”
Smoltz said he became increasingly serious about his golf game over the years and as he approached 40 he set his sights on playing golf professionally someday.
His teammates laughed, but Smoltz was undeterred and improved to become a near-scratch golfer. Along the way he got to know and play with many pros, including Tiger Woods. He said he has only met Am Fam host Steve Stricker and fellow Madison pro Jerry Kelly in passing, but has become friends with Champions Tour players Lee Janzen, Billy Andrade, John Cook, Mark O’Meara and Brad Faxon and has received a lot of encouragement from them in his golf quest.
“I have a lot of guys that I know, a lot of friends on the Tour,” he said. “I have the utmost respect for every single one of them that have played this game their whole career. I just look forward to the challenge.”
Smoltz said qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open ranks as his greatest athletic achievement, one that was not diminished by his less than stellar performance in which he shot 85-77 at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, missing the cut at 22 over par.
He said he was overwhelmed by the support he received from fans there and it only fueled his desire to improve his game. He figures he has 3-5 peak years remaining and is contemplating a run at going to Q school and trying to qualify for the tour.
“My selfish desire is to become a better golfer,” he said. “To use every moment I can to compete at the highest level, to see where it can actually go.
“I had two dreams in my life: at seven, to play major league baseball, not a lot of people believe that. Not when you are a musician playing the accordion in a family of musicians. Then when I was mid-30s I decided I would play until a certain age and start concentrating on competitive golf. I want to see what level I can take golf to.”