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A Different White Ball: Major League Starters Enjoy Golf on Off Days; Competition After Baseball

 Leif Skodnick  |    Apr 19th, 2023 11:53am EDT

Former Major League pitcher Mark Mulder will be playing in his second Invited Celebrity Classic (formerly known as the Club Corp Championship) at Las Colinas Resort in Dallas this week. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

Of all the perks afforded a Major League Baseball starting pitcher – among them fame, fortune, and first-class travel – perhaps the best are the mornings when he isn’t starting.

When you’re only working every fifth day, there are four days where you have to be at the ballpark in the mid-afternoon, but have time early in the day to do other things – especially when the team is on the road. For players in organizations that allow it, golf is a favorite pastime, where social connections can often get them on some of the best courses in the world.

The pitcher’s connection to golf is evident this week at the PGA Tour Champions Invited Celebrity Classic at the Las Colinas Resort in Dallas, a golf event where PGA Tour Champion players are on the course with celebrities from across sports and entertainment; seven former MLB pitchers are in the field. The event, which runs from Friday through Sunday, is part of the PGA Tour Champions schedule and will be televised on Golf Channel, and features charity fundraising to benefit area nonprofits.

Perhaps the best golfer among the hurlers is former Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals’ starter Mark Mulder, who won three consecutive American Century Championships, one of the most competitive celebrity golf events, from 2015 to 2017. Mulder, who maintains a handicap index that hovers around 0.0, was introduced to the game at a young age at his grandparents’ lake cottage in Indiana.

“It was the best time of the summer. My dad and my uncle would go golfing every so often and they would take me on the course,” Mulder told World Baseball Network. “At that time, kids weren’t even allowed to play. So my dad would always just say, ‘Hey, once we get away from the clubhouse where no one can see us, you can hit some shots.’”

Mulder only played occasionally until taking up the game again in earnest while living in Arizona during his time with Oakland, and then started playing more after he was traded to the Cardinals. 

But he said some of baseball’s most dominating pitchers, like John Smoltz and Greg Maddux also dominated the course more than he did.

“With St. Louis, I played a lot with Chris Carpenter and Jason Marquis, but I never played as much as Smoltz and Maddux and some of those guys who really got after it on the road and played all the time,” Mulder said.

According to Maddux, Smoltz might be better at setting up golf than he is at fooling a batter with a two-strike pitch.

“He had the members’ names, directions to the course, before you pulled your cellphone out and just Googled everything,” Maddux, a 4-handicap, said by phone from his home in Las Vegas. “Johnny had the rent-a-car or the ride there, the course, the member’s name. He worked 10 or 14 days in advance. If we were in Philly, you’d hear him on the phone booking a tee time in Houston when we go there.”

Smoltz’s ability to set up golf is so renowned, Derek Lowe didn’t even have to be asked about it.

“I think people famously talk about John Smoltz’s black book. I mean, he’s got hundreds and hundreds of top courses in his book,” Lowe said, laughing.

Former Major League pitcher John Smoltz hits a shot on the 1st hole during day one of the ICON Series at Liberty National Golf Club on June 30, 2022 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

When Lowe was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Boston Red Sox, he found himself in a golf group with Jim Rice and Bret Saberhagen, among others.

“I was always like the little shy kid in the back, but Saberhagen and Rice would set it up,” Lowe said, noting that he didn’t maintain the golf connections that some of his teammates did.

He noted that while he and his teammates love golf, it’s not always feasible – or advisable – for a pitcher to hit the links while playing in the Major Leagues.

“You never golf the day before you pitch, especially during the hot summer months,” Lowe said. “You had to be smart about it, especially if you were pitching crappy. People see you lugging your clubs through the hotel lobby after you’ve lost four or five in a row, and it’s not a good look.”

Having filled multiple pitching roles in his career, Lowe noted that his position on the pitching staff also had an affect on whether or not he’d get to swing a mashie on the morning of a game when he wasn’t pitching.

“I played a little bit when I was a long reliever. If I’d pitched the night before and thrown three or four innings, you know, the odds of me pitching the next day weren’t very good,” Lowe said. “And, obviously, as a closer, you’re not gonna golf at all.”

Lowe declined to name some of the notable courses he’d played, though he did say that San Francisco Golf Club, a “golden era” course designed by legendary golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast was among his favorites.

Maddux, however, waxed poetic about golf’s best courses and spending time with one of the game’s notable names.

“We had an off day [in New York] and we would play the National Golf Links and Shinnecock Hills and then drive back into the city. That was always a pretty special off-day there,” Maddux said. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which has hosted five U.S. Opens on the east end of Long Island, and the National Golf Links of America, are two of Golf Digest’s Top 25 U.S. courses. “We were lucky enough to play Pine Valley and Merion. And, you know, usually it was the good ones. You know, we’d go to Houston, we’d get to play Lochinvar and get to hang out with Butch Harmon back in the day, so that was pretty cool and special.” 

Of all the places to play and all the road trips, though, it’s Mulder who has what is perhaps the ultimate baseball-playing golfer’s tale of woe.

“My last Major League start was in Philly. I had day one of the series and we had two more night games after that, and then we were flying to Pittsburgh,” Mulder said.

“I had Pine Valley and Merion set up for the next two days, and then we were flying to Pittsburgh that night and I had Oakmont set up for the next morning. And I reinjured myself in the first inning in Philly, and the team sent me back to St. Louis the next morning to see the doctor. I missed all three of them.”

In addition to a diversion during their baseball careers, golf has given Lowe, Maddux and Mulder a way to feed their need for competition after baseball ended. 

For Mulder, who’s baseball career ended prematurely due to shoulder trouble, seeing the American Century Classic on tv was a revelation.

“I remember calling my agent and saying, ‘I need to get into that. I don’t know what you need to do. I don’t know how it needs to happen, but I need to play in that,’” Mulder said.  

With three kids at home, Mulder doesn’t really get time to practice, though he’s looking to do better at the Invited Celebrity Classic in this, his second appearance.

“I just didn’t play very well last year at the Invited Celebrity Classic,” Mulder said. “ I’m hitting it way better this year than I was going into the tournament last year. So I’m really excited to get there … for a practice round.”