John Smoltz and Ken Tanigawa are both living the dream.
Although their paths could hardly be more different, each finds himself competing with the best golfers in the world, age 50 and over, with the PGA Tour Champions. Against all odds.
Smoltz, a baseball Hall of Fame pitcher who spent most of his 22 big league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, will be playing in the American Family Championship on a sponsor’s exemption, his third and last one of the year.
Tanigawa also is in the AmFam field, in an improbable career twist that has seen him win twice, including a major, some 14 years after giving up the game.
For Smoltz, this venture into the professional golf world might seem like a lark, but it’s a serious lark for him.
It’s never much of a mystery where Madison’s favorite sons, Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly, are during their rounds in the American Family Ins…
He concedes he doesn’t have the game to compete at this level, especially as he tries to squeeze golf into his real career as a baseball analyst for MLB Network and Fox Sports.
“My schedule is brutal,” Smoltz said, “but I’m trying to find a way to navigate this incredible journey.”
Smoltz famously honed his golf skills during his baseball career, playing along with fellow Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, among others. As his game improved, he vowed to someday compete on the Champions tour, something he made a reality last year when he qualified to play in the U.S. Senior Open.
This year he received exemptions to play in the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona, and the Mitsubishi Electric Classic near his home in Atlanta, as well as the AmFam.
“I was told by everybody, tour players included, that this is a must-do,” Smoltz said Wednesday before heading out to play in the pro-am at University Ridge Golf Course.
Smoltz is hoping to benefit from the experience in his first two outings, which saw him tie for 53rd at 1-over par in the Cologuard and tie for 61st at 11-over in the Mitsubishi.
“I’ve learned in a weird way to try to not get as excited as I was in the previous two to play in the events,” Smoltz said. “That may sound crazy, but the excitement doesn’t work in golf. It kind of goes the wrong way.
To call Madison's PGA Tour Champions event a roaring success during its first three years of existence would be understating the splash it has made on both the senior tour and the Madison community.
“I’m pretty hard on myself. I get really frustrated when (I do) things that I expect I should be better at, so I take a lot of notes. My phone is filled with notes. I wrote notes on the way here on what I’m trying to accomplish. In my highest of highest standards, I would be super disappointed if I couldn’t finish three days under par. That’s just part of why I’m here, because if I didn’t think like that, then it would certainly not be a good thing.”
Smoltz lamented that his broadcast responsibilities prevent him from putting the amount of work into his game needed to bring it up to professional level. And while that won’t change for at least a couple years, he can’t help but wonder how he would fare if he could focus completely on golf.
“That’s a torturous thought process because I’ve got two more years guaranteed with Fox and MLB Network,” he said. “I can’t let this take away from my real job, and I want to be the best analyst that I can be.
“So I’m living a fantasy world kind of scenario where it’s not the prototypical way you would go about a tournament. In my mind, yes, if I could devote the time that is needed to absolutely work on my game, there’s no doubt that I would go to another level of my golf game.”
That’s what has happened for Tanigawa, who gave the game up at age 37 after struggling to carve out a niche on mini-tours in the U.S. as well as Australian and Asian tours. After making just four cuts in 22 events his final year on the Web.com Tour, he put his clubs away and started a manufacturing business with his brother.
For the 2019 installment of the Madison stop on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, it's easier than ever to be a part of the event without seeing a swing at University Ridge Golf Course.
But after eight years he got the itch to play again, regained his amateur status and found some success, winning the Arizona Mid-Amateur championship three times. After turning 50, he decided to sign up for the PGA Tour Champions Qualifying School because it was being played in nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, and tied for fourth place to earn full exempt status for 2018.
He took advantage of that opportunity by posting a win at the Pure Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach last September and then took it one step further by winning this year’s KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.
Tanigawa, in his first ever pre-tournament media room appearance Wednesday, admitted it’s been something of a surreal experience.
“I do think about it,” he said. “I just really have to pinch myself to just be able to be out here and have the opportunity to play and compete at this stage of my life against these players that I knew a handful back in college, but a lot that I kind of, like you guys, watched on TV, right? So it’s really cool to be able to almost call them peers and to be able to play alongside them.”
Tanigawa, 51, played collegiately at UCLA, where his teammates included Scott McCarron, now the premier Champions Tour player, and Brandt Jobe.
And now after traveling distinctly different career paths, Tanigawa finds himself third behind McCarron in the Charles Schwab Cup standings, with just as many major championships to his name as McCarron.
“Did I think I could win a major?” he said. “Yeah, you always try to dream, that would be really cool, but to have it come to fruition and to actually execute and achieve that was a pinch-me moment for sure. It was a surreal moment to win on a big stage at a venue like that. Real historic, right?
“But yeah, it’s been a whirlwind in the sense that, yeah, you believe you can accomplish it, but you don’t really know until it happens. Three, four years ago, if you would have told me, hey, you’re going to be at a table talking to the media after winning a senior major, I would have (said), OK, right. It would have been one of those moments. It’s just incredible to just even be here. It’s a fun moment.”
Host Steve Stricker will go off the first tee at University Ridge Golf Course at 9 a.m. Friday with a pair of former tournament champions, Kirk Triplett and Scott McCarron.
Friday tee times
Tournament host Steve Stricker will be in the first group off the No. 1 tee when the AmFam begins at 9 a.m. Friday. Stricker will be in a group with past champions Kirk Triplett and McCarron.
Madison’s Jerry Kelly will be in the third group off No. 1, playing with Vijay Singh and Kenny Perry.